What is Classical Christian Education?
So we have officially plunged head first into a classical christian education at home. We have had several people ask us what this means exactly. While a simple google search for “classical Christian education” will provide countless blogs, websites and articles about the subject, they are all usually written by people who have received classical educations. I am not one who goes around criticizing public education, but I have found lately that my schooling has left me inept to read many of the articles explaining what I am supposed to be doing as we classically educate our daughters.
Thankfully, the tutorial we are a part of – Classical Conversations – has parent practicums all over the country with presenters that help parents like me who don’t know which way is up to find North and gain my bearings. I feel that my single year of exposure to classical Christian education, combined with the reading I have done and the parent practicum will help me to provide a simple explanation of what it is. I would love to hear comments from others who are classically educating or who were trained classically. Please feel free to share below!
I will springboard off the contrasts made at the parent practicum and insert a few of my own observations. Most people are familiar with the way public education works. Thirteen years of school with the content building on itself. Early in education, few subjects are learned and gradually more are added as the students gain a better understanding of fundamentals. By the end of high school, the hope is that enough exposure to a particular subject has given the student enough interest to be able to specialize in something either in college or to move into the workplace specializing a a certain trade. Standardized tests are the norm to determine how the students compare to others. The standard educational model is entirely student centered. It’s focus is on helping the student master subjects and exalts the achievements of those who do well. Each subject stands independent of the others. The diagram below illustrates this model with the student in the center and each of the subjects focused inward.
Many times a Christian education is no different. What makes it a Christian education is just that the Bible or theology is an additional subject still exalting the student’s achievements. Christian schools may also attempt to integrate a faith-based perspective into the other subjects as well. The best example of this would likely be in science with the study of origins and evolution (…perhaps another blog post).
A classical Christian education, on the other hand, aims to remove the student from the center and to integrate the subjects. This helps the pupils to see how everything they study relates to everything else. Further, God is placed in the center and the goal is to see how He has orchestrated this interrelation between the subjects. As the students observe how God has woven a thread through creation, history, art, grammar, science, language, etc., the natural response is to exalt him as the maker of all things. God becomes the exalted one, not the students.
Here the diagram looks much like a wagon wheel. Each subject exerts pressure on all the other subjects as it is being learned and the centerpiece (God) holds it all together. Remove the center, and everything falls apart. The method shifts away from an emphasis on studying subjects and more toward an emphasis on the tools of learning. If students can learn “how to learn,” then their education will not end with graduation.
Classical Christian education is organized around the trivium, latin for “three strands/ways.” The trivium can be divided roughly into three phases of life. While there are no particular ages associated with each phase, in general they are distinguished like this. Grammar – These are the elementary years. Dialectic – Late preteen to Junior High. And Rhetoric – High school. Each phase of the trivium is characterized by a particular way of assimilating and organizing information. In the grammar stage, students just take it in. This is often referred to as the “poll parrot” stage because children love to imitate and repeat as a way of taking in new information. For example, from a young age we work with our children on learning their colors. We start with the basics: red, blue, yellow, orange, purple, green. As they grow through the grammar stage, they add to their database of colors new information (new grammar). They learn that there are different shades of red, pink for example. The dialectic stage is when students begin to organize all the information they have taken in. You will notice with tweens and junior highers that they like to question a lot. This is because they are trying to make sense of all the information they are taking in. They want to compare what mom has said with what dad told them. This is a natural phase they go through in their cognitive development. The goal of the dialectic stage is to help students develop ways of organizing and classifying information. Here they may take all the colors they have learned and place them on a color wheel or a light spectrum. It is also during the dialectic stage that students begin to make connections between the subjects. As they study the physics of light in science class they will see that light is made of colors at different wave lengths. Ding! Connection between art and science, not to mention math (wavelength measurements).
The rhetoric stage is when students examine all the information and how it is organized from all sides so that they become able to persuade or teach others about it. The greatest test of a student’s mastery of a subject is their ability to effectively communicate it to others. A student in the rhetoric stage needs to not only know about color but they need to be able to explain to others why there are different hues in the sunset.
I am sure that someone who has been teaching classical Christian education or was a product of it could provide a much better summary but here it is as I understand it. We never leave the grammar stage. Currently the new grammar I am learning is about gardening and how to homeschool with a classical Christian approach. Below are a few of the resources I have used to better understand what classical Christian education is all about. Included is an excellent article by Dorothy Sayers – this would be a great next step if you would like to read more.
- Classical Conversations – Our homeschool tutorial.
- The Well Trained Mind – by Susan Wise Bauer & Jessie Wise (In its 3rd edition, this is an excellent guide to classically educating at home)
- The Well Trained Mind Forum – A free forum for parent educators to share ideas and talk about all things homeschool from a CCE perspective.
- “The Lost Tools of Learning” by Dorothy Sayers