First penned in 1886, The Seven Laws of Teaching was written by a man named John Milton Gregory (1822-1898), who wrote the book for Sunday school teachers in the churches of which he was a part. His aim was to provide these volunteer teachers with the sine qua non of their craft, the basic principles of teaching without which teaching disintegrates into something else entirely. For its clear-eyed and systematic exposition of teaching’s basic principles—which all the iPads in the world cannot replace—the book retains much value for today’s educators.
Gregory breaks the craft of teaching down into seven elemental parts, and contends that each part has a certain principle or law by which its integrity is maintained. The seven parts and their attendant principles are these:
- Teacher: A teacher must be one who knows the lesson to be taught.
- Learner: A learner must attend the lesson with interest.
- Language: The language between teacher and learner must be common to both.
- Lesson: The lesson must be explicable in terms already known by the learner.
- Teaching Process: The teaching process must arouse the pupil’s mind to form in it a desired conception or thought.
- Learning Process: The learning process must reproduce the desired conception or thought in the mind of the learner.
- Review: The test and proof of teaching done must be a review of the knowledge taught.
Each chapter of Gregory’s well-organized book is given to an exposition of one of the above principles. In each case he explains the rationale (what he calls the “philosophy”) behind the principle and then concludes with immensely practical do’s and don’ts (“rules” and “violations”) for teachers in light of the principle he’s explained.
Consider a few examples. For principle #2, the law of the learner, Gregory gives this as a violation of the law: “Lessons are commenced before the attention of the class is gained, and continued after it has ceased to be given. As well begin before the pupils have entered the room, or continue after they have left.” Teaching is not teaching when students are not listening.
Or take this rule for teachers based on principle #4, the law of the lesson: “Connect every lesson as much as possible with former lessons, and with the pupil’s knowledge and experience.” If a teacher is to succeed in imparting new knowledge to her students, she must make strategic use of what they know already.
These closing sections are chock-full of such wise admonitions. Even veteran educators would be helped by a periodic perusal of Gregory’s do’s and don’ts for the craft of teaching.
That said, the book is not perfect. I would quibble with the way in which Gregory couches his principles as laws. At various points throughout the book, he speaks as though his laws of teaching function like the laws of the physical world, as though what happens in the classroom is every bit as scientific as what happens in the chemistry lab. But try as she might, the teacher cannot effect the impartation of knowledge with the same degree of certainty that the chemist can effect a chemical reaction.
Additionally, modern-day readers do well to consider some of Gregory’s statements in the context of his time—most notably assertions such as, “He teaches best who teaches least.” To our modern-day ears, such a statement sounds like a flagrant endorsement of the “discovery” learning that characterizes modern progressive education. Gregory clearly understands the work of teaching to be about the impartation of knowledge—knowledge that the teacher already has and is intentionally seeking to instill in his students. And although Gregory insists that learning must involve the toil of the student’s own mind, he would emphatically deny the idea that education should be directed by—and thus confined to—the mind of the student.
Quibbles and cautions aside, I am glad to commend this 19th-century gem. Solomon says that wisdom is to be valued above gold. And in this case, given the age of the book, it may be obtained for free online. Download and read.