Tuesday, October 27, 2015

What makes a Classical Education “Classical”?

What makes a Classical Education “Classical”? You may have heard terms such as "Liberal Arts", "Quadrivium", "Trivium", "Grammar, Rhetoric, and Logic". While these are all elements within a classical pedagogy, there truly is a simpler way to understand the basics behind a classical approach to teaching. It really boils down to 2 very simple elements: good curricula and the method by which you supply its information.

Mortimer Adler, the founder of The Great Books of The Western World wanted to provide great books for Americans to get acquainted with the minds of classical philosophers and authors.  Adler's solution to the dilemma of supplying great curricula was summed up when he said  "The answer, in a word, is ideas. In two words, it is Great Ideas—the ideas basic and indispensable to understanding ourselves, our society, and the world in which we live." So, this leads us to a standard by which we choose curricula: It must contain Great Ideas which contain good and timeless thoughts. To get this, we must supply great books.

Adler also said this about learning: “The goods of the mind are information, knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. We seek these goods not just in order to live, but in order to live well.”- He goes on to say that good books are not “good enough" for true learning.  Good books alone "do not provide us with access to all the essential goods that enrich the human mind. What then is omitted?”

You might say "Nothing is omitted! If I provide really great classical curricula such as The Great Books of The Western World for my students, then nothing could possibly be missing, so why is Adler himself not satisfied with the books alone?" Adler continues to explain that which is “omitted” from really good curricula and classical books is the “understanding of great ideas”. Let's revisit his quote "The goods of the mind are information, knowledge, understanding, and wisdom".  If understanding and wisdom are also primary goals of a classical education, then it must not be omitted. If we use proper methods of teaching with classical curricula, then understanding will take root in the mind of the student and this will later lead to the pursuit of wisdom.  So, we must supply a method with our curricula (Information and knowledge) in order to truly give a classical education to our students.

Charlotte Mason was a British educator during the reign of Queen Victoria and she, like Adler, wanted children to be in touch with great ideas through the reading of living books instead of just dry text books. She created a method by which a student could truly gain this understanding and wisdom that Adler speaks about. She said that in order for these “great ideas” to be understood, we must have the student narrate. Narrating is an art and it takes time to learn how to use your curricula and proper habits on the part of the teacher. The teacher must learn how to apply this method in order that she would facilitate a foundation for the child's mind to build grow in the depths of real understanding.

The narration method of asking the child to recall and tell back everything they remember from a single reading trains the young mind to develop the habits of listening, concentrating and ordering the thought patterns in the brain. It builds neuro pathways that become highways to deeper more intellectual trails by which their ability to gain wisdom and virtue can smoothly ride upon throughout life.

This method secures such strong powerful connections in the brain, that the student will be able to make up their own minds and make choices that are virtuous as they are maturing and gaining wisdom. This method is revolutionary and a complete paradigm shift from what most classrooms in America look like and in fact, many “classical” schools today are not practicing this important technique.

Good books and high quality curricula invites readers to think for themselves and allows them to make up their own minds on every topic under consideration. So, while curricula is a necessary tool of a classical education, the way we use this tool is what defines a truly classical education.

A classical education is one by which the teacher does not preach, teach with rewards, nor tell the child the moral of the lesson or for that matter what to believe. When a teacher reads a lesson, whether it be history or a simple story from literature, the reading must be done in such a way that the child is engaged without interruption.  The reading of the text is should be clear and not read too quickly, so that the child can understand it. The child must be allowed a moment of time to think and process and then tell back what he learned without being prodded with leading comprehension questions. If questions are asked, they should be socratic in nature, which is another art for teachers of a classical school to master.

Boy Writing by: Albert Anker

"Let them get at the books themselves, and do not let them be flooded with a warm diluent at the lips of their teacher...the less parents and teachers talk-in and expound their rations of knowledge and through to the children they are educating, the better for the children...Children must be allowed to ruminated, must be left alone with their own thoughts. They will ask for help if they want it." - Charlotte Mason, School Education, page 162

When this occurs, they can narrate and then know what they have learned. Adler would agree with Charlotte Mason about the mind being left alone without interference from the teacher's ideas about the meaning of the text. "When the mind thinks about any of the basic subjects of human interest, it is engaged in the understanding of the great ideas and, as that understanding enlarges and deepens, it begins to open the door to the wisdom we need for the good conduct of our lives."- Mortimer Adler, The Great Conversation, Page 25

A true classical education is an intricate dance of the teacher between reading, supplying excellent curricula, and allowing the student to use the powers of attention to command his thought atmosphere and harness his neurons to ignite the power of true learning. “Mind appeals to mind and thought begets thought and that is how we become educated. For this reason we owe it to every child to put him in communication with great minds that he may get at great thoughts; with the minds, that is, of those who have left us great works; and the only vital method of education appears to be that children should read worth books, many worthy books”. – C. Mason, Towards a Philosophy of Education, Introduction

While the common elements such as the Liberal Arts, Trivium & Quadrivium, the stages of Grammar, Rhetoric & Logic are all important, they simply are the tools that we can put in place to constitute the labeling of a Classical Education. We must realize that these tools are only as good as the master's knowledge about how to use them. If a person is given tools and told that he can now build a house, but never shown how to build the house, the results will be quite disappointing. 

I hope that this encourages some teachers and parents who are interested in classical education to realize that it is attainable without being complicated. If the tools are in place and the teacher can master the art of narration, this in its purest and simplest form is going to build a basic structure of a classical education. 

Links for Rescources and  Science about narration (telling back the reading of a lesson):
Simple Repition Can Have a Powerful Impact on Learning

Repetition is the Mother of Learning

Charlotte Mason Method of Narration

Help My Child Doesn't Like to Narrate

Stressful Narrations: Whose Fault Is This Anyway?

Confidence Based Repitition