Howard Hendricks identifies seven laws that are instrumental in Teaching to Change Lives. The “Law of the Student” was particularly compelling to me—Hendricks says, “What’s important is not what you do as a teacher, but what the learners do as a result of what you do.” In other words, we can work for hours and expend inordinate amounts of energy to put together an exciting lesson plan, but in the final analysis we must ask, have my students gained mastery of the material? Are they behaving or thinking differently as a result of the lesson? Hendricks draws heavily from John Milton Gregory’s 19th century work, The Seven Laws of Teaching, as he does here: “The true function of the teacher is to create the most favorable conditions for self-learning (emphasis added)…. True teaching is not that which gives knowledge, but that which stimulates pupils to gain it.” “Tell the reader nothing—and do nothing for him—that he can learn or do for himself,” says Hendricks.
This is a real challenge for me. I encounter students all the time who have decided that the trick to school is to figure out what the teacher wants to hear, to memorize it in the short term (and regurgitate it on the test), and then to dump the material from their memory and move on to the next unit. I sometimes find myself slipping into this trap because the alternative is so hard, but I think the alternative is essential. What should we be doing?
1) Teaching our students to think. This reminds me of the importance of practicing what I preach—in other words, that I need to spend time in thoughtful reflection sorting through ideas and considering consequences. I came late to the study of economics, but one thing I love is the analysis of choices and outcomes.
2) Teaching our students to learn. This means answering questions with more questions; it means delighting in the pursuit of new information (and perhaps occasionally treating a rather basic idea as the exciting progress it is for a young learner in your field—get excited about their learning!). Are we using class time to practice what active reading looks like? Are we modeling how to address a text with questions and challenges rather than simply absorbing the content? Remember, as Edmund Wilson said, “No two persons ever read the same book.” Celebrate the discoveries of your students without insisting on one right answer every time.
3) Teaching our students how to work. I can’t do better than Hendricks here: “Never forget that your task is to develop people who are self-directed, who are disciplined…. Our job is not to give quick and easy answers, patent-medicine solutions that never work in the realities of life.” If our students don’t leave with some head-scratching, we probably haven’t challenged them enough. My friend Jon once said about teaching advanced math, “If you’re confused—good! If you’re not confused—not so good! Do you think my dogs would be confused if they were sitting where you’re sitting? No—because all they’re thinking about is their next meal!”
Hendricks finishes thus: Failure is an essential part of the learning process. We learn more through failure than we do through success if we’re willing to do so. As we pursue these goals, perhaps we need to remember this last point for ourselves—but don’t give up! The goal is too important.
What else do you think is critical for us to do as educators?
An educator of 22 years, Andy Jobson has taught government, economics, and U.S. History. Currently teaching English literature at Riverside Military Academy in Gainesville, GA, he’s also been an administrator, a STAR teacher twice, and taught elementary school with Teach for America.