The Classical Approach to education has produced great minds throughout history, and has strong elements of perennialism (the view that the core body of knowledge that students should learn has remained constant throughout hundreds of years).
The modern proponent of the Classical Approach was British writer and medieval scholar Dorothy Sayers. As the Nazis rose to power in the 1930s, Sayers warned that schools were teaching children everything except how to think. Because young adults could no longer think for themselves, Sayers felt they could be easily influenced by tyrants. To remedy this, Sayers proposed reinstating the classical form of education used in the Middle Ages.
In the Classical Approach, children under age 18 are taught tools of learning collectively known as The Trivium. The Trivium has three parts, each part corresponding to a childhood developmental stage.
The first stage of the Trivium, the “Grammar Stage,” covers early elementary ages and focuses on reading, writing, and spelling; the study of Latin; and developing observation, listening and memorization skills. The goal of this stage is to develop a general framework of knowledge and to acquire basic language arts and math skills.
At approximately middle school age, children begin to demonstrate independent or abstract thought (usually by becoming argumentative or opinionated). This signals the beginning of the “Dialectic Stage” in which the child’s tendency to argue is molded and shaped by teaching logical discussion, debate, and how to draw correct conclusions and support them with facts.
The goal of the Dialectic Stage is to equip the child with language and thinking skills capable of detecting fallacies in an argument. Latin study is continued, with the possible addition of Greek and Hebrew. The student reads essays, arguments and criticisms instead of literature as in the Grammar Stage. History study leans toward interpreting events. Higher math and theology begin.
The final phase of the Trivium, the “Rhetoric Stage,” seeks to produce a student who can use language, both written and spoken, eloquently and persuasively. Students are usually ready for this stage by age 15.
Here are some questions to ask yourself before trying the classical approach with your child:
1. Does my family like to read good literature?
2. Are my children intellectually oriented and comfortable with a rigorous academic program?
3. Am I a learner? Am I comfortable learning alongside my children so I can teach them things I never studied?
4. Do I like to study and discuss ideas that have influenced civilization?
Strengths of the Classical Approach:
Is tailored to stages of mental development
Teaches thinking skills & verbal/written expression
Has produced great minds throughout history
Weaknesses of the Classical Approach:
Very little prepared curriculum available
Requires a scholarly teacher and student
May overemphasize ancient disciplines and classics
Resources for the Classical Approach
Teaching the Trivium by Laurie and Harvey Bluedorn maintains that the classical style of education is designed to serve Christians well because it was the original model of education that God had in mind for his people to progress from knowledge, to understanding, to wisdom. This is a great book, for two reasons: (1) it takes the whole of the classical method and roots it soundly in the Bible, and (2) it lays out many options for a classical, biblically based course of study that are not overwhelming to the average family. Even if you never intend to use this approach, the many insights into education are well worth the price of the book.
Classical Education and the Home School by Douglas Wilson and others is a brief but thorough overview of Classical Christian education and the basics of Latin, of Logic, of Rhetoric, and of Christian Worldview thinking from a home school perspective.
The Well Trained Mind by Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer. Teaching history chronologically; reading great books; learning to speak well; mastering another language; focusing on understanding and thinking skills…. these are the kinds of things that produced some of our most influential scientists, statesmen and leaders in the past. Here is THE reference book for people who choose to blend the best of family-centered, home-based learning with a rigorous quest for academic excellence.
The Well-Educated Mind In this “sequel” to The Well Trained Mind, Bauer and Wise help parents seeking self-education in the classical tradition.
The Story of the World, Volume 1; The Story of the World, Volume 2; The Story of the World, Volume 3;The Story of the World, Volume 4; First Language Lessons for the Well-Trained Mind; The Ordinary Parent’s Guide to Teaching Reading. These are all teaching materials for elementary ages based on the classical approach presented in The Well Trained Mind.