Mortimer Adler, who assembled the Great Books of the Western World collection, wrote a great deal about education. One of his most important contributions is his discussion about the three kinds of teaching.

Three Systems of Teaching

1) First is what he calls “Didactic Instruction.” This consists mostly of lectures, workbook assignments (or assignments that are copied from workbooks and handed out on sheets of paper), and multiple-choice tests. This is the worst kind of teaching, simply because most students learn less in this method. Still, it is the most widely used system of teaching. Most schools, even most alternative and home schools, utilize this method.

2) The second approach is “Coaching,” which consists of, in Adler’s words, “observation by the coach of the performance of those being coached, with on-the-spot correction of mistakes in the performance and the recommendation of ways to correct these mistakes, together with repeated exercise of the right ways to improve the performance.”

This is a much better means of learning, and therefore of teaching, than Didactic lectures, rote assignments and memorization, and multiple-choice tests. In coaching, the assignments and exams are personalized according to student needs. And each study program is individualized, depending on the student.

3) Adler calls his third system of teaching “Seminars.” This consists of students doing projects, experiencing various learning modalities, reading important things, and then discussing what they have learned with a mentor and other students. The discussions include questions and answers, as well as spontaneous conversation about the ideas, principles, facts and other things the students have learned.

Exams in this third model are usually short essay, long essay, oral examination, or a combination of these. The only real way to see how much the student has learned is oral examination, according to Adler. Student learning can also be assessed by projects, reports, or summaries of what was learned. Seminars can cover any topic or skill, and can take any format as long as the teacher sees real learning from the students.

Mentoring Combines 2 & 3

Good mentoring combines all of these, and any other methods that prove useful, to give each student what he or she needs to most effectively learn. According to Adler, the best approach is usually to use Coaching to help student’s develop and improve skills, and Seminars to help each student obtain lasting knowledge and wisdom.

Sadly, most schools emphasize the various didactic methods—which is the main reason American education routinely fails to be truly excellent.

In your home or classroom, with your students, are you using enough coaching and seminars? Coaching is mostly one-on-one help to an individual student, while seminars focus on discussions of something important by a mentor and one or more students.

This may seem very simple, even obvious, to people who have read A Thomas Jefferson Education or applied TJEd/Leadership Education. But for most people, this idea is quite revolutionary. The best, and most, learning occurs with a mix of coaching and discussions.

More Coaching and Discussions

If you can do more of these, especially more of both of them, you will see the learning of your students increase. It really is this simple. Add more personalized coaching, and a lot more discussions about books and other things the students learn—and you’ll see their education drastically improve.

If you make the whole process fun and inspirational, the results will be truly amazing! Thousands of families have tried these simple changes, and they really work.

This seems very basic, but the basics are the most effective approach. Great learning is the natural result of doing the basics over and over—and doing them well, with excitement and inspiration. That’s what makes learning great, and there is no substitute for these two basics.

Adler notes that there are “an immense variety” of possible topics and ideas for great seminars and coaching.

If you ever want more quality, interest, or participation in your home or classroom education, start coaching more effectively, and add a discussion or two to today’s learning plan. This will make all the difference.


For help in mastering and applying the principles and techniques of coaching and seminar learning, check out our award-winning TJEd Implementation course, “Mentoring in the Classics” >>


od crop Why Are We Lying to the Kids?: The Weekly Mentor Oliver DeMille is the co-founder of the Center for Social Leadership, and a co-creator of TJEd. He is the NY Times Bestselling co-author of LeaderShift, and author of A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the 21st Century, The Coming Aristocracy: Education & the Future of Freedom, and FreedomShift: 3 Choices to Reclaim America’s Destiny.

Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through Leadership Education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.