THE LAW OF THE LESSON
Our fourth law takes us at once to the core of teaching. The first
three laws dealt with the teacher, the learner, and the language, the
medium of communication between them. We come now to the lesson, the
process to be mastered, the problem to be solved. This is where the
teacher must pass on to the pupils the recorded experience of the
race; the method of transmission of this crystallized race experience
must be such as to inspire these pupils with principles that shall be
active forces in their lives, and at the same time furnish them with
an instrument of research and further study -- this is the very heart
of the work of the teacher, the condition and instrument, as well as
the culmination and the fruit, of all the rest.
It is the Law of the Lesson that we are next to seek. Passing, as
remote from this discussion, the steps by which the mind of an infant
obtains its first notions of the world about it, we may go at once to
the obvious fact that our pupils learn the new by the aid of the old
and familiar. The new and unknown can be explained only by the
familiar and the known. This, then, is the Law
of the Lesson:
THE TRUTH TO BE TAUGHT MUST BE LEARNED THROUGH TRUTH ALREADY KNOWN.
This law is neither so simple nor so obvious as those that have
preceded it; but it is no less certain than they, while its scope is
even wider and its relations are perhaps even more important.
THE PHILOSOPHY OF THE LAW
The Law of the Lesson has its
reason in the nature of mind and
in the nature of human knowledge.
All teaching must begin at some point of the subject or lesson. If
the subject is wholly new, then a known point must be sought by
some likeness of the new to something known and familiar.Even among
grown persons, the skillful narrator struggles to find some
comparison with familiar experiences, seeking some likeness of the
unknown to something known before proceeding with his story. Until
point is found, he knows that it will be useless to goon. To do so
would be like telling someone to follow you over a
winding path in the darkness without first letting him know where you
are or starting him on the path. Naturally, if adults must have this
aid, children can scarcely be expected to do without it. Often
pupils in the schools explain their inability to understand the
lesson by the simple statement: "I did not know what the
teacher was talking about." The fault lies distinctly with the
teacher in such a case.
All teaching must advance in some direction. Its proper direction
of march should be toward the acquisition of new experiences. To
teach over again what is already acquired and understood is to check
the desire of the pupils for obtaining further knowledge and to
deaden their power of attention by compelling them to walk on a
treadmill, instead of leading them forward to the inspiration of new
scenes and the conquest of new fields. It is a serious error to keep
the studies of pupils too long on familiar ground under the assumed
necessity for thoroughness. Old mines may be reworked if you can find
ore at deeper levels, and old lessons may be worked over if new uses
may be made of them. At this point it should be borne in mind that
this does not contradict the Law of Review, to be discussed later.
Learning must proceed by graded steps. These steps must be those
which link one fact or concept to another, as simple and concrete
things lead naturally to general and abstract things, as premises
lead to conclusions, and as an understanding of natural phenomena
leads to laws. Each new idea mastered becomes a part of the knowledge
of the child, a part of his equipment of race experience, and serves
as a starting point for a fresh advance. It adds its own light to the
knowledge that preceded it, and throws increased illumination
forward for the next discovery. But each step must be fully mastered
before the next is taken, or the pupils may find themselves
proceeding into unknown fields without the proper preparation. It is
here that the demand for thoroughness arises; everything in the
lesson which is within the range of the child's comprehension, should
be fully understood. Thoroughness of this sort is the essential
condition of true teaching. Imperfect understanding at any point
clouds the whole process. The pupil who has mastered one lesson, half
knows the next; therefore the well-taught class is always eager for
the next step. One of the sayings of Pestalozzi was: "It is easy to
add to what is already discovered."
But the philosophy of this law goes deeper still. It must be
remembered that knowledge is not a mass of simple, independent facts;
it is made up of the experience of the race crystallized and
ORGANIZED in the form of facts together with their laws and
relations. Facts are linked together in systems, associated by
resemblances of one sort or another. Each fact leads to, and
explains, another. The old reveals the new; the new confirms and
corrects the old.
All this pertains equally to the limited knowledge and experience
of children as well as to riper and maturer knowledge. New elements
of knowledge must be brought into relation with other facts
and truths already known before they themselves can be fully revealed
and take their place in the widening circle of the experience of the
learner. Thus the very nature of knowledge compels us to seek the new
through the aid of the old.
The act of KNOWING is in part an act of comparing and judging --
of finding something in past experience that will explain and make
meaningful the new experience. If a friend tells us of an experience
or an adventure, we interpret his story by a running comparison with
whatever has been most like it in our own experience; and if he
states something utterly without likeness to anything that we have
known, we ask him for explanations or illustrations which may bring
the strange facts into relation with our point of view. If children
are told something novel and entirely unfamiliar, they will probably
struggle in vain to understand, and then ask for further information
or light, if they do not at once abandon the attempt to connect the
new idea with their own experience. Figures of speech, such as
similes, metaphors, and allegories, have sprung out of the need for
relating new truths to old and are familiar scenes and objects and
experiences. They are but so many attempts to reach the unknown
through the known -- they try to flash light from the old upon the
Explanation, then, means usually the citation and use off
act and principles already understood to make clear the nature of
new material. Therefore the unknown cannot explain the unknown. The
knowledge already in the equipment of the child must furnish the
explanation of now facts and laws, or these must remain
difficulty so often met in answering the questions of little
children, lies not so much in the difficulty of the questions
themselves, as in the lack upon the part of the child of knowledge
required in the explanation. To answer fully a boy's questions about
the stars, you must first teach him some astronomy. The lad who has
seen a large city can perhaps understand fairly well a description of
London or New York, but one whose experience has been confined
entirely to his country home, cannot properly understand the network
of streets, walled in by buildings, and the shifting panorama of city
The very language with which new knowledge must be expressed
takes its meanings from what is already known and familiar. The child
without knowledge would be also without words, for words are the
signs of things known. An American traveler in Europe might perhaps
fancy that he could make people understand by speaking in a
and with slow, careful enunciation; but his success
would be measured only by the degree to which his hearers had a
knowledge of the native tongue of the American; if they were
familiar only with their own different language, his words would be
A blunder analogous to this is that of the teacher who hopes by
the mere urgency of his manner, and by his carefully chosen
himself, to convey his ideas to the understanding of his
pupils, with no reference to the pupils' previous knowledge of the
Persons use by preference only the clearest and most familiar
things in their interpretation of new facts or principles. Each man
is prone to borrow his illustrations from his calling: the soldier
from the camps and trenches, the sailor from the ships and the
merchant from the conditions of the market, and the artisans and
mechanics from their crafts. Likewise in study, each pupil is
attracted to the qualities which relate to his own experience. To the
chemist, common salt is sodium chloride, a binary compound; to the
cook it is something to use in the seasoning of foods and in the
preservation of meats. Each thinks of it in the aspect most familiar
to him, and in this aspect would use it to illustrate something else
in which salt was concerned. Finding a new plant, the botanist would
consider it in the light of known plants, to discover its"classification"; the former
would be interested in its use, and the artist in its
beauty. This bent of preference, while
one of the elements of prejudice which may shut the eyes to some new truths and
open them to others, is at the same time one of the elements
of strength in intellectual work.
A fact or principle only vaguely understood is used only rarely
and reluctantly -- and even then sometimes most erroneously -- in
interpreting new experiences; and if used, it carries only vagueness
and imperfection into the new concepts or judgments. A cloud left
upon the lesson of yesterday casts its shadow over the lesson of
today. On the other hand, the thoroughly mastered lesson throws great
light on the succeeding ones. Hence the value of that practice of
some able teachers who make the elementary portions of a subject as
familiar as household words -- a conquered territory from which the
pupil may go on to new conquests as from an established base, with
confidence and power.
But it must be carefully noted that so complete a mastery, like
all thoroughness in study, is really relative. No human knowledge or
power is perfect, and the capacities of childhood are necessarily
much further from completeness than those of adults. And there are
wide individual differences which must be
recognized in the school.What to some
children is as clear as day, is to others only vaguely
suggestive. If the teacher makes the pupils talk about the lesson, as
was suggested in the discussion of the law of language, some of these
differences will be revealed, and the proper means of meeting them
and of adjusting the instruction to them, may be discovered.
Our discussion of the lesson would be incomplete without some
mention of the nature of the thinking process as applied to the
solution of problems. The word "problem" is a familiar one to the
teacher; the problems and tasks of everyday life in the schoolroom
are very close to him. But let us now think of the problem in a
rather different sense. We have been speaking of the "lesson" and its"law."
Let us think of the process of learning lessons as akin to the
solution of problems, as a process in which the learner faces a real
situation, the mastery of which will involve the application of his
power of thought. How is he to think?
The older notion that because the pupils in our schools are
young and immature they are incapable of real thinking is a
often teachers believe that their pupils think only in a symbolic
way -- that they react only to artificial situations in which their
task is to do what the teacher wishes, rather than to do real
thinking for themselves. This is not necessarily true,and
if true in some instances, the fault very likely lies with the
teacher himself. The fact is that the power to think is part and
parcel of the original mental equipment of the child, and develops
gradually, as other capacities do. The situations that call
out this power in children are simple, but they are none the less
real. The difference in thinking between the child and the adult is a
difference in degree.
If we are to set the learner at the task of real thinking in the
real problems, we must define this process of thinking.There are
three stages in the process. First, there must be a stage
of doubt or uncertainty; certain things are known, and something is
to be done to them. For example, the loss of a cherished toy presents
just this situation to a child: he sees what has happened, and
wonders what he
can do in its absence -- how he can replace it,perhaps.
Second, there is an organizing stage in which the individual
considers the means at
his disposal to reach the ends desired.Lastly,
there is a critical attitude involving selection and
rejection of the schemes which have suggested themselves. This
problematic situation arises very frequently in daily life, with
children as well as with adults. The setting of school tasks should
always be done with this process of thinking in mind; teachers in the
day schools and in the Sunday schools should remember that if the
training which they give is to bear fruit, it must present real
situations which will call forth this reflective attitude, and they
should abjure the sort of tasks which
can be met by trial and error, by
blindly following the lead of another, or by doing what one
has already done in a similar situation merely because one recognizes
the new situation as like the other.
RULES FOR TEACHERS
In a very important sense, what we call knowledge is a record of
solved problems. Facts and laws have been collected and tested and
organized into systems, but at basis they represent the results of
facing situations and finding things out at first hand. In passing
knowledge on to others the more closely we can
situations, the better will be our teaching. There are some who
go so far as to say that no attempt should be made to impart
knowledge unless the child feels a distinct need for it -- unless he
sees that it is essential to solve some problem that is real and
vital to his life. This is doubtless an extreme view, but it is none
the less incumbent upon the teacher to know what the problems of
child life are and to utilize them in making his instruction just as
rich and meaningful as possible.
This law of knowledge, thus explained, affords to the thoughtful
teacher rules of the highest practical value. It offers clear
guidance to those who are teachers of children and anxious that their
task shall be well done.
(1) Find out what your pupils know of the subject you wish to
teach to them; this is your starting point. This refers not only to
textbook knowledge but to all information that they may
possess, however acquired.
(2) Make the most of the pupils'
knowledge and experience.Let them
feel its extent and value, as a means to further knowledge.
(3) Encourage your pupils to clear up and freshen their
knowledge by a clear statement of it.
(4) Begin with facts or ideas that lie near your pupils, and
that can be reached by a single step from what is already familiar;thus,
geography naturally begins with the home town, history with the
pupils' own memories, morals with their own conscience.
(5) Relate every lesson as much as possible to former
lessons, and with the pupils' knowledge and experience.
(6) Arrange your presentation so that each step of the lesson
shall lead easily and naturally to the next.
(7) Proportion the steps of the lesson to the ages and
attainments of your pupils. Do not discourage your children with
lessons or exercises that are too long, or fail to rise to the
expectations of older pupils by giving them lessons that are too
(8) Find illustrations in the commonest and most familiar
objects suitable for the purpose.
(9) Lead the pupils themselves to find illustrations from
their own experience.
(10) Make every new fact or principle familiar to your
pupils; try to establish and entrench it firmly, so that it will be
available for use in explaining new material to come.
(11) Urge the pupils to make use of their own knowledge and
attainments in every way that is practicable, to find or explain
other knowledge. Teach them that knowledge is power by showing how
knowledge really helps to solve problems.
(12) Make every advance clear and familiar, so that the
progress to the next succeeding step shall in every case be on known
(13) As far as possible, choose the problems which you give
to your pupils from their own activities, and thus increase the
chances that they will be real and not artificial problems.
(14) Remember that your pupils are learning to think, and
that to think properly they must learn to face intelligently and
reflectively the problems that
arise in connection with their schoolwork,
and in connection with their life outside of school.
MISTAKES AND VIOLATIONS
The wide scope of this Law of the Lesson affords opportunity for
many mistakes and violations. Among the more common are the
(1) It is not unusual for teachers to set their pupils to
studying new lessons, or even new subjects, for which they are
inadequately prepared or not prepared at all, either by previous
study or by experience.
(2) Many teachers neglect entirely to ascertain carefully the
pupils' equipment with which to begin the subject.
(3) A common error is the failure to connect the new lessons
with those that have gone before in such a way that the pupils can
carry over what they know or have learned into the new field. Many
individual lessons and recitations are treated as if each were
independent of all the others.
(4) Oftentimes past acquisitions are considered goods stored
away, instead of instruments for further use.
(5) Too often elementary facts and definitions are not made
(6) Every step is not always thoroughly understood before the
next is attempted.
(7) Some teachers err in assigning lessons or exercises that
are too long for the powers of the pupils, or for their time, making
impossible an adequate mastery of principles that may be needful for
future progress in the subject.
(8) Teachers frequently fail to place their pupils in the
attitude of discoverers. Children should learn to use what they have
already been taught in the discovery of new problems.
(9) A common fault is the failure to show the connections
between parts of the subject that have been taught and those that are
yet to come.
As a consequence of these and other violations of the law, much
teaching is poor, and its benefits, if any, are fleeting. People are
found to have inadequate knowledge and to lack the power of studying
for themselves. This is as true of Biblical knowledge as of any
other. Instead of a related whole, a concept with one purpose, the
Bible is viewed as scattering parts, like bits of broken glass, and
its effect is many times only to puzzle and confuse; it is never seen
as a connected whole, as it should be.