John Milton Gregory on the Teaching and Learning Process

I’m always interested in books about the art of teaching, whatever the subject being taught.  I picked up this little book at a used bookstore for a song, and have found some pretty interesting passages on teaching and learning. John Milton Gregory began his career as a public-school teacher, later studying law and eventually entering the Baptist ministry. The foreword to the book notes though that “his heart, however, was in teaching,” and he went on to hold the position of Superintendent of Public Instruction for the state of Michigan, as well as being instrumental in organizing the University of Illinois and serving as its first president(pp. 7-8). Originally published in 1884, The Seven Laws of Teaching is full of practical advice for any teacher, some of them far ahead of their time. My favorite chapters are “The Law of the Teaching Process” and “The Law of the Learning Process,” and I’ve included some of my favorite passages below.

The actual work of the teacher consists of the awakening and setting in action the mind of the pupil, the arousing of his self-activities. As already shown, knowledge cannot be passed from mind to mind like objects from one receptacle to another, but must in every case be recognized and rethought and relived by the receiving mind. All explanation and exposition are useless except as they serve to excite and direct the pupil in his own thinking. If the pupil himself does not think, there are no results of the teaching; the words of the teacher are falling upon deaf ears. (p. 84)

In the greater part of our acquisitions we are self-taught, and it is quite generally conceded that that knowledge is most permanent and best which is dug out by unaided research. Everything, at the outset, must be learned by the discoverer without an instructor, since no instructor knows it. If, then, we can learn without being taught, it follows that the true function of the teacher is to create the most favorable conditions for self-learning. (p. 86)

True teaching, then, is not that which gives knowledge, but that which stimulates pupils to gain it. One might say that he teaches best who teaches least; or that he teaches best whose pupils learn most without being taught directly. But we should bear in mind that in these epigrammatic statements two meanings of the word teaching are involved, — one, simply telling, the other creating the conditions of real learning. (p. 87)

We have said that merely pouring out before pupils the content of the teacher’s knowledge is not teaching. It should now be pointed out that true learning is not memorization and repetition of the words and ideas of the teacher. The work of education, contrary to to common understanding, is much more the work of the pupil than of the teacher. This idea, which has been presented before in this discussion, is here reaffirmed as fundamental. (p. 106)

The rest of the book contains many more concise, yet profound, thoughts about the art of teaching.  Many of Gregory’s conclusions are now supported by modern educational research.

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