Photo Gallery

Classical Education

Classical Education

Published: 09/20/2012 by Jennifer Courtney

» Education & Learning Support

When my oldest child was born a homeschooling family member handed me a book on classical home education. I was intrigued but felt I needed to do a bit more research (luckily I had several years since my child was only a few months old). I read books about Charlotte Mason, the Principle Approach, and eclectic homeschooling. Over and over, I came back to the classical, Christian model as the best choice for our family. 

I had two desires for our family: a quality education and a Biblical worldview. I was curious about the history of classical education as the model used for over a thousand years by the western church. What about this model produced such scholars as William Shakespeare, John Milton, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien?

As I researched, I learned that the classical model focuses on a set of skills practiced on quality content. Medieval scholars envisioned education as the pursuit of the Seven Pillars of Wisdom. The first three pillars are the language skills of the Trivium—Grammar, Dialectic and Rhetoric. The remaining four are the number skills of the Quadrivium—Arithmetic, Geometry, Astronomy, and Harmony (music). The goal is to produce virtuous citizens who have a lifelong love of “the True, the Good, and the Beautiful”.

For the last thirty years, homeschool families and founders of classically educating schools have wrestled with uncovering the subjects and the methodologies that made these schools so successful. Many have been helped by Dorothy Sayers’ speech “The Lost Tools of Learning.” In her speech, Sayers focuses on the skills of the Trivium, arguing that children pass through three distinctive stages of learning any subject. During the grammar stage, children ages four to 12 are naturally good at memorization and recitation. As children progress to the logic or dialectic stage (ages 12 to 14), they are naturally good at asking questions and arguing. During the rhetoric stage (ages 14 to 18), they excel at self-expression. 

So, how can we train children in these valuable thinking skills and provide quality content to practice them on in our homeschools? Is it enough to add Latin or logic to the curriculum? Should we study history or literature chronologically? Let’s begin by addressing each stage of the Trivium.

During the grammar stage, children are naturally good at memorizing. They must memorize large quantities of information as they learn to speak their own native language. We naturally train them at home by repeating ourselves over and over again: “Door. That is the door.” or “Say please pass the napkins.” Most of us have experienced one of our children memorizing picture books so that they could “read” it to themselves when no grown-ups are available. In our house, we read Dr. Seuss’ Go, Dog. Go! until my youngest could turn the pages by herself and read the book aloud verbatim. Many of us have also experienced the phenomenon of being able to remember scripture and poetry that we memorized as young children but struggling as adults to memorize new information.

Knowing that our children are naturally receptive to memorization in these early years provides us with the most appropriate teaching methodologies— memorization and recitation. In addition to the traditional memory work of letters, phonetic sounds, and spelling rules, classical educators recommend memorizing information in all academic subjects. Every year my children (aged four to 12) memorize the chronological timeline of history from Creation to the Arab Spring, paragraphs from different time periods in history, English grammar definitions, science facts, scripture, poetry, multiplication tables and geometric formulas. 

The purpose for this memory work is two-fold: firstly, it exercises the brain muscle and actually trains the brain to retain more information and, secondly, it provides the content needed for more advanced studies in a variety of academic subjects. In order to accomplish these goals, the memory work must be consistent so that students do not forget the material and it must be purposeful so that the knowledge contributes to subjects they will study later.

For example, I practiced the distributive law with my children every year. They learned to repeat: “The distributive law is a(b+c) =ab + ac.” My oldest did not apply this knowledge until pre-Algebra. His Saxon math lesson required him to look at algebraic equations and choose which law was illustrated by each equation. Since we had laid a good foundation by memorizing the associative, distributive, and commutative laws, he could easily apply the new concepts. To often, students struggle with abstract concepts in higher-level math because they did not receive a solid foundation in their early years.

In addition to a concentrated period of memory work each day, children should spend a lot of time being exposed to great stories. The grammar years are a brief and thrilling period in which all knowledge is new and exciting. I read to my children every day, they read to themselves, and they read to me especially if they are delighted by a new discovery! Share a variety of stories, fables, myths, and fairy tales as well as interesting stories from history and the natural sciences. 

Somewhere between the ages of 12 and 14, students become less content with absorbing facts. They desire to understand why the world works as it does. They begin to question everything from stories to current events to parental rules. In order to work with this natural inclination, a classical home educator will introduce formal logic and debate. Now, the focus shifts from memorization and recitation to teaching through discussion. When possible, students in this phase of learning should discuss literature, their beliefs, and current events with their peers as well as with a mentor.

Although students will naturally want to argue, they must be trained to do it well. Formal logic provides exercises to formulate sound arguments. If done well, it will also train students to think through the arguments of their opponents. This is a critical step in their education. Often, we want to shelter even our older children from difficult discussions like euthanasia. Instead, we should carefully consider these subjects and help them to understand the arguments on both sides of the debate before responding. At the same time that they are learning to formulate arguments, they must be trained to conduct discussions in a way that demonstrates respect to their peers, their parents, and their tutors. 

As students enter the high school years, they strongly desire to express themselves whether that expression is through dance, music, speech, debate, poetry, or applied mathematics and sciences. In a classical education, the capstone of these years is instruction in rhetoric—the art of saying the best thing in the best possible way. In the logic stage, students learn not to fall prey to the words of others. In rhetoric, we train them to captivate others with their words.

In the classical tradition, there are five canons of rhetoric: inventio (invention), dispositio (arrangement), elocutio (style), memoria (memory), and pronuntiato (delivery). Originally, these five canons were applied to training in public speaking. In a modern classical education, the first three are also used to train students in writing. Invention is the process of brainstorming what to say while arrangement is the organization of the student’s thoughts into a logical, harmonious, and beautiful whole. Rhetoric students study stylistic devices such as simile, metaphor, allegory, and parable to help them transmit their ideas to their audience.

For anyone to be a true rhetorician, they must have three aptitudes. These include an appreciation of the true, the good, and the beautiful; the ability to speak and write persuasively, and lastly, a virtuous character. In other words, there must be substance to their thoughts. This is why students explore a wide range of subjects before they begin to specialize. All students strive to have a background in classical literature including fiction, drama, and poetry. Other goals include understanding art, music, and world history. Their rhetoric can also be informed by knowledge of the sciences, philosophy, and theology.

For centuries, educators agreed on a core of knowledge with which all individuals should be familiar. These citizens were well-read, broadly knowledgeable, and able to exercise discernment. A classically educated person might be known as a “Renaissance man” who has a wide range of knowledge in law, philosophy, politics, literature, the sciences, and architecture.  

With a classical education, students will be prepared to enter the great conversations that have continued throughout the history of mankind such as: “What is the purpose and meaning of human existence?” “What is good?” “What is evil?” “What is the meaning of life?” 

These are challenging and timeless questions. If you find the concept of classical education a bit intimidating or overwhelming, remember that you don’t have to teach alone. One day a week, my family joins other homeschool families that teach their children classically. During the morning, we practice our memory work together and complete other projects that are best done in a group such as science experiments. 

As a group, throughout the year, we complete four units of fine arts studies: drawing, music theory and tin whistle, art history and painting, and composers and the orchestra. In addition, children give a three-minute oral presentation to their “class” each week. Children practice speaking skills such as voice projection and eye contact. These early presentations serve as practice for junior high and high school speeches and debates. 

In the afternoons, students ages 10 to 12 from our group practice grammar concepts, diagram sentences, write original papers, and play math drill games together. We find it more enjoyable to plan and learn some classical concepts as a group. 

The ultimate goal of a classical education is for students to recognize the connections between all of their subjects, and to use their knowledge to act virtuously in service to others. We have enjoyed the classical education method and hope you will too! 

"Reprinted with permission from Jennifer Courtney"