John Milton Gregory’s 7 Laws of Teaching

I was recently surprised to find that although I have mentioned these laws, I have never listed or blogged on them here.  These laws, stated in a book originally written to make sure Sunday School teachers knew the basics of teaching, are quite valuable in helping a teacher contemplate the basics of teaching.  Below is the outline I prepared for these laws some twelve or so years ago.  No updating necessary…


The Seven Laws of Teaching

John Milton Gregory – 1884 – written for Sunday school teachers

  1. 1. The teacher must be one who knows the lesson or truth or art to be taught.
  • Guidelines:
    • We must know our subject well – prepare fresh every year.
    • While planning, ask yourself, “What am I teaching and why?”
    • Use several resources for teaching.
  • Violation:  Teachers who don’t study the material well enough.  You should know the material deeply enough that you never have enough time to teach everything you know about it.


  1. The Learner is one who attends with interest to the lesson.
  • Guidelines:
    • Never begin without the full attention of the class.
    • Adapt lesson time and style to the age of the students.
    • Prepare thought provoking questions.
    • Make your enthusiasm contagious.
  • Violation:  Teachers who start or continue to teach without the attention of the students or who exceed student interest.


  1. The language used as a medium between teacher and learner must be common to both.
  • Guidelines:
    • Study how your students are using what you have taught them when they use the language.
    • Require full and complete answers – not one word answers – written and verbally.
  • Violations – Using slang. Not insuring that they can rephrase the lesson in their own words.  Using clichés they don’t understand.


  1. The lesson to be mastered must be explicable in the terms of the truth already known by the learner; the unknown must be explained by the means of the known.
  • Guidelines:
    • Plan to compare to what they already know.
    • First, find out what they already know so that you know where to start.
    • Arrange your lesson in logical steps from known to unknown; simple to complex.
  • Violations – Asking for what you haven’t taught, pushing along too rapidly.


  1. Teaching is arousing and using the pupil’s mind to grasp the desired thought or to master the desired art.
  • Guidelines:
    • Tell the student nothing he could learn for himself. 
    • The students are the ones who do the work.
    • Your work is planning and guiding.
    • Keep asking yourself: “How can I make these kids understand?”
    • Realize that mental digestion is as individual as physical digestion.
  • Violations – forgetting that telling is not teaching, thought by the student is necessary.


  1. Learning is thinking into one’s own understanding a new idea or truth or working into habit a new art or skill.
  • Guidelines:
    • They can do all the work and it just goes by them.
    • Don’t let the test be the end-all, be-all.
    • Help them to have a clear idea of what is going to be done.
    • They should be able to tell you what they’re doing.
    • Don’t settle for incomplete thoughts-make them articulate.
  • Violations – the pupil has an imperfect mastery, the student merely believes what the book says without reasons or practical applications given.


  1. The test and proof of teaching done – the finishing and fastening process – must be a reviewing, rethinking, reproducing , and applying of the material that has been taught, the knowledge and ideals and arts that have been communicated.
  • Guidelines:
    • Completion, test and work of confirmation of the work of teaching must be made by application.  Not tests alone – find out what they know in other ways.
    • Show me, do it, give me a quote, tell me why this is important, make a timeline.
    • Reviews are always in order and are never a waste of time.  Make students apply what they do.  Begin and end the lesson in review.
  • Violations:  Not doing it because you think you don’t have time.


Thoughts on How Best to Read Literature with the Modern High School Student

The following are my own meditations on reading literature in our modern setting with high school students.  I have struggled with this idea for some time.  I find very few who truly love reading.  Some view it as a means toward the education they believe will lead to big paycheck.  Others view reading as an antiquated form of entertainment that has been long since been replaced by other more engaging screens and images.  So if my job is to engage students in a study of literature, it would seem I must convince them of its being worthwhile, then leading them toward a delight in and felicity with great literature.  This would include heightening their taste, training their abilities, and directing them toward self-motivated reading.

Why are we even doing this?  Literature is a part of the Humanities.  It is how we prepare young people to pursue the moral maturity that adult humans must have to be happy.  Fictional stories cultivate a moral imagination in young people.  Poetry brings them to feel sublime.  Truth is posited, Goodness exemplified, and Beauty is loved in the great works of literature.

So my first task is to present to their minds an apologetic for reading, and for reading great literature so as to develop a moral imagination.  Hence my first “lesson” must be the construction of the idea of a moral imagination, using mimetic teaching to birth this notion in their own hearts.  Vigen Guroian has written most helpfully on this subject in many places, including here.

I believe that the experience of a good literature class will do more than a single lecture to convince students of their need for a moral imagination, but that is where is should start.  Moving beyond simply saying they should pursue a moral imagination through great literature, the class should delight itself in that literature.  I currently teach two literature classes:  American and British.  Delighting in these things includes a good understanding of the context of these works, having some knowledge of the authors, but mostly would include the following key components:  having the time to delight (no break neck speed or firehose velocity here), allowing students to find what they like rather than telling them what to like, and open discussion that hears the students more than the teacher.

So how does one teach a student to read with delight?  I think there are three levels to this delight:  simple apprehension, connections, and reflections.  In simple apprehension, the student skims over the story looking for hints as to the characters, places, and such.  In short, finding the nouns.  It amuses me that for many literature classes, this is all that is expected, is converted to objective questions on a test, and every one claps their hands.  But that is only very surface enjoyment.  Going deeper, the student seeks to find the connections, how the plot is developed by the characters, places, “things” of the story.  Here he is in essence seeking the verbs.  What led to what?  What are the causes and effects?  But the best is kept for a final reading of the text, this time with the heart.  Given my knowledge of the text, having skimmed it over twice now, what passages move me?  What do I like about this text?  What is meaningful to me and why?

An easy way to teach this reading, and it can be done independently in this manner, is teach the student to mark the text in each reading with a differing color.  Having the student mark the important nouns in pink, the connecting verbs in green, and the really good stuff in blue allows them to return with the teacher to the text in class and discuss it well.  Yes this means they have to own the books, but this is a small price to pay for truly great reading and discussion.  If highlighter is not your thing, give them alternative ways to mark these three layers of reading.

This leads to a pedagogy something like the following for most texts (any form of text):

  1. Preparation – saying just enough about the text to gain the student’s interest, give them a context for the book, and guide their mind toward the one or two great ideas of the work. The key here is brevity with engagement.  Wow, I really want to read this book now.
  2. Direct Interaction with the text – whether alone or in the classroom, the student should read the text twice quickly and then a third time slowly, following the pursuits and markings mentioned above.
  3. Discussion – the great texts are above everyone’s head. This is why we read them.  Thus they are best when discussed with others.  Students have to be taught dialectic to do this well.  Some success can come from a teacher presenting them with key passages to be discussed, but often a simple “playing the blues” or discussion of those things they have highlighted in blue will suffice.  The key is to focus on the moral aspects of the story.  What was true, good, and beautiful?
  4. Fastening – I don’t like the term assessment in relation to good reading. Schooling demands feedback, but this is much more mentoring, discipleship, and apprenticeship than mastering a discreet set of information.  The content, skills, and understanding can be assessed, but one should always remember this is much more a start than an end.  The best form of assessing one’s interaction with great literature is writing.    While the essay or paper is certainly good and legit, more is gained by guided journaling.  Here is a great blog on that issue.

All this to say that great literature classes are an art form.  At the heart of it is the teacher’s own passion and enjoyment of great literature.  Beyond that, we are trying to see ice to Eskimos, but when we really passionately love the ice, it sells itself.

And if any of this needs more, I have written on these things before: here, here, and here are some that come readily to mind.

The Power of Holding Out an Ideal

At the moment my school’s faculty are discussing and shaping for ourselves to ideals.  We are gathering ideas to produce a portrait of an Ideal Graduate and defining what an Ideal Teacher at our school would be like.  These are powerful pursuits because they can lift every student and teacher to a higher plane of community and unity.

But not everyone in our day believes in ideals.  I often hear that ideals lead to idealism, meaning having a standard that is impractical makes those who pursue it impractical.  This is often argued in the area of assessment.  The argument goes something like, “If you place some arbitrary ideal in front of a student, one they can never reach, you are just going to frustrate them.”

I disagree.  Some of the argument is due to the shift from “teaching the father of the man” to a child centered pedagogy in modern theory.  I will blog more extensively on the old concept that makes truth, not the person, the center of education later.  But when education became more focused on how children feel in school than on what they are learning, we definitely stopped believing in ideals.

An ideal anything sets the normative basis for that thing.  The ideal basketball player (who cannot possibly exists) helps the coach set before his players not only a vision they can never attain, but it also reveals to the players and coach what portion less than that ideal is acceptable on the team.

In another way of approaching it, if there is no “100%” there can be nothing to measure a 90 or 80 or 70 against.  The truly great education calls a student to something beyond his reach.  It certainly has to help him rise up to that calling, but once he believes himself lifted up to a higher plateau, he realizes that from that vantage point, there is another, higher, goal calling him yet up and in.  I have solioquized often about how powerful I think David Hick’s Norms and Nobility is as a modern work on education.  Let me allow him to more fully develop this idea in ways that are beyond my skill.

“In his quest for the best education, the ancient schoolmaster possessed two advantages over the modern educator. First, he knew exactly what kind of a person he wished to produce…Second, he agreed in form upon an inquiry-based or knowledge-centered – as opposed to a child-centered – approach to education.” (David Hicks, Norms and Nobility, p. 39)

“The past instructs us that man has only understood himself and mastered himself in pursuit of a self-transcendent Ideal, a Golden Fleece, a Promised Land, a Holy Grail, a numinous windmill. He defines himself in the quest, not on Kalypso’s unblown isle, where he is only judged against himself, where all obstacles are removed, where the question of human significance seems insignificant, and where there are no moral restraints or binding ideals. On Kalypso’s idyllic estate, Odyssean man is a nobody. He languishes in egocentric frustration, self-doubt, and insecurity. In many ways, he is a portrait of the modern student, seated “on the vacant beach with a shattered heart, scanning the sea’s bare horizon with wet eyes.” Only Odysseus’ knowledge of the past- his longing for Ithaka, Penelope, and Telemakhos- keeps him alive; and only the responsibility he takes for that knowledge rescues him from Kalypso’s pointless life of pleasure.” (David Hicks, Norms and Nobility, p. 51)

Questionable Grades

Some questions about grading that come from a discussion I am having at my school:

Questions of Diversity (are all grades the same):

  1. Why do some teachers use percentages of right answers, others use letter grades, some use Pass/Fail, and still others some other measurement of grading?
  2. What are the differences in grading by individual, by group, or by independent standards?
  3. Should all students be graded in the same manner? In what cases, if any, would there be differences?

Questions of Gestation (by what means are grades brought into being):

  1. How do grades differ when gathered from test data, performance, participation, or simply put, from what students know versus what they do?
  2. How do the limitations of a teacher’s knowledge, experience, assessment forming skills, and opinions affect the assigning of grades to a specific assessment? In other words, can a grade be objective despite the subjective nature of a teacher and teaching?
  3. How does a teacher grade self-expression (art, poetry, music, etc.)?
  4. If grading by percentage of correct responses, should a teacher expect all students to arrive at the “right” answer in the same way, or allow for creativity and imagination, only grading the result and not the path to the answer? What would this imply for science and math grades?

Questions of Communication (what does a grade imply or speak to):

  1. What does a grade measure?
  2. What does a grade communicate to the student and parent?
  3. What should a grade tell a teacher?
  4. What should a grade tell a future institution of learning that receives a student’s grades?

Questions of Action (what should be done with grades):

  1. What should a student do with his grade?
  2. What is the importance of grading?
  3. How accurate is a grade in demonstrating mastery of a subject?
  4. Should a student who has, say, an 83% mastery of Algebra be allowed to pass into a Calculus course?

Why Give a Student a Grade and What Does it Mean When I Do?

The beating heart of the classroom these days seems to be located in assessing what has been learned.  Every student seems to solely motivated by the grade earned.  Parents are engaged upon seeing a poor grade, and little else sees them darken the classroom door.  The pulse of education especially in high school when facing college entrance is the grade point average.  This has resulted in many calling for one reform of grading or another.  Moving from letter grades to number grades brought more objectivity according to many educators’ minds.


Some have attempted to reform education by changing the scale of grading percentages (adopting the “tough scale” of 7% or the like).  Others have called for the complete abolition of numerics.   There is a growing group of educators who believe the whole grading idea needs to be eliminated.  What do grades do for education anyway?  Are they not simply an old and elitist form of falsely separating students into meaningless groups?  Should grades and test scores be the end all source for assessing success in the classroom, determining what schools continue and which ones close, and generally being the currency of education?

I will leave my diatribe against compulsory education at the door and seek here to only set down my thesis concerning the necessity of grading and its subjective nature.  Let me take each in turn.

Both teacher and student need some form of assessment to culminate a lesson.  I have explained elsewhere (both here and here) how I believe that a formal lesson should follow a series of advancements and be based upon the embodiment of an idea.  As both Plato taught us in The Republic and Paul taught us in his epistles, we learn by seeing and being taught to follow and Ideal.  Paul shows us that the Ideal is in fact the Person of Christ.  All true education grows out of Paul’s invitation to follow him as he follows Christ.

This means that all true education is the cultivation of a relationship with the Logos, the source of all wisdom and virtue.  It does not end with knowledge, but knowledge leads toward understanding, and understanding finalizes itself in wisdom.  All education begins and ends in the Incarnation.  This is the basis I have for offering any assessment to my students.  To what extent has the student embodied the Truth through this lesson?  From this question flows all my consideration of assessing both the student’s progress and my own ability to teach it to them.

When man first began formally educating students through a teacher other than his parent, the practice of communicating progress had to become formalized as well.  A parent with their child simply never stops teaching.  There is no graduation from that process.  If the relationship is at it should be, there comes a time when a child will leave their father and mother, but the child will always honor the parent’s input into his or her life.  The marvelous thing is that upon leaving, many a child actually wants the parent’s input more than when living in the home.  But once a parent asks another adult to help educate their child, the parent will want to know how the study is going.  And because a stranger is now training them, the student needs more than a look of the eye or body language to tell them how they are progressing as well.  Some form must make the progress assessment formal.

Throughout much of Western history, this was the simple method of what we would now call Pass/Fail.  You studied until you knew.  You moved on when you should, when you were determined to be ready by your teacher.  This implied having very few teachers who knew you very well.  It was the age of general or liberal education.  The ideal being embodied was that of becoming wise and virtuous, able to stand on your own two feet in the grown up world.  In short, education was normative.  You were ready when those older than you said you were.

But when the definition of education began to be disagreed upon, especially at the close of the 19th century, this formal conversation between teacher, student, and parent was no longer able to remain so simple.  As a greater percentage of our youth pursued more and more formal education, or to say it another way, as teaching became more specialized and brought more teachers into contact with each student, there was a desire to move the student from being the subject of education to an object of education.  This changed how teachers graded their students.

This brought the letter grade into existence.  A teacher now stated where in the group of students, who were all still pursuing an ideal, a given student fell in their progress.  This student was excelling, at the top of his class, the best at the given study, and therefore was given the highest mark, an “A.”  But another student was simply doing average work, so he received a “B” or a “C.”  But what of the student simply not ready to pace with the other students he began with?  Well, he had failed to keep up, and must stay while the others pass on.  Eventual, to make it clear, he was given an “F.”  The teacher, student, and parent all knew where the student stood in his progress.

This brings us to the final turn history of grading.  Once the student became an object within the system of education (brought about by the compelling of all American children to be in school) and the analogy of education moved from that of a garden to that of the factory, all involved in the educational process needed a more quantified means of assessment.  So the letter grade moved to a percentage scale.  It was no longer enough to state a letter in assessing, but rather now there was a difference between an 88 and an 83 in class.  All grades were computed off the rubric of the percentage correct a student received on a written test.  This removed (supposedly) the subjective teacher opinion and replaced it with hard or objective numbers.

Of course, all grading is still subjective, but it now has the appearance of being objective.  Instead of a direct relating of the teacher’s expertise through a “B” the student is now given written assessments that produce the grade.  The 85 is “earned.”  But who taught the material to the student?  Who chose the content of the course?  Who wrote the test?  Who graded it?  Who chose to “curve” the grades?  Who still gives a participation grade?  Overlooking all these subjective elements, the quest for objectivity seems to have been completed.


With these thoughts spelled out, I am left with the following shorter notes on what can be said about the nature of communicating assessment between teacher, parent, student, and future schools the student may apply to (college being the most obvious).

  1. Grading scales do not change the rigor of any school’s academics, if the teachers are competent and engaged with the students.  I could prove this in several ways, but will use an easy example.  How many graduate schools, which typically require maintaining either an “A” or “B” average actually drum out any more students than do undergraduate programs?  Statistically it is moot.  Teachers, knowing the scale, adjust to make sure that the “bell curve” is maintained.
  2. Grades depend upon what is communicated through their use. In today’s world of grade inflation, they communicate less and less. The one hope that can still be maintained is some sense of continuity and commonality.  Within a school, I believe all teachers and all classes should be on the same scale.  It seems impossible to gain any continuance or commonality beyond the walls of a given school.  In other words, an “A” in one school could easily be a “B” or a “C” somewhere else.  But in most schools today, there are two or even three levels of grading within the walls:  Basic, College Prep, Honors, AP, etc.  Each of these usually has a different form or scale for assessment.  I believe this is confusing and generally a bad idea for communicating progress.
  3. The mission of a school should determine how it behaves. If a school has a mission to prepare its students for college, then it would seem using a form that emulates that future form of communication would be most likely to bring continuity and real communication. Because of that desire, colleges already take all numerics or letter grades and translate them into a new form (the 4 point scale) that is different from either percentage or letter grades, though almost a one to one correlation with letter grades.

My main concern throughout this meditation is honesty.  There is no such thing as an objective grade.  All grades are the communicating of hopefully an excellent teacher to both his student and the parents as to the current progress of that student in the curriculum.  Beyond that, we are grasping at the wind.

What is Education, part 236?

I just can’t get past this basic question.  I don’t want to get past it.  Coming back to center and “base” is fundamental to maintaining a sane position in a world whirling out of control.  It is my attempt to overturn the notion that “the center cannot hold.”  And as I am back in the classroom at least part time, it is necessary to keep asking this one question over and over.  The “236” of the title is not literal, and both literally and figuratively is way too low a number.  I have asked the question perhaps thousands of times by now.


In my own thinking, here is the outline in short form:

Education is…

  1. Toward the objectives of wisdom and virtue (not to be distinguished so much as intertwined as really one objective = wisdom being shown by virtue, virtue informed by wisdom).
  2. As such then, it is the forming of proper appetites, or affections, or loves.
  3. The proper object of this love is God, found in all that is True, Good, and Beautiful.
  4. As love demands action (what the student does) as well as orientation (what his appetites lead to) I must distinguish and address what the student loves, knows, and is able to do.
  5. What a student is able to do is developed through the human “arts” (of which the Medieval educators were able to distinguish seven arts that lead to liberty, the seven liberal arts).  What the student knows is circumlocuted in the four sciences.
  6. Therefore, while I must and am always concerned about the content of what my students are learning (that is important, accurate, clear, memorable, etc.) I must also be equally (?) or even more concerned about what abilities are being enacted in their lives (are they becoming better at thinking, reading, listening, speaking, writing, etc.?).  And behind all this is the question of affection.  While they are becoming wiser and more virtuous, how is the ethos of my instruction bringing them to the right affections and then helping them order those affections rightly?
  7. And finally, how does one assess all this in any way even approaching wisdom and virtue itself?  At times it seems like all is going well until this last question is raised.  How can one human benchmark wisdom and virtue in another, or even more importantly, as I am standing in at the request of a parent who is ultimately responsible for assessing the wisdom and virtue of their child, how can I the teacher approximately assess the attainment of wisdom and virtue in my student and then communicate that to the parent in any manner that is loving, humane, and clear?  It is easier if we don’t insist upon it being “objective” or communicated through a “number.”

Whatever education is, it is not easy, quick, generalized, or for the faint of heart.

Assessing Faithfully

A lot of talk lately with many friends about assessment.  It is a multi-faceted word, or art.  The following are a lot of hodge podge from those discussions.  Maybe I can unpack some of it in other blogs.

  1. Assessment includes but is not limited to the need to:
    1. determine what a student has learned about a science (discrete body of knowledge or subject)
    2. demonstrate where a student is in the process of learning a skill (art)
    3. show a teacher where they have not taught well
    4. help reveal areas of weakness for improvement
    5. require a student to demonstrate a specific set of criteria or measure for a specific standard of achievement
    6. provide evidence to parents of progress in education
    7. produce artifacts of learning for future reference
    8. help reveal possible learning proclivities or disabilities
    9. give the student feedback on their progress
    10. provide a means for teacher self-evaluation and supervisory evaluation
  2. With all those in mind, and there are a lot more, it becomes obvious that we have a faulty system in place if any of the following becomes the default idea that predominates our assessments:
    1. Assessments are and must be kept “objective”.
    2. The best measure of progress is an end assessment that provides a percentage “right” number, with a minimum percentage necessary to move on.  This may be true with the acquisition of knowledge, depending on the future use of that knowledge, but is woefully inadequate for the arts.  Having a student “pass” on with 70% of a given set of facts may work, but passing him on with only 70% of the necessary ability in a given art is setting him up for disaster.  If you only know 70% of your times tables you are either a) going to fail at algebra or b) become “calculator” dependent, which may be tantamount to “a)”.
    3. The size or amount of material covered in an assessment is huge.  The time given to complete is also a broad spectrum depending on the student.  Too much, or too little of either will greatly change the outcome of the assessment.
    4. To the extent that the assessment tool is divorced from the actual classroom, i.e. the use of canned tests, online assessments, etc., the less likely many of the above needs in #1 will be met.  Using some other teacher’s assessment on my student’s learning is not helping teach me anything about my teaching and ultimately probably will not measure the success of my teaching with my student.
  3. #2 emphasizes a glaring loss of distinction in most modern educational contexts.  The modern “skill” has replaced the older language of “art” and make it worse, the two are not used in the same way either.  The older “science” has given way to “subject” in our day as well, and these have become obtuse terms as well.
    1. Art refers to the actions of learning.  Anything I need to be able to do in order to handle word or number skillfully is included in “art.”
    2. Science refers to knowledge or content.  Those things I need to know or be able to remember, bring together in new ways in order to better understand what I am studying, properly is scientia or science.
    3. The confusion of art and science in assessment is really problematic.  When we make, for instance, English grammar a science, without acknowledging it as an art, we then start assessing it inadequately and potentially wrongly.  Knowing the term, “verb” is not the same as being able to identify and use one properly.
    4. Thus we must consider the categories of art and science carefully when thinking about assessment.
  4. Another like problem is the desired end “product” or report we wish to get from assessment.  If it is a “hard” number we want, or a percentage right, then we must gain data that is numeral.  But how do you objectively assign numerics to ideas, or to arts?  The only way is to move the humanities and arts toward some fuzzy analogy of science.
  5. Assessment also tends to analyze or break down a given learned “thing.”  But how does one assess the synthesis, the whole, the thing as it is, not in its parts?

Lots of things, and lots more running around, but this has gotten long.  I hope my friends will keep talking to me.  I enjoy the assessment of these ideas.

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