A Call for Learning Teachers


In the world of higher academia, the old adage “publish or perish” is a guiding principle (even if somewhat stereotypical and exaggerated).  Why the emphasis on publishing? 

One could argue, quite easily, that it is the inevitable result of a pragmatic view of education – if the faculty of the university is not “producing,” then they are dead weight.  Additionally, if professors are not producing works which are “publicized” then they are not helping to draw in students interested in those respective fields. 

But, is there a less sinister, more significant reason for the stress placed upon faculty production?  Perhaps.  There is at least an important lesson which could and must be drawn, in altered form, from the old adage and applied in classical schools.  “Publish or perish” is an attempt at keeping teachers honest.  It seeks to keep faculty members from atrophy; intellectual stagnation. 

Does it go too far?  Most likely.  Intellectual growth is not always measurable in the form of CEU certificates, published writings, or graduate credits.  The cultivation of wisdom does not always leave a paper trail. 

The point, however, should be clear – that in order to teach, one must learn.  As another old adage claims, “To cease to learn is to cease to teach.”       


More on teaching great books

We’ll be sending out a CiRCE Paper (our E-magazine) tomorrow with an article about how to teach The Iliad when you haven’t read it. As with any hopefully useful article, not everything I wrote made it. So here are some deletions (by the way, if you don’t receive The CiRCE Papers and would like to, click here and you can sign up for free and you’ll receive our free E-book too):

When you read a great book, you are standing beside the ocean. You could learn a lot by getting a bucket, filling it with water, and studying the drops in that bucket for the rest of your life. But you’d learn more about the ocean itself if you stood there and just looked, just taking in all you can see and feel and smell for a little while (and by the way, nobody has ever seen the whole thing). Maybe then you could swim in it, get in a boat and sail, even go fishing. You should experience it during different times and seasons as well.


So it with Homer. Don’t focus all your energy on studying the drops of water you can get in your bucket just because they’re more easily measurable. Focus on the big ideas. Every great book expresses one or two great ideas. In the Iliad, it could be justice. In the Odyssey, wisdom.


Ask your students, in language they can relate to, is Agamemnon fair? Is Achilles? Do Neptune and Kalypso treat Odyesseus justly? Is Odysseus wise? Were the Phaeacians wise to host Odysseus? Was Agamemnon a wise leader?


These are questions that can be asked about almost any book worth reading. And they can lead to incredibly profitable discussions!

Make these commitments:

Commitment 1: I will listen to the book

Instead of letting a curriculum guide you, let Homer guide you

Commitment 2: I will teach my students how to read and think

Instead of introducing them to yet another book, teach them the skills of active reading

Read by asking questions

Read purposefully


Too often the questions we ask are rooted, not in our interest in the text, but in our distrust of the students. We ask them if they know so and so because if they don’t they didn’t read carefully.
In my opinion, that is not a fair assumption and it leads to a hunted feeling among students.


Here’s something to be careful about: when you are teaching, an outline can be very helpful. So can a few notes on key ideas developed in the text.
However, they will be a lot more helpful for you than they will be for the student. We teachers can easily fall into what I call the analytic fallacy. That’s the idea that because you and I want to understand the text in an adult way, therefore our students do too.
It ain’t so.
First, just let them read the story. Don’t insist they like it. Then raise some very basic questions. That’s the key right there. If the students are asking questions, these tools that you have found helpful can be helpful for them too.

But don’t give them outlines until they help answer a question. And don’t give a lecture about a key idea until it will help your students answer a question.

By the way, that should be a question they are actively asking. If the discussion is driven by questions, you’ll be amazed how much you can teach your students about reading and thinking just by reading and thinking about what they are reading.


The great benefit of teaching through a great question is that it causes you to focus on the right things.
Instead of focusing on details, focus on the big ideas.


teaching living ideas

At the heart of the Christian classical curriculum and methodology is the presentation of living ideas. The soul feeds on ideas, and its health is determined by the quality of those ideas and the life found in them.

When we teach children about butterflies, we do not begin by showing them dead butterflies pinned to a board. We show them living butterflies in their natural environment.

When we teach them about moral habits, we do not begin by memorizing definitions of the virtues. We present living virtues by modeling them ourselves and providing vicarious experiences through literature, music, and the arts. This does not mean that we reduce stories, music, and the arts to moral lectures; rather, we concentrate on human works that are excellent themselves (the artist was virtuous in his performance) and that embody the virtues in the work (e.g. heroes who model courage, rhythms that are temperate, color selection that is appropriate).

Sometimes students need to learn things that are not “natural” but are man-made, such as letters and digits. In cases like this, an additional difficulty arises because these man-made conventions do not have a “natural” state. They are symbols for other things. In this case, the children simply need to learn the conventions (the man-made symbols). However, before learning the conventions, they will experience as much of the natural thing as possible (e.g. the sounds that go with the letters and the numbers that are represented by the digits).

The Seven Laws of Teaching

John Milton Gregory wrote a book for Sunday school teachers toward the end of the 19th century that was disinterred by the folks up at Logos School. While his approach is overly scientific for my tastes and tends to be modernist in its assumptions about thinking, Gregory’s book is enormously useful when we want to analyze our instruction or that of another. In it, Gregory summarizes the seven laws of teaching as follows:

  1. A teacher must be one who KNOWS the lesson or truth to be taught.

  2. A learner is one who ATTENDS with interest to the lesson given.

  3. The language used as a MEDIUM between teacher and learner must be COMMON to both.

  4. The lesson to be learned must be explicable in the terms of truth already known by the learner—the UNKNOWN must be explained by the KNOWN.

  5. Teaching is AROUSING and USING the pupil’s mind to form in it a desired conception or thought.

  6. Learning is THINKING into one’s own UNDERSTANDING a new idea or truth.

  7. The test and proof of teaching—the finishing and fastening process—must be a RE-VIEWING, RE-THINKING, RE-KNOWING, and RE-PRODUCING of the knowledge taught.

Gregory boldly asserts that these seven are “laws,” which means, if it means anything, that there can be no exceptions to them. The books credibility, along with its claims, means we need to consider his principles very carefully for the simple reason that if he is right and if we fail to obey, all is lost.

Consequently, let us consider this first law as I express it colloquially: The teacher must know what he’s talking about!

Something in me objects immediately. “But I only read Plato’s Republic the first time because I was teaching it. I didn’t know what I was talking about, but the class learned a great deal.”

Something in me responds gently: “What did they learn?”

Thing 1: “Well, they learned how to read a hard book, they learned how to discuss heavy ideas, and they learned the basic content of Plato’s Republic.”

Thing 2: And which of those did you teach?

 1: Whattaya mean?

2: OK, I’ll work with you slowly. Did you teach them how to read a hard book?

1: Well, yeah. They already knew how to read, of course, but I taught them all kinds of great strategies, like scanning, reading purposefully, asking questiongs, highlighting, talking about what you’ve read. All that.

2: So you taught them how to read a hard book? Thing 2 repeated (he can be very annoying).

1: Yes. Yes. I did. Stop accusing me of cheating.

2: I’m sorry. I didn’t intend you to think I was accusing you of cheating. I don’t even doubt you. I just want you to stop doubting yourself.

1: Whattaya mean?

2: Let me ask you one more time. Did you teach your students how to read a hard book?

1: Yes, and this is the last time I’m answering that question. (man could he be annoying)

2: May I ask you another question?

1: Yes, yes, go on, ask away. [you creep]

2: Do you know how to read a hard book?

1: Now what, are you trying to insult me? Yes, I know how to read a hard book. I could hardly have taught the others if I didn’t, could I?

2: Then I suppose you fulfilled the first law. Well done!

So after a little while of pouting at myself for straightening me out like that, I got thinking about how to apply this first law. And this came to me as one of the first applications:

Be very clear on what you are teaching.

If you are teaching a skill (reading) don’t think you have to teach an idea (Plato’s forms) or a text (Plato’s Republic). The students are becoming self-learners when you teach them how to read. They won’t be able to figure out Plato’s forms on their own, but a lecture from you won’t help either unless 1. you understand Plato’s forms and 2. you can present it to them following the seven laws of learning (at least, that is so if the rest hold up as well as this first one did).

Sometimes you will be teaching a skill. Make sure you have enough mastery to do so. Other times you will be teaching an idea. Make sure you understand it well yourself – well enough to teach it through concrete embodiments of the idea. Sometimes you will be teaching information or content. Make sure you know it.

If you aren’t a master, or don’t understand, or don’t know, then you can’t teach. That is the secret of the text book publishers.

But what you can always do as a teacher is this: you can always think about an idea with your students, you can always contemplate a text together, and you can always look up information.

So make sure you know what it is you are teaching (skill, idea, information) and make sure you know what you are teaching in the particular lesson!

Blessings on your teaching!