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Seven Laws of Teaching

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By Renee Mathis

  1. The Law of the Teacher
  2. The Law of the Learner
  3. The Law of the Language
  4. The Law of the Lesson
  5. The Law of the Teaching Process
  6. The Law of the Learning Process
  7. The Law of Review and Application
  8. The Seven Laws of the Teacher In Review

Order The Seven Laws of Teaching

Our family has been homeschooling for 11 years now. When I first began, it seemed that my homeschooling efforts centered on the search for "the perfect curriculum." I just knew that if I found the perfect match for my children and their needs that school would just be a breeze. Surprise, surprise - most of you know by now that there is no such thing as the perfect curriculum. And even though most years I was very satisfied with our materials, "real life" seemed to rear its ugly head. There was the year we had a new baby, or the job change, or the hectic schedule, or the move, orÖ.. you name it. I knew there had to be a solution and I decided that the answer was in learning how to become a better teacher. By learning all I could about the teaching process then I wouldnít be dependent on any one particular book and I could use the time I did have more effectively. In addition, I wanted to be able to recognize what made some materials better than others. In the months to follow, Iíll be using a portion of my Helping Hand column here in EHO to share what Iíve learned. I hope youíll find these principles as helpful as I have.

Most of what Iím writing originates from a book by John Milton Gregory. The Seven Laws of Teaching was written in 1884 but the content is timeless. His work can apply to anyone who ever has to teach anything at all, whether in the work force or in Sunday school.

I. The Law of the Teacher:

A teacher must be one who knows the lesson or truth or art to be taught. But will the teacher know the right lesson? 

This sounds simple enough doesnít it? If we donít know it, we canít teach it. Every lesson to be learned has to start with the teacher. Although we all want to see our children grow to become independent learners (more on that in later issues) we shouldnít expect our children to teach themselves from the very beginning. Teaching is serious business and we donít want to do our children a disservice by shortchanging them.

If youíre fairly confident of your abilities then youíll want to make sure you spend some time in fresh study to review the material for yourself. As one teacher said, "I want my students to drink from a rushing stream, not a stagnant pool." Find the natural progression of the material. (If you havenít already done so, read the textbook or other materials yourself. Yes, the whole thing!) You should know why chapter 1 comes before chapter 2 and why concept A needs to be mastered before concept B. By studying the material ahead of time, youíll allow yourself a chance to become so comfortable with it that you can use familiar language and relevant analogies. Find ways to illustrate the subject that will make it come alive. Whatever you do, donít assume that itís your childrenís job to do all the studying and not yours.

Some of you may already be thinking, "Oh great. Iím sunk already because here I am homeschooling and I donít know some of this stuff that Iím supposed to be teaching!" Donít despair, but keep the following in mind. First of all, give your inadequacies over to the Lord who made you and knows your weaknesses. Second, rely on the Holy Spirit who is our ultimate teacher. Be assured that you wonít thwart Godís sovereignty in the life of your child because you donít know how to graph linear algebraic equations. You have several options at this point.

  1. Find a teacher and pay them. There is nothing that says homeschool moms have to teach every single subject all by themselves.
  2. Find another homeschooler and trade skills. Shared labor is a great help!
  3. Use technology. Videos, software, or internet tutorials can be a lifesaver.
  4. Learn it yourself. Find a textbook (or 2 or 3) and commit to the discipline of daily study. Let your kids see you struggle and persevere. Show them that you value education and youíre willing to work hard. (As a side benefit, your children will be much less likely to complain to you about their difficulties after theyíve seen you go through the same thing they are.) Most homeschoolers donít need an excuse to buy more books, but just in case you do, let me quote from Gregoryís book:

"Do not deny yourself the help of good books on the subject of your lessons. Buy, borrow, or beg, if necessary, but obtain somehow the help of the best thinkers, enough at least to stimulate your own thought; but do not read without thinking."

II. The Law of the Learner:

A learner is one who attends with interest to the lesson.

Raise your hand if youíve ever been guilty of this. How many times have you ever started a lesson with these words "Okay, time to do math." Or grammar, or science, or history. And you could be met with sighs, groans, or worse - the junior high eye-roll.

Guess what? The fault isnít entirely with our eye-rollers. If we as teachers donít understand the value and importance of this law, then our lessons will never get off the ground.

Let me rephrase this. We canít start teaching until we have our childís attention. Complete and undivided.

If your child loves every single subject and canít wait to get started each morning then you donít need to read any farther. If you could use a pointer or two, then join me as we explore some ways to encourage our children to pay attention. Iím not saying that moms should trot out a dog-and-pony show each school day morning. I am saying that it only takes a little extra effort to make sure that our children are with us from the beginning. And that effort will pay off! Here are a few suggestions that have worked for our family.

Use variety. Donít always do every thing the same way at the same time or even in the same place. Why not head out to the backyard to read your science book or stand at the kitchen counter to talk about fractions? If you feel like youíre in a rut, listen to your childrenótheyíll be the first to let you know!

Use interests as a starting point. Begin the lesson with a specific example from your childís own life. "Katie, you know how some weeks you baby-sit for 10 hours and some weeks only 4? And that each family on our block pays you the same rate? Well, if you were to make a mathematical equation based on your earnings, the number of hours would be different in each equation. That number varies, so we call it a variable."

Make sure you have their attention first. If you have a flair for the dramatic, put it to use here! One morning I announced to my little ones that we were going to begin our Bible lesson. Then I proceeded to make a big show of getting our Bible off the shelf, placing it on the living room floor, and standing on top of it. Goofy? Yes. But did I have their attention? You bet! We sang "The B-I-B-L-E" and talked about what it means to "stand alone on the word of God." It was a great lesson.

Appeal to the senses. How many of you have used "object lessons" to convey Biblical truth to your Sunday school classes? Learning at home is no different. All of us have things around our homes that we can use to make a lesson or truth come alive. Sit down with a basket in your lap as you begin to tell the story of Moses in the bulrushes. Grab 2 or 3 toy cars and some blocks before your science lesson on friction and inclined planes. Get in the habit of thinking along "object lines" and ask yourself "What can I hold in my hands to create interest?"

Be enthusiastic! If youíve done your homework, if you really know your subject, then youíll have a genuine excitement about passing along that knowledge to your children. Iím not saying that your enthusiasm has to carry the day, but that it can be a good starting point for inspiring attention. "Ok kids, follow me as we learn about one of the most exciting, most important, most valuable things youíll ever need to know about........" Smile and say it like you mean it. Iíll bet itís contagious!

Finally, letís look at some things that could be working against us. Are there unnecessary distractions in your school room, or dining room, or wherever you are trying to teach? Our environment can do a great deal to enhance or harm our ability to learn. Each of our children are different in their "distraction thresholds". Pay attention to what those are. Are your children used to taking part in activities that donít require sustained, focused attention? Too much time in front of the television, computer, or video game can train children to pay attention only for 30 seconds at a time or less. A constant barrage of images and other stimuli does nothing to teach children to attend and focus on the task at hand. Finally, we as teachers need to know when to quit. We may be having the best learning experience ever, but when their little brains have had enough, they shut down. If we try to keep going, itís usually unproductive for all concerned.

III: The Law of the Language

Continuing our series based on John Gregoryís book, we come to the third law. Simply stated, the language used in teaching must be common to both teacher and learner.

Thankfully, for most homeschoolers this isnít a problem. We only have to get through to one student at a time instead of a classroom full of 25 or 30. Still, we want to make the best use of our teaching time and this principle is a necessary one.

For starters, before launching into a complicated or detailed explanation, find out what your child knows about the subject beforehand. You may find your job just got a lot easier! When presenting a new concept, be sure to use plenty of familiar illustrations. Use simple terms and try to present the new idea before you give it a name. If you begin with the unknown term, you may find youíve lost them before youíve gotten started. Hereís an example. Which would you rather listen to?

"Ok kids letís talk about photosynthesis. Repeat after me pho-to-syn-the-sis. This is the process by which plants manufacture their own foodÖ.. blahÖ.blahÖ..(the eyes have already glazed over by now.)

"Ok kids, you know how we have to feed Fluffy her cat food every day? And you know that the people in our family all eat 3 meals a day. But did you ever wonder how plants get their food? We donít go outside and feed all the trees, flowers, and blades of grass. Weíd never finish! But guess what? When God created each growing thing, He gave them a way to make their own food. Imagine that! They never need to worry about going to the grocery store or cooking dinner. This special ability is called photosynthesis. Now letís look a little more closely at how it worksÖÖ."

Be sure to encourage your children to talk. If you find yourself lecturing too much, itís time to stop! Of course we want our children to learn to listen when appropriate, but listening to them can give us the insights we need to be better teachers. Listening to them can reveal where there is a break in communication so we can fix it then and there.

Finally, donít mistake interest for understanding. How many of us have looked at our childrenís angelic little faces, seen their rapt attention, smiled inwardly at how their brains are swelling with knowledgeÖ. only to be brought up short with a question like, "Mommy, where did that one gray hair over your ear come from?" Where indeed!

Remember, when dealing with a learner of any age, they can feel like tourists in a foreign country and itís up to us to be their guide. Speaking more slowly or loudly wonít help. Weíve got to find the common ground.

IV: The Law of the Lesson

Continuing our series based on John Gregoryís book, we come to the fourth law. The Truth to be taught must be learned through truth already known.

Learning is all about making connections. We take the "new stuff" that weíre being taught and we seek to connect it to the "old stuffí that we already know. Once that happens weíre on our way! Obviously, the more "old stuff" we already have in our brains, the easier it is to find a way to make those connections. As a teacher then, before we present a lesson to our children, we first need to have clear in our own minds the "truth to be taught." What is this lesson trying to accomplish? What are my teaching objectives? Most importantly, how can I find a way to integrate this to what my children already know? Letís face it, our kids are growing up with a "remote control mentality." Itís easier to tune out or change channels than to do the hard work of learning. As teachers, we can encourage our kids to "stay tuned" as those connections are formed. Someone once said that "learning is the process of overcoming confusion". Making connections lessens that confusion.

Where are the connections? First of all, remember to connect within the subject area itself. Remember to talk about past lessons, chapters, and units. Look to the future as you explain how this topic will help prepare for future learning. Next, find ways to relate the lesson to other subject areas. As Christians, we live in a universe, not a multiverse. It doesnít matter if youíre a "unit study person" or not - everything in Creation can be connected. Finally, make connections by making the problems to be solved real and relevant. Show how the skill can translate to practical, everyday application.

Thinking through these laws, principles, and questions takes time but donít be discouraged. Sure itís easier to just take the book off the shelf and "do the next lesson." But weíre teaching children, not books!

V: The Law of the Teaching Process

Simply stated, this law tells us to "Excite and direct the self activities of the pupil, and as a rule tell him nothing that he can learn for himself."

The first law, the Law of the Teacher, spoke to qualifications (knowing our material). This law speaks to function: get out of the way! Jessica Hulcy, author of Konos, is fond of saying that every homeschool mother needs 2 thingsóa gag and a set of handcuffs. How many times has this happened to you: excited about your next unit or chapter you rush around collecting all the interesting manipulatives, novels, projects, supplements, or timelines, only to have your child greet them with a "ho hum"attitude. What happened? Easyóyou were thrilled at the chance to learn something perhaps you missed in school the first time around. You loved going on the treasure hunt to collect the materials. You were the discovery learner. Great. Now itís time for the kids to learn the same.

You can use your excitement and newfound knowledge to start your students on a treasure hunt of their own. What is it that you want them to learn? Think of the different questions and activities that will give them something to chew on, to think about, to experiment with. Donít ask all the questions - let your students think of some! Donít answer all the questions either. Discovery means they find the information out for themselves, and that doesnít always mean that mom is the sole source. Remember, telling doesnít equal teaching. Just because "Iíve told you 10 times alreadyÖ." may not mean that itís been assimilated. Give your kids lots of time and patience. Thinking takes time!

So who needs teachers? Our kids do! They need us to help them make sense of all this knowledge scattered out there. They need us on hand to help guide the discoveries. The word curriculum comes from the Latin "to run". We help set our childrenís course. We canít guide, direct, or test their learning if we donít know what that course is.

VI: The Law of the Learning Process

Following up on our last point, the Law of the Teaching Process, comes the Law of the Learning Process. This law states that "The pupil must reproduce in his own mind the truth to be learned."

One way to think of the thought process is like this: First your student learns the words (the grammar) of a subject. Next he seeks to understand what they mean. If this happens, then he moves on to being able to restate that meaning in his own words. (If any of you use the narration method of checking reading comprehension, you're already doing this!) Then, ask yourself if your child can "prove" the new concept. Of course this depends on age level and maturity, but can they begin to draw connections beyond what they've just been taught? Finally, knowing when and how to apply the new truth is a good measure of success. Does this sound like hard work? You bet! Learning is work to our childrenóone of the hardest jobs they'll have.

"Work? Jobs? But I thought learning was supposed to be fun!" Remember that "fun" is a by-product. It's not the overarching goal. First and foremost, we owe it to our children to develop in them a profound regard and thirst for the truth. This means that we help them learn where to go for answers. We're after independent investigators here! During and after these investigations, keep asking your child to express the meaning in his own words. You're not insisting on a word-perfect retelling of the text, and this can't be rushed. In fact, you may find that the book is not always right. Can you find reasons and evidence to prove otherwise?

Remember the first time you tried to manage a needle and thread? (Feel free to substitute any fine motor skill here!) It felt strange and awkward and you wondered if your fingers would ever know where to go on their own. As many times as you watched an expert manipulate the tools of the trade, in your own fingers they became clumsy. The Law of the Learning Process is like that. We're spending time with our children helping them get a handle on a new concept or skill. We're helping them to become so familiar with it that they can not only "handle" it, but they can eventually use it comfortably and with confidence.

This particular law is so closely related to the previous one that they often seem to be happening simultaneously. The Law of the Teaching Process says that we shouldn't tell our children anything that they can find out for themselves. Now, as the learning process is taking place, they are taking those new discoveries and expressing them back to us. As our children continue to investigate, we keep requiring them to express and refine their discoveries. When they can restate the new truth or concept in their own words - bingo! The light bulb has gone on.

What are some practical ways to apply this law? Remember to keep your expectations in line with your child's maturity level. A simple narration (retelling) of a story may be plenty for a kindergartner. A first or second grader might be asked to draw a simple picture with a caption. Ask your child to restate that day's spelling or phonics rule, or better yet enter it into a notebook. After a math lesson, have her use manipulatives to "teach the teacher" what was learned. The key here is to find ways to summarize at the end of each lesson. This will come into play as we talk about the final law in the next Helping Hand column.

VII: The Law of Review and Application

This law states that "The test and proof of teaching done must be made by review and application." In other words, if it's important enough to teach, it's important enough to test. When most of us hear the word "test", we immediately think of something that has a score or a grade attached to it. Those are often valid ways of measuring, but I'd like for us to broaden our idea of "the test" to include the dictionary definition: "an event or set of circumstances that proves or tries a person's qualities." These events, or review sessions, can be a lot of fun!

Instead of reviews consisting of dull and deadly drill sessions, turn them into a game. Use computer drills, flashcard races, make your own board games, and be as creative as you like. If you're not a crafty sort of person, that's okay. Get a timer and a bag of M&Ms (or reward of your choice) and you're on your way. Review time doesn't have to be boring. Have set times for review to make it a natural part of your schedule: at the end of the lesson, end of the day, end of the week, and end of the semester and year. The worst thing you can do is wait until it's too late. (And once a year is too late!) Use these planned review times to review your child's notebooks where he or she has been recording and summarizing the lessons learned.

All reviews don't have to be formal ones. Any time you look for opportunities to use what has been previously learned that's review. Any time you can find ways to apply previous learning that's review. Remember, the art of learning is simply connecting new stuff to old stuff. Review helps to set those connections.

Teaching and learning should not be analogous to a gas pump and a car. Teachers don't just pour in everything they know until the little red needle hits the full mark. Likewise, knowledge isn't measured by how many isolated facts you can memorize and repeat. Instead, aim for real understanding when you teach your children. Measure success not by test scores, but by how well they can apply what they've been taught.

The Seven Laws of the Teacher In Review

For those of you who have persevered through this series, congratulations! I hope this summary gives you a helpful way to remember what we've been discussing. If you're new to EHO, you may want to read the back issues and find a copy of Gregory's wonderful book for yourself!

Summing it All Up..

*T eachers know their stuff

*E eager students pay attention

*A ble to understand each other

*C onnect the known to the unknown

*H elp children to find out for themselves

*E xpress and explain it

*R eview and apply it

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