john milton gregory


PART 3: The Law of the Language

The language used as a medium between teacher and learner must be common to both.

John Milton Gregory goes into a philosophical discussion about language. He goes on at length, but the concept is really very simple. You have:

- The teacher: with his vocabulary and the meanings he has associated with those words.

- The student: with his vocabulary and the meanings he has associated with those words.

A word only comes across to the student if the student knows the word and the meaning that the teacher intends it to have. Words can have different shades of meaning, and the teacher must be careful that the students know the word in that context. Here is Gregory’s example:

Having mastered a word as the sign of a familiar idea, he is suddenly confronted by it with a new and unknown meaning. He has learned, perhaps, to tie a horse to a post, when he hears the strange text, “My days are swifter than a post,” or reads the warning, “Post no bills,” and hears of a “military post.” The teacher, knowing all the meanings of his words, and guided by the context in selecting the one required by the thought, reads on or talks on, thinking perhaps that his language is rich in ideas and bright with meaning; but his pupils, knowing perhaps only a single meaning for each word, are stopped by gaps in the sense, bridged only by sounds without meaning which puzzle and confuse them.

If the teacher uses a word that the student does not know, it is as if the teacher said, “Blank.” An overly technical lecture that includes all kinds of unfamiliar words might sound like, “The blank does blank to the blank when blank conditions apply, for blank.” Sometimes we experience this as adults when we read something full of jargon. The sentence has absolutely no meaning to us if we are missing knowledge of key parts.

How much more so this applies to the young elementary student with a limited vocabulary.

I think educators do a pretty good job of realizing that vocabulary used should match with the students’ level of knowledge. I think it’s easy to forget, however, that knowing one meaning of a word is not the same as knowing all its many shades of meaning.

Gregory points out that one misunderstood term can break the connection of the student’s attention. It is the teacher’s goal to discover where the attention was lost, explain further, and regain the connection.

He also says that teachers should be careful not to only use lectures. Since vocabulary truly becomes yours when you actually use it, teachers should allow students time to talk.

Some suggestions:

(2) Secure from them as full a statement as possible of their knowledge of the subject, to learn both their ideas and their modes of expressing them, and to help them correct their knowledge.

(A note on this–I think brief essays or oral examinations are some of the most useful tools teachers have. You can find out how much students really understand, and you can give real feedback when they clearly did not understand it. You can also gauge their vocabulary on the topic. Multiple choice does not have this value.)

(3) Express yourself as far as possible in the language of your pupils, carefully correcting any errors in he meaning they read into your words.

(Another note–teachers are too hesitant to correct students. When a student answers a question in class, there is a way to gently and kindly reword their answer when it is incorrect. Teachers are worried about hurting students’ feelings, but it is inexcusable to let the student misunderstand it for the rest of his life. Teachers owe it to the students to make sure they understand the material. This has to be done gently, of course.)

(7) Help the meaning of the words by illustrations; natural objects and pictures are to be preferred for young children. Take illustrations from the children’s own experiences whenever possible.

(9) Try to increase the number of the pupil’s words, and at the same time improve the clearness of meaning. Real enlargement of a child’s vocabulary means an increase of his knowledge and power.

(12) Test frequently the pupil’s understanding of the words that he uses, to make sure that he attaches no incorrect meaning and that he sees the true meaning as vividly as possible.


PART 2: The Law of the Learner

The learner must attend with interest to the material to be learned.

There are three levels of attention, according to Gregory.

(1) “One may let one’s mind flit from this object to that, following each passing stimulus for a moment or two until something else ‘catches the attention.’” This, he argues, is passive. One is letting the world around him dictate what he will think about.

(2) Active attention is focusing on something, although one is aware of more pleasant things around. I am going to fully quote Gregory here, because I think this point has controversial applications to our modern day diagnoses of ADD.

But the essential characteristic of the human mind is that it can control, rather than be controlled by, the forces that surround it. It can rise above its immediate environment and look beyond the present into the future. It can even attend away from objects that naturally attract attention and hold itself persistently and resolutely to tasks and duties that are not immediately attractive but which it recognizes as important and worthy and necessary. It can hold momentary fancy in leash and work resolutely and persistently toward a remote goal. This distinctively human type of attention is called “active” attention because its first condition is an effort of the will, a determination to do what should be done in spite of allurements to do something else that is pleasanter and more attractive.

Now, in the age of the internet, I think we all struggle with this. Honestly, the very nature of internet browsing involves giving in to all kinds of flitting attractions to keep attending to different things each minute. As you browse one web page, you click on a link from there, and from there you click on another link. Then you open several links in new tabs and quickly browse through them on to the next tab. You probably don’t stay on one page any longer than a minute. You read your Facebook news feed, which isn’t any kind of focused dialogue on one subject–rather, it involves split second readings and conversations on dozens of subjects that have come up in the past several hours.

I don’t think it is unreasonable to suggest that this may train our brains to have difficulty attending to one thing and keeping all else in our peripheral vision. I have noticed its effects in my own life.

And what about young children? Take a look at any children’s television show and try to count the seconds before the scene changes. Pay attention to the flashy advertising in between. Think about the quickly paced video games children play at very young and tender ages. In the past, children sat down to play dolls or cars creatively along one storyline for hours. They would sit down and read a whole book–a very calm and slow-paced one, at that. We should not be surprised if children’s brains get used to moving on to something new every few minutes. If anyone wonders why ADD was not a problem in the past, these new kinds of media certainly ought to be considered as a factor. I am not saying I don’t believe in ADD. I am just saying that I believe media can train the brain to have even more difficulty focusing. (I also believe that most diagnoses are misdiagnoses because schools want to shirk their responsibility to get children to focus and want to drug them instead. Drugging children for attention problems is preposterous! Putting the kids in a one-on-one environment, like homeschooling, can help them in the specific way that they need. Drugs are a cop-out.)

Quick-paced media is one factor. Another factor–the hyperactivity part–is normal childhood, in my opinion. Some children simply are more fidgety than other children. They do really have trouble sitting still. (Again, if they were in a natural home environment, they could have more breaks from school to release their energy. A school is an oppressive place for a child who has lots of energy.)

Let us now come back to what John Milton Gregory has said about attention. He calls this level of attention “active attention.” It is active because it involves forgoing other things, ignoring more interesting, more pleasurable things in order to focus on the task at hand. In other words, it is a form of sacrifice. Focus is not a natural state. It requires conscious choices.

Why would we put the student at a desk, tell him to focus, when he can imagine plenty of more interesting things to think about, and get upset with him when he does not focus? If focusing is an active choice, it makes sense that we ought to train and teach children from an early age HOW to focus and why this sacrifice will benefit them in the end. Ultimately, it is about teaching children delayed gratification. It is about self-sacrifice. If they can master that, they can succeed in all other areas of life. A self-sacrificing person does not spend frivolously. He does not put down others in speech in order to puff himself up. Self-sacrifice is required to be a moral human being. Yet it is so difficult to do. It requires teaching, both through words AND example.

The attention problem in our world today may be indicative of more serious moral ills that come from inability to sacrifice self.

Gregory goes on to name a third type of attention. When one has worked hard to maintain active attention, eventually one may grow so interested in the subject that it is attractive in itself. It becomes completely engrossing, and this is a second type of passive attention. The effort is not so required now. “It means economy of learning, it means pleasant learning, it means effective learning.” A teacher’s aim must be to develop this kind of attention.

Some of his tips for effectively using the Law of the Learner:

(5) Arouse attention when necessary by variety in your presentation, but be careful to avoid distractions; keep the real lesson in view.

(6) Kindle and maintain the highest possible interest in the subject. Interest and attention react upon each other.

(13) Maintain and exhibit in yourself the closest attention to and most genuine interest in the lesson. True enthusiasm is contagious.