Defining Classical, Christian Education
What is Classical, Christian education? Does it mean studying history? Reading boring old books? Is it only for SUPER SMART students? Six years ago, God gave me a passion for classical, Christian education, and during that time, I have shared the model with many, many families.
The classical, Christian education model is a simple, time-tested model that focuses on training the skills to learn anything, and nurtures the whole person to fulfill their calling as man-made in the image of a sovereign God, set apart for His glory, in this life and the next.
Three Attributes of Classical, Christian Education
Three main attributes of classical, Christian education discussed here are skill-based learning, the interrelatedness of all subjects to all other subjects, and the recognition of the value of man, who is made in the image of God for a purpose. There are other attributes of a classical, Christian education model, but these three provide a backbone for it.
Classical education is skill-based.
These skills are collectively referred to as “The Trivium”, a Latin word meaning three ways. The three ways are three stages of learning and development, each with its own tools: the grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric stages.
- The first stage is the grammar stage. It starts at birth and developmentally extends until around age 11. In this stage, students are learning vocabulary, facts, and principles of any subject in the world around them in a rote fashion. Their understanding may be very limited at first, but they are becoming familiar with the world they encounter. Students in this stage learn best by exploring, experiencing, observing, repetition, memorization, and dramatization.
- The second stage, naturally occurring from around ages 11 – 14, is the dialectic or logic stage. At this point, the student develops a drive to understand and relate one to another all the experiences and facts they have and continue to collect. This stage is characterized as a time of questions, challenging authority, and starting to rely on their own thinking. Students at this stage benefit from learning to ask good questions, reason logically, and debate ideas respectfully.
- Finally, around age 14 students who have been trained to think well, will begin to emerge from the dialectic stage into the rhetoric stage. At this point, students can use their knowledge and skills to creatively relate information in new ways while practicing communicating information eloquently and winsomely. To learn new things they will delve back into the grammar and dialectic stages briefly, to learn the facts and process the information, but will be able to efficiently bring that information into a relationship with the other information they know hold, and continue to communicate their ideas.
The stages and tools of the Trivium function like a computer. The grammar stage is input, the dialectic stage is processing, and the rhetorical stage is output. Once a student has the skills from these three areas, they can spend a lifetime processing any and all information they encounter through their own “computer”, a working understanding of the tools of the Trivium.
While it may look like one has to be super smart to do well with a classical, Christian education model, the reverse is actually true: the classical, Christian education model goes with the grain of student development and is effective at equipping students with the skills they need to learn and understand anything in a faster, easier, and better way.
Developmentally Appropriate Skill Development is Fruitful
Often, in modern education, we see mismatches between assignments and developmental stages that create frustration. Examples would be: asking a first grader to break apart math problems and relate different strategies to the same problem, asking the grade-schooler to invent something meaningful, asking a twelve-year-old to take a well-reasoned stand on a social justice issue, asking a high school student to memorize a bunch of facts with no need for application.
While there are always exceptions, and students may enter a stage early in an area of gifting, mostly mismatches like these needlessly create frustration and confusion that ultimately can drive students to think either too much of their own abilities or more often not enough. Teaching the students skills that correspond with their developmental stage, and that are effective for learning, should reduce frustration and create confidence in learning.
After planting our roots in the model of the Trivium, classical, Christian education is focused on understanding the inter-relatedness of all subjects. Since we believe that all of heaven and earth was created by one, sovereign God, it comes to make sense that all subjects would be interrelated in some way.
A Modern Education
A modern education student might be accustomed to being the center of a paradigm that asks them to learn math, then reading, then bible study, then history, and is interested in their reaction to those individual subjects, often independent of all else. In a Christian, classical education the student is removed from the center of the model, and God is rightly reflected as the center of all creation, all knowledge, informing us about all things, and all things reflecting back information on Him.
The Classical Model of Education
The classical, Christian model continually asks one to consider how each subject relates to all other subjects. Contemplating how the arts relate to the sciences, or how history relates to literature, will produce insights that studying either discipline alone would not likely produce. Likewise, taking a single topic, for example, the topic of water, and considering how it is represented in science, art, music, math, or history, and how those representations connect one to another, will deepen understanding of all parts of that analysis.
One may even choose specific concerns to compare and relate: How is water conservation policy at your local river related to artistic freedom? How is popular music related to current events? How is the founding of Rome related to your curriculum decision? How does man relate to God? How does the Old Testament relate to the New Testament? How does a leader today relate to a leader in the past? When you practice finding the connections and relationships between points like this, you will find these questions lead to ideas that lead to other questions, and each will continually reveal layers of understanding about the world around you.
The Value of Man
As Christians we believe that man was created by God, in His image, to glorify Him. The world and everything in it, is to be brought into submission to this purpose. While modern education is focused on science and the material world, classical, Christian education recognizes the physical world as well as the heart, mind, and soul, and that we live in with the tension and promise of a transcendent reality, beyond what our five senses can detect.
While modern education looks for the new, useful, and profitable, classical, Christian education considers what is good, true, and beautiful. While modern education considers man without meaning, nothing more than a primate with skills, a random, chance occurrence in nature, classical, Christian education knows that man is made for a purpose and can grow in wisdom, and virtue in order to further fulfill that purpose.
How does classical, Christian education achieve these lofty, yet abstract goals?
Thankfully, this world has a long history of men and women considering these ideas in thought, word, and deed, and a modern student can join in The Great Conversation by reading classic literature and studying history. The term “The Great Conversation” represents the ongoing process of writers and thinkers referencing, building on, and refining the works of their predecessors.
All the tools and skills of the classical, Christian model come together in The Great Conversation and work together to give one opportunities to refine their discernment of truth, goodness, and beauty, building wisdom and virtue. This is, of course, a lifetime journey, not necessarily a destination we fully arrive at in this life. The constant refining of our reason and understanding, never being left stuck in as a prisoner to our selfish small world, is the true gift of a classical, Christian education.
(Interested in pursuing a Classical Homeschool Education for your child? Check out our course offerings at True North Homeschool Academy.)
The classical, Christian education model uses the stages and skills of the Trivium, a vision for an inter-connected worldview, unified by one, sovereign God, creator of all things, and the knowledge that man is made in the image of God, to glorify Him in this world in the next, in order develop the whole person, able to participate in all this world and the next has to offer. A classical, Christian education is for those who are interested in quality over quantity, timeless versus fleeting, and eternity versus the present moment.
By Natalie Micheel
Natalie lives in South Dakota with her husband and two awesome kids. She has now homeschooled for over 10 years with Christian, classical and literature-based paradigms, including teaching for and leading faith-based homeschool groups locally. Natalie speaks locally on all things classical, Christian ed. She loves sharing the classical model and the hope and joy of homeschooling your own children with the next generation of homeschool mamas! Natalie enjoys speaking and teaching and thinking, as well as reading and writing and dreaming. She finds particular satisfaction in working with tweens and teens and moms to inspire them towards the good, true and beautiful, and walking beside them as they learn to equip themselves to fulfill their callings in this world.
(The following is a guest post from Marla Szwast, author and blogger. Find out more about Marla over on her blog, Jump Into Genius.)
Are you looking for great Classical Education books to get you started? Check out our favorites! Also, be sure to check out our Classical Education courses at True North Homeschool Academy.
The Liberal Arts Tradition – A Philosophy of Christian Classical Education – by Kevin Clark & Ravi Scott Jain
This is my all-time favorite book on classical education, in fact, before I read this book I did not think of myself as a classical educator. Although I had read other books on classical education and I taught my kids Latin, there was just something I felt was missing from the explanations of classical education. I still don’t go around telling people I am a classical educator although I fit into in the definition provided in this book pretty thoroughly. The big difference is summed up with this quote:
“Education is not merely an intellectual affair, no matter how intellect-centered it must be, because human beings are not merely minds…A full curriculum must cultivate the good of the whole person, soul, and body.”
In The Liberal Arts Tradition, you will be encouraged to feed the soul with music and great stories, the body with exercise and training (referred to as gymnastic) and the mind with subjects such as mathematics and linguistics. You will be introduced to the quadrivium and be led on a beautiful journey that reveals how all of these things work together to nourish and cultivate wisdom.
This balanced approach to nourishing all the parts of our humanity is what was missing when I read other books on classical education. Reading this book explained to me why I did many of the things I did and why I felt so strongly about them even though I could not logically explain my reasons until after I read this book.
I still don’t tell people I am a classical educator, because the term conjures certain images and I still don’t think I fit the box that most people have defined as classical education. However, if judged through the lens of this book, I come pretty close.
The Well-Trained Mind – A Guide to Classical Education at Home – by Susan Wise Bauer & Jesse Wise
This was the first book about classical education and about homeschooling that I ever read, my oldest was still in diapers when I bought this giant and dove into a way of education I had never heard of before. Many of my ideas about what an excellent education looked like were formed during this first encounter with a classical education. The book is full not only of great ideas but also practical advice guiding you on the various steps of the journey.
Since every time I read another book on classical education, I come across a different definition of classical education I will quote here the definition used in The Well-Trained Mind:
“It is language-intensive-not image focused. It demands that students use and understand words, not video images. It is history-intensive, providing students with a comprehensive view of human endeavor from the beginning until now. It trains the mind to analyze and draw conclusions. It demands self-discipline. It produces literate, curious, intelligent students who have a wide range of interests and the ability to follow up on them.”
The authors consider their book to be a handbook written to give you guidance and direct you towards the tools and schedules needed to create such an education. At over 700 pages it is certainly comprehensive and thorough.
The Core – Teaching Your Child the Foundations of Classical Education – by Leigh A. Bortins
I have to say I was surprised at how much I enjoyed reading this book. I didn’t expect it to be very different from the Well-Trained Mind, but although it is coming from a similar framework I felt like I was reading a different story. This book weaves in references to the truth about how the brain learns such as the proven need for repetition. I enjoyed that as I very rarely see how the brain works referenced when I read about educational methods.
Leigh also has a way of taking current culture and weighing it against what we are trying to accomplish with a classical education. This book would be a great read even if you can’t manage to homeschool and just want ideas of how you can foster a classical culture within your own family.
The book takes you on a journey through each subject, talking about what are the most essential concepts and facts to be learned and also pointing out how once they have the grammar, (or facts and vocabulary) of a subject older children will naturally move into dialectic and rhetorical use of the subject.
I also enjoyed the perspective of Leigh as a mother who did not classically train her oldest two children but then did classically train her younger two. She has interesting observations about the differences in her kids who were classically trained but also encouraging remarks for those who don’t start on the journey until their kids are older, as was the case with her older set of boys.
“The purpose of classical education is to strengthen one’s mind, body, and character in order to develop the ability to learn anything.”
“The goal of education is to teach children to become adults who can handle complex ideas, in uncertain situations, with confidence. We feel confident when we can competently manage words and ideas.”
This book made classical education look easy. It sounds simple. Like a back to the basics journey, but without letting go of excellence.
The Latin Centered Curriculum – Home Schooler’s Guide to a Latin-Centered Classical Education – by Andrew Campbell
This book embodies a different definition of classical education.
“Classical Education is a curriculum grounded upon-if not strictly limited to- Greek, Latin and the study of civilization from which they arose.” (Simmons, p. 15)
Other than using Latin and Greek as your most-important spine, this method also considers math to be central.
“Mathematics, along with the classical languages, forms the core of the classical curriculum; math represents the Quadrivium as Latin does the Trivium.”
Andrew adheres to the idea of learning a few subjects thoroughly over learning a little bit about a lot of things. And those few things should be Latin, Greek, and Mathematics. (Later in the book he does mention the importance of music as another daily practice.)
He does not neglect the other subjects and devotes much of the book to details and suggestions of how to treat each subject. The emphasis is on Latin and Greek language, history, and literature, and other things are included with this in mind. For example, there are not as many English literature readings suggested at each age as you will find in other books. However, I found this helpful as many lists simply contain more material than it is practical to cover in a year.
One of the reasons for the limited focus of subjects is to ensure the child plenty of time for free reading, being read to, and the pursuit of the arts. He includes suggested lists of what should be read aloud to children of different ages and these are also refreshingly short.
If you are overwhelmed by long lists this book will give you a good view of what can be accomplished without long lists!
Reading these books may at first seem confusing because not everyone agrees on the details and definition of classical education. Perhaps that is how it should be, after all, anyone interested in classical education wants to have interesting conversations and arguments. Also, classical education is a bit too rich of a philosophy to constrict itself to one exact formula. The lofty goals of a classical education cannot be reduced to one neat formula. But there are many patterns that we can use as a framework for the education we will build in our own homes.
Reading the above books will give a deep and rich picture of what it means to be a classical educator and how you can weave it into your home. Some think classical education is burdensome and overly demanding. But the pictures I see painted before me when I read these books are full of both time to explore and to master the subjects which will enrich and guide our children throughout their lives. This matches my own experience.
Many people think I am crazy if I list off all the things my kids do in a day. They envision children stuck at a desk all day. Yet my kids have plenty of free time. We relax while we learn. They are developing as unique, confident persons. They enjoy a good video game daily, on top of the long list of everything else they accomplish.
It may sound complicated and overwhelming and it is easy to build a schedule and list of must do’s that is overwhelming. But a classical education can be simple, restful, and freeing. It is up to us to dig deep, look at all the beautiful suggestions spread before us, and throw out enough of those suggestions so that the design of our lives is not so crowded that it is ugly. Beauty needs room to breathe.
Marla Szwast lives in Marietta, Georgia with her husband and six children. She is a life-time homeschooler. She has written articles for The Old Schoolhouse Magazine. She is the author of Stepping Through History: Starting With You!, and a semester-long fifth-grade science course. Both courses are published online at the Schoolhouse Teachers membership website. She writes about homeschooling, child development, neuroscience, and the history of education on her blog at www.jumpintogenius.com, you can also follow her on Facebook @jumpintogenius, or Twitter @MarlaSzwast, or Medium. She is also a homeschool product reviewer, and yes, you will find reviews where she does not recommend the product!
(The following is a guest post from Jamie Buckland, Headmistress of Appalachian Classical Academy)
I present to you a review of Mere Motherhood by Cindy Rollins. May my reflections point you to the practical wisdom she so graciously shares.
I am not a reader. I said this once in an academic setting and realized how uncomfortable I had made the speaker who scrambled to form a response. I apologized and clarified that it isn’t for lack of ability, it is simply for lack of desire.
So when I, 18 weeks pregnant with my 4th child, was introduced to Cindy Rollins in the flesh, I remembered her as one of those readers, and promptly dismissed the thought that she, in her CiRCE prize-winning glory, would have something to say that would resonate with me.
Then I heard her address the audience of scholars as she received her prize. Aware that I may have resembled a blubbering whale, I thought that I had possibly dismissed her in haste.
I began the book that night, and finished it the next day. Just last week, after having loaned it out to more than half a dozen of my friends, I picked it back up. It’s only possible I was able to go almost three years without a refresher because I was blessed to get to know Cindy personally during this time.
I want to share with you how her wisdom has influenced me.
One afternoon I sent my then 16-year old son to walk 4 miles in 30-degree weather to get to work. I refused to drive him as a punishment for his lack of submission- to what I cannot tell you – time has a way of doing that. About 10 minutes after he began this walk, regretting my anger, I pulled up beside him and told him to get in the van. He refused. I did all I knew to do. I messaged the author of Mere Motherhood and asked her if she would be willing to call me.
Her words were not formed by a hope of possibly solving my particular problem, as so many words seem too often be, but by a compelling desire to point me to the very Hope who has already solved my universal problem. Gentle reminders that my son’s soul was indeed not mine to save steadied my heart, slowed my breath, and sank me into my chair. The voice of a mother who has whispered the same defeat, threatened the same ultimatums, and pleaded for the same resolve was speaking Truth into my physical ear just as her written word had done to my scattered mind a few months before.
My parents certainly questioned my decisions that day. They may have even threatened to call and report me, but my son survived his chilly walk. And our relationship has done more than just survive. I want to give proper thanks to Cindy, for being the vessel that spoke God’s love to me on that frigid January afternoon. Thanks, Cindy.
My confessions were often matched by realizations from Cindy’s book. Below I’ve written out some of my own struggles and how Cindy addresses them in her book (bolded).
I struggle with validation,
“The Real story is that when we seek validation from any source other than Christ we are going to be disappointed.”
I struggle with pride.
“To my relief, Alex was alert and responsive after all those drugs and I would never be an obnoxious mother-in-law bragging that I had ALL my babies naturally.”
I struggle with guilt.
“In fact, one of our sons turned twelve twice. When what we thought was his thirteenth birthday rolled around we had to sadly explain to him that he was going to have to be twelve again since we had miscalculated his last birthday. This was a crushing blow.”
I struggle with knowing my place.
“When I was younger if I talked to young mothers we shared experiences. Now, if I share an experience with a young mother, it seems like I am a know-it-all and young mothers don’t want to hear any advice. I understand that. I was like that too. I was confident. But it would be nice to be able to share my experiences now, mother-to-mother, without feeling like I am interfering. What I am really doing is commiserating.”
I struggle with defining classical education.
“The ‘ages and stages’ model of classical education had left me hopelessly confused.”
I struggle with Charlotte Mason purists.
“Although Charlotte Mason was not a fan of children’s picture books, I am, proving I can think for myself sometimes.”
I struggle with reading. And sin.
“There are three things that cover a multitude of sins: reading, reading aloud, and written narration.”
I struggle with regret.
“We all have faults. Some periods of life bring those faults to the forefront, making it seem that we are only our faults.”
I hope that in the midst of your busy homeschooling life, you take time to read soul-filling books. Mere Motherhood is just such a book. You will be encouraged, exhorted and challenged to stay the good course of intentionally parenting and raising your children.
Are you looking for some amazing resources just for the Classical Homeschooler? Check out our Classical Homeschool group on Facebook!
Jamie Buckland lives in southern WV with her husband and 4 children. Jamie is Executive Director and Headmistress of Appalachian Classical Academy, a tutoring program for homeschoolers. She also works with homeschool group leaders as the Classical Program Consultant. With a heart for the homeschooling mother, she is passionate about connecting this new generation of homeschoolers with veteran mothers who have walked this walk and lived to share. She will graduate her eldest this year, her youngest in 16 years, and a couple in between! You can find Jamie at www.jamiebuckland.net
How to learn, how to teach is an age old question! How do people learn? What is the most effective way to teach? One can make the argument that since the beginning of humanity, we have learned the same way. The neurological development of babies growing into children growing into adults has been the same. And the concept of the trivium, while Latin in origin, was only discovered by humans as an already existing mode of learning. Before I lose you completely, let me explain. 😊 I have a seven-year-old who can already read at a 4th grade level. We are so proud. However, when it comes to math, she can only do addition and subtraction. I try to sneak in additional some pre-algebra concepts like substituting simple variables or solving a set of 2 linear algebra equations. It’s like a deer in headlights. Crickets, anyone? Why does she not get it? She is certainly intelligent enough. The answer is simple brain development. Brain Development is Not About Age As children’s brains develop, several things happen. The first is the transition from the concrete to the conceptual. This is highly documented by a lot smarter people than myself. Babies, for instance, are so concrete, you can play the game “Peek-a-boo” with them, because simply hiding your face makes you “disappear” because literally what babies see is what they believe. As children begin to develop further, their brains can understand more abstract concepts like what a variable is (asking my daughter just now, she said it’s a letter that is used in math to make other letters … [sigh]). In a year, however, this will be common sense to her, and she will never believe that she even said that. Why? Brain development. People try to put ages on certain mile-stones, but the reality is brain development and cognitive achievement vary based on age, personality, environment, genetics, and even the child’s interest in learning. Honestly, you can’t put the human brain in a box.
That brings us back to the Trivium – what’s that? The trivium is an ancient understanding of how people learn. Learning begins with Grammar, or the memorizing of relevant facts to some subject. Grammar can literally be language grammar or constructs of mathematics (like theorems, corollaries, variables, equations, operations), or one could memorize the periodic table and atomic weights in Chemistry. In fact, facts that we could memory could include facts from any of the following disciplines: Agriculture, Animal Husbandry, Botany, Horticulture, Gardening, Analytics, Math, Engineering, Computers, Programming, Logic, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Geology, Meteorology, Medicine, Physiology, Anatomy, Pharmacology, First Aid, EMT, Social Studies, Politics, Philosophy, History, Economics, Literature, Writing, Penmanship, Forensics, Argument, Art, Music, Sculpting, Painting, Dance, Pottery, Religion, Apologetics, Evangelism, Cults, Epistemology, Eschatology, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Spanish, German, French, Chinese, Fitness, Martial Arts, Marksmanship, Archery, Tactics, Strategy, … but just the facts, ma’am.
Grammar is about learning facts, but not understanding them. It is music to my ears when a child is memorizing large amounts of information and then says, “what is this all for?” When I hear this, it tells me the student is saturated with grammar, and is ready to move into Dialectic – or the understanding of what was memorized. It is true that as we memorize facts, we naturally begin the Dialectic process. As adults, we almost immediately begin understanding what we are memorizing, and how it works with the other facts we are memorizing. However, for children, Dialect begins to occur as their brains can process more abstract concepts. So, we really need to be careful at how hard we press Dialect on young minds. We can actually sour their excitement for learning by trying to force them to learn that which their minds are not ready for or holding them from learning what their minds are hungry for. Each student is unique in this way.
Once a student can understand all the facts that are given them, and they have a chance to chew it over in the brain (an indication of additional brain development), they begin to form opinions on the information. Rhetoric is simply the forming of opinions and ideas, making assertions (either verbally or in writing as I am doing now) and then defending those assertions using various techniques (like argument or research). And that’s the Trivium in a nutshell. Remember, the Trivium both helps explain the developmental stages of the brain in adolescents, as well as the stages of learning for grown adults. Next time, we will use our understanding of the Trivium to better understand what cross-discipline learning is.