Sunday, March 29, 2009

Classical Education Part 1—An Introduction

The year is 1947, the place is Oxford, and the woman is a Miss Dorothy Leigh Sayers (1893-1967), a scholar and expert on the middle ages and a member of a literary group which included C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien--the essay is The Lost Tools of Learning. The premise: modern education is failing in its most crucial object, teaching children how to learn. The classical concept of education is reborn.

Cross the Atlantic and fast forward sixty years; all over the our country today are private schools, Christian schools, home schools, and even public charter schools all waving the banner of Classical. But what does it mean, why is it so popular and how does it differ from modern public-school education?

What does it mean?
I recommend everyone read the essay for themselves at some point. It shouldn’t take long. Print it out, get a highlighter and a pen, and take a few notes; you’ll be glad you did. She can say it so much better than I can, but here I’ll briefly summarize.

The classical model of education seeks not to fill a child’s mind with information, not to propagandize, but to kindle a love of learning, a curiosity of the world, and to provide tools to create a life-long learner. Next, the classical educator recognizes that children’s minds go through stages where they excel through different kinds of teaching. Classical educators identify three main stagess, referred to as the trivium, and labeled in order: the grammar, dialectic and rhetoric stages.

The use of the word does not mean exclusively English grammar (although that is included) but refers to a grammar, or set of rules, that each subject possesses. The grammar of math is to learn the addition, subtraction, division and multiplication tables. The grammar of spelling would be to memorize the rules and exceptions that exist within our language. This stage lasts from approximately preschool to 5th grade. What is brilliant about classical education is the recognition that kids in this age group love to learn this way. I’ll explain more of that below.

This stage is roughly middle school age where kids don’t enjoy parroting information any longer but they want to question everything and understand the why. The way a classical educator teaches changes. Hopefully the student has a strong foundation in math, reading, and spelling and is now able to focus on what his mind is burning to know.

The mind of a high school student who has strong grammar foundation and has been encouraged to think and ask why, is now ready to come to firm, grounded convictions and express ideas in a well-written coherent fashion. Since these stages aren’t meant to be airtight, some memorization is still needed, but the emphasis and the focus of learning changes here. Where the 2nd grader was happy to memorize facts all day long, the mind of a student in the rhetoric stage is bored stiff if he isn’t given the opportunity to often make sense out of everything he’s learning and express it creatively.

How is this different than modern education?

It is a difference of emphasis. It would be false to say that a modern-based elementary school does not teach memorization—it does. But it does not emphasize it as heavily as the classical elementary schools do. In a classical school, much more time is spent on drills. In schools modeled after modern ideas, a small amount of time is spent in drills and much time is spent fostering creativity.

In your public school down the block, the second graders may be told to write a creative story about what they would do if they found a flying carpet. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that. But the teacher will most likely decide not to correct the spelling on the papers because she doesn’t want to discourage the children from writing—understandable. But the same half hour at a classical school was instead spent drilling the students on phonogram cards: a system where the English language is broken up into 70 different phonograms. This is an excellent method for learning spelling and reading. This does not mean that the classical school never allows for creative writing and the modern school never teaches phonics, only that the emphasis is different.

What the classical model recognizes is that the majority of 2nd graders hate creative writing. It’s too open-ended for them, and whether or not they’ve ever been corrected on their spelling, they are still unsure of how to spell words, they hesitate, they stumble, they aren’t ready. However, get out a bunch of flash cards and start chanting these fun little rhymes they’ve learned, you’ll have the whole class energized. Even the “slower” kids will be smiling and thinking, “I can do this!” The same kids that were paralyzed by this blank sheet of paper and the expectation to come up with something wild and creative, are now having fun and full of confidence.

A wonderful classical English grammar program call Shirley English (that I used for home schooling and our local Classical school uses) has children memorize fun little poems to illustrate the parts of speech. My kids would start into these “jingles” impromptu, while doing dishes or riding in the car. Even the preschoolers can catch on. It doesn’t matter at all that the toddlers have no idea what the poems mean. Someday when they actually care to know, they’ll have the information at their finger tips.

Another classical tip: not only do kids love to memorize in the elementary years, they are also great at it, naturally. Later on they lose that knack.

Stay Tuned!

1 comment:

Crystal said...

Thanks, Leslie! This is a wonderful description of the Classical Model! So grateful to be schooling with you!