Extending Lessons with the Right Questions

Not all students being the same, no lesson fits them all.  General or Universal principles of teaching are needed to ensure that all learning at all ages, and toward all student abilities is occurring.  I have recently posted John Milton Gregory’s 7 Laws of Teaching as I think they are helpful.  Adler’s 3 Columns is another helpful set of principles.  But my purpose here is discuss how to move around in the ability pool of any given class to make sure everyone is learning and being challenged.

The simplest way to describe a challenging course is one with high expectations.  Many teachers try to teach to the middle or bottom of a class, but high expectations have us teaching toward the top.  This means that even then, some will need more, and others will need help to keep up.  I believe Socratic questioning is the key to handling this spectrum.

First, I have tried to be clear in my writing that questions are the most powerful tool a teacher has.  There is certainly a hierarchy of questions, the highest of which cause the student to think for themselves, not simply spit out information they have been given.  So the good teacher is already keeping every mind active in their class by asking questions that generate thought in all students, not just a few.

But when this condition is present, it means that the struggling student knows both what questions are causing them difficulty and that the teacher is not there to “do it for them” but rather to help them think their way to the answer.  But at the very same moment, a good question has the ability to press the student is “always out in front” to go farther up, further in.  This student is able to go farther with the same question.  It is not that there are two lessons to be taught, one for the average and the other for the gifted, but rather that all teaching being connected to infinite Truth means that no lesson is ever fully taught.


So what are the best questions for this quest of the differentiated learning experience?  Aristotle believed it was questions of cause.  If you know his theory of causation, you know his four causes:

  • The material cause: “that out of which”, e.g., the bronze of a statue.
  • The formal cause: “the form”, “the account of what-it-is-to-be”, e.g., the shape of a statue.
  • The efficient cause: “the primary source of the change or rest”, e.g., the artisan, the art of bronze-casting the statue, the man who gives advice, the father of the child.
  • The final cause: “the end, that for the sake of which a thing is done”, e.g., health is the end of walking, losing weight, purging, drugs, and surgical tools. (Source)

Working with these causes, a great teacher will make sure his student is increasing in knowledge of all four causes in relation to whatever is being studied.  So the questions in the room have to do with what “this” (subject being studied) is made of, is meant to do or be, who is active in doing/being “it” and why “it” even exists.  These how, why, what for kind of questions are basic to both remediation and extension of any lesson.  A struggling student is led back to the most fundamental questions of the lesson; one needing more is sent to the next level of questioning.  There are no end of questions in any field of study.  Thus questions build a continuum of instruction.

So “lesson planning” is much more question creation than it is content churning.

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.


Chicken Soup for the Classical Teacher’s Soul

We approach the end of a school year; we are tired, therefore say these types of things over and over, when it’s quiet and you are alone:


  1. Truth exists.
  2. The Truth will set you free.
  3. You cannot make truth, nor can you sell it, nor can you make it into anything. It is.  You are related to it.
  4. Your students need Truth, as do you.
  5. Truth leads to a great number of things: God, joy, happiness, wisdom, a vocation, the ability to live rightly in this world which includes loving (a small part of which is being able to earn the money needed to care for the needs of yourself and others), etc.
  6. Much of what is frustrating in the classroom is some error or impropriety regarding #1-5.
  7. A lot more of the frustration we face in teaching is outside #1-6 and lies in other expectations and pursuits we import into education when all that is truly important is contained in #1-5.

I truly believe that if we would maintain some mantra-like grasp of these 7 things, we would teach better, with more focus, and find it much easier to love our students as God would have us love them.

Preparing to Meet an Idea

Aristotle teaches us to move our students from the known to the unknown.  We cannot learn new things without some attachment to what we know already.  This insight alone greatly guides the teaching enterprise.  But there seems to be innate within this principle another principle that needs more attention.  If we are leading minds from what they know to what they ought to know, we must prepare their mind for reception of that “new” idea. Without proper preparation, the mind is asked to “jump” into a new idea without proper connection to what is already known.  This is a problem many teachers should be on guard against in their teaching.

The problem I think often comes from the teacher’s own expertise and experience with the subject at hand.  Even new teachers have already learned most of what they are leading the student through.  Because their mind is already accustomed to the movement from old to new that they are now calling their students to make, they don’t properly prepare and manage that movement for their students.  The mind needs to be ready to receive a new idea, have a clear sense of how this idea connects with their overall knowledge, or it will not become a part of them but will remain some factoid to be forgotten as soon as it is assessed.

Consider the teacher who is now pushing (let’s say) thirty-five years of age.  They, if they are possessing the heart of a learner, have been adding to what they know twice as long as their high school pupils.  They are more skilled at learning, have more knowledge from which to add, and long ago (15-20 years ago) accomplished the feats of learning they are now asking from their students.  To their own mind this stuff is “easy.”  It is a familiar, well-worn path in their mind.  But for the student, each day brings new ideas.  Or at least each week.  And their minds need preparing for each new thing.  The teacher must understand the student’s needs enough to plan for this preparation.

What the preparation looks like will differ based on what is being taught.  Language, mathematics, to some extent the natural sciences all build on previous learning in clear and ordered ways.  History tends to be chronological (knowing what has come before, here is what happens next).  But many fields in the humanities, philosophy, theology are not as incremental.  One of the great crimes of modern literature instruction is its inability or unwillingness to connect studied works into a meaningful whole.  I won’t decry the sad state of the New Humanities and why this is so here, but I will mention one popular view that seems intent on destroying this habit of preparation.

Progressivism in education makes this preparation difficult by calling the student to break with the past.  If the past is obsolete, it is logical that my own past is becoming obsolete, therefore each new learning experience is expected to stand on its own two feet.  I have not met many progressivists willing to actually state this, but the logic of their position is clear.  Don’t look back, look only forward.  But looking back seems not only necessary, but the most efficient means to learning something new as well.  If A, B, and C, then surely D rather than Y, correct?

The learning mind, given the tools to teach itself, by high school should be a highly intuitive thing.  Much of preparing that mind for something new is simply a review of A, B, and C so that they themselves begin leaping to D, E, and maybe even F.  As teachers, we are pursuers of the truth, not dispensers of mystic knowledge.  We are not waiting to reveal secrets, but excitedly trying to impel our students past us into truths perhaps even still new to us.

I am convinced the best learning of new material comes from a contemplative teacher who remembers, who reconstructs their own past learning so as to lead their students down the same path.  They are not there to tell them what is true, but rather to lead them, compel them, prepare them to go down the path of truth themselves.  This again reiterates a common theme on this blog:  questions are the most powerful teaching tool in the world.  Ask them to remember what they know, then ask them to anticipate what would come next.  Remember what it was like when you were where they are?  What is the next question?

Here Is a Big Idea

In my last post I set forth the basic steps involved in what has been called the Mimetic Sequence.  It is the normal means for presenting a student with an idea that they can hopefully grasp to the point of embodying.  In short review, the steps were as follows:

  1. Pre-presentation Stage – the student’s mind is prepared to receive a new idea
  2. Presentation Stage – the idea is presented in types, giving them as least two but hopefully more types to work with
  3. Comparison Stage – the teacher and student compare the types for similarities and dissimilarities.
  4. Explanation Stage – the teacher determines to what degree the student understands the idea by having them put the idea in their own words, either written or oral.
  5. Application Stage – the student seeks to apply the idea to their life.

Much of my teaching experience comes in the Humanities, where the ideas tend to be large and take a lifetime to apply.  But the Mimetic Sequence is relevant to all subjects, at all ages, in all aspects of instruction.  It is integral to moving the student from simple knowledge (knowing facts) to the deeper more permanent mode of understanding the truth revealed by the connection of facts to each other.

So, as promised, let me set out a simple plan for teaching an idea.  I have recently had Juniors in high school consider the idea of prejudice with me through a presentation of the novel by J.F. Cooper, The Deerslayer in English class.  The following were the steps through which we considered this idea.

  1. In our first lesson together, I presented the students with several instances from the news of prejudicial thinking. Some were racially based, some were political or economic.  For the most part, these were things the students knew from their own attention to the news.  We discussed why prejudice is a problem from several angles: logic, socially, politically, religiously.  I then ended the lesson by stating that our class would be reading a novel that dealt at length with the idea of prejudice.
  2. Given the size of the novel, the second stage, that of Presenting, took several weeks. As we read the novel in class, I regularly would point out how every character in the story demonstrated various forms of prejudice, whether it was racial, cultural, or religious.  It helps when the idea being discussed is embodied in the lives of even fictional characters as they are presented (stories are powerful teachers).
  3. Especially as the novel came to a close, we regularly discussed the various character’s virtues and vices, comparing and contrasting their choices. This comparison stage is a very powerful way to distinguish the nuances of an idea.  For instance, the racial prejudice was almost over the top in the novel, but the gender prejudices were more subtle and yet clear.
  4. The student was able to express the idea in two ways. First, they kept a journal throughout the reading in which they voiced their responses to the actions of the characters, explaining in particular how the prejudices of the novel were similar and dissimilar to our own time.  Secondly, they were given a series of essay prompts to write on, most of which revolved around prejudicial thinking.
  5. The last stage of Application will take the student the rest of his life, but even during and right after the novel, class discussion and hallway banter indicated that the idea had been clarified and pressed home to the soul of many of the students. They were seeing the idea more clearly and trying to live differently in light of the truth learned.

The fun of teaching is to creatively take this basic sequence of learning and apply it to all subjects.  Every lesson has an idea, a unifying principle that takes the content and makes it join into the whole of truth.  Seeking those ideas is one of the basic joys of teaching and learning.

But there is a third column…

What is the Big Idea?

This post continues the discourse I began a few posts ago on Adler’s Three Columns of learning.  I am listing all related posts at the bottom of that first post, so it would be the default starting point if you are just joining.

We have already established that acquiring knowledge is the beginning, but the not the end of education.  And it was stated that in acquiring “facts” we naturally yearn to make sense of them, to connect them.  This is the natural progress of Content toward the second column of learning, Ideas.  Ideas connect discreet facts into patterns of meaning called Ideas.  Bringing a student to an idea is perhaps the most significant act of teaching.  We actually don’t wish to bring a student to an idea, as in some sort of tour through an exhibition of “ideas” that are out there, but rather to bring our students to embody the ideas that bring meaning to life.

Ideas are what make education move from the impersonal notion of fact (there is some piece of truth lying over there in the road, or being spoken of in this classroom) to a personal relationship with the truths discovered.  That is the notion of embodying truth; of becoming different because truth is not simply acknowledge, but has become applied to the way in which the student moves in and understands his world to be.

This is much deeper and more difficult education than simple First column learning.  The teacher must follow somewhat of a careful pathway to bring a student to embody an idea.  It does not happen in any singular act, but comes from a series of experiences and engagements with an idea and its content.  The Circe Institute has outlined this pathway, naming it the Mimetic Sequence.  The following is a bald outline of the Sequence.  My next post will exemplify the process for clarity’s sake.

For a student to grasp an idea, the following basic steps must be included in the lesson he is being led through.

Stages Act Notes Move to next stage when…

Pre-Presentation Stage

Prepare the students to contemplate the idea by making them aware of what they already know about the idea Moving from known to unknown, building on last thing studied, why is this being studied, what is the compelling question The student is attentive to the idea

Presentation Stage

Present Types of the idea Finding at least two, preferably more types of the idea, especially helpful are opposites The student has seen at least two but hopefully more clear types of the idea

Comparison Stage

Compare the types with each other Teacher and student should converse about the things that are similar and disimilar and how they all reveal the idea Enough types have been compared to hopefully bring about an “ah ha” moment

Explanation Stage

Ask the student to express the idea in their own words This can be oral or written, or even through models or artifacts The student can clearly express the idea; if they can’t go back to Stage 2 or 3

Application Stage

Have student use or apply the idea    

In my next post will take these steps and show how they would look in a specific lesson on a given idea.


Linear Learning

I was recently asked if “learning is linear or non-linear” by, of course, an art teacher.  We discussed his definition of “learning” for a few moments, but the main point of the question was this comparison of learning with that of a line.  We tend to define learning as a line, starting with the small child and progressing formally through high school or college or the rest of life.  And the chronological timeline notion is legitimate for many reasons.  But the best learning cannot be simply adding one new thing to the collected line of known things each day.

I happen to be working my way through a great work on Aristotle’s views of teaching (here on Amazon, though it’s out of print so if you see it in a used book store, snap it up).  In that work Aristotle does not use linear/non-linear, but deductive and inductive, which I contend are basically the same ideas, but broad enough to encompass more.

In deductive learning, or what my friend meant by “linear” learning, one adds line by line, precept upon precept new learning to what is already known.  This is the syllogistic type of learning.  Premise A is true, and Premise B is true, therefore we can deduce from those truths that something we did not know before is true (the conclusion of the syllogism).  Aristotle is often credited with formalizing this type of learning, or logic.  Certainly there is a place for this learning, and many methods can lead to its outcomes.  But often many mistake this for all there is to learning, and Aristotle soundly rejects that notion.


Inductive learning is not so linear.  In this non-linear mode, a complexity of experiences are used to learn new principles, that can in turn become perhaps the premise in a new deduction.  But induction is more like a web than a line.  It is the bringing together and comparison of many specifics to gain new categories and generalizations.  We sometimes say “connecting the dots” but two connected dots is one definition of a line.  Here is imagined a scattered group of dots, each representing a specific sense experience, and when compared, contrasted, pulled apart and thrust together, new learning occurs.

So my answer to the question about linear or non-linear is both/and.  Neither really can separate itself from the other, and the great teacher seeks to have both constantly conversing with each other and the souls in their classroom.