Sunday, September 16, 2007

Homeschooling: The Trivium and the Classical Method

As you may have seen recently, our eldest daughter Clara just started kindergarten in our homeschool this year, and she is doing great! She is so committed to everything she does, and tells me about her day "in school" as soon as I get home from work. We did homeschool "preschool" with Clara starting when she was three (and are doing so with our oldest son Aidan, who's now three), but this is of course a whole different level of commitment. Now we know that we are formally replacing the role that would have been played by a public or private school starting this year.

In order to plan our homeschool curricula, we have been attending the Minnesota Catholic Home Educators Conference at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN every year for the past two years. This conference is amazing. I have heard that it's the largest Catholic homeschool conference in the country, and I'd believe it because it's huge. Dozens of speakers and a gigantic field house full of homeschooling vendors and resources (almost all of it we'd like to purchase if we could!) adds up to one busy weekend.
It was at this conference a year and a half ago that we made the decision to homeschool in the Classical method. The book pictured to the right, The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home, by Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise, playing a big role in helping us make that decision. Before explaining the Classical method of education, I'll just say that it was a surprise to me to find so many different "methods" of home education once we decided to homeschool. I mostly thought you just did the standard subjects with more depth and attention than a "normal" school (and I think this would accurately describe many homeschools), but didn't realize there were also overarching methods that can drive how those subjects are taught (if one desires an overarching method). There's Montessori, Charlotte Mason, Unit Studies, Unschooling (editorial comment: we're definitely not doing this), Waldorf Education, and on. The Classical method is but one of these choices. For our family, and for me and Molly, the Classical method fit the best by far. We are so impressed and so excited to embark on this educational method and see the tangible results in our children!

A very thorough explanation of the Classical method of homeschooling can be read here, as written by Susan Wise Bauer. One of the key aspects of the Classical method is the Trivium (which is discussed in Susan's article, but another great resource specifically on the Trivium is here). The Trivium is a method of teaching that has developed over centuries, all the way back to ancient Greece. The Trivium is based on observation of the optimal way children learn, meaning in some way it is based how God created us to learn. There are three formal stages of the Trivium (hence the "tri" in "Trivium"):
  • Grammar
  • Logic (sometimes called Dialectic)
  • Rhetoric
These three stages of education span 1st through 12th grades, with grades 1-4 devoted to grammar school, grades 5-8 devoted to logic school, and grades 9-12 devoted to rhetoric school. Here's just a brief comment on each of the three (from the website linked above):

Simply defined, it is the learning of the body of knowledge of a subject, and most classicists would agree that this is best done by memorization. Most of us have been trained to have an aversion to rote memorization, but it is not harmful, and neither does it have to be dull. I would venture to say that no baby had to be forced to learn to talk, but rather he enjoyed the process immensely. In reality, a child begins learning the grammar of things when he is born and continues from there, but in formal education the grammar stage coincides with the elementary years. In terms of cognitive ability, children at this age automatically zero in on the concrete facts. Therefore it is fine at this stage to concentrate on the concrete and leave the analytical and the abstract out of it.
Logic (Dialectic)
The dialectic stage is defined as learning to reason, and the body of knowledge learned in the grammar stage is the stuff learning to reason is practiced on. In the grammar stage children learned facts; in the dialectic stage children try to understand the facts they have learned, and begin to relate those facts to one another in a significant way. This stage coincides with middle or junior high school, although it may actually begin for individual children earlier than that, in 5th or 6th grade. It is in the dialectic that the emphasis in cognitive skills shifts from the concrete to the analytical. This is where children are naturally inclined to ask the question “Why?” This is where they question what they have learned in the grammar stage to see if it is in fact true. Truth holds up very well under examination, and only proves its nature by this process. While not advocating children question the things they were taught, if what they were taught is true, we need have no fear of it being questioned, even if that questioning runs to things such as the existence of God or the veracity of the Word. Therefore teaching the science of logic is critical at this stage.
The last stage is the rhetoric stage, which focuses on learning the science of communication and the art of expression. In the grammar stage children learned facts; in the dialectic stage children began to understand those facts, and in the rhetoric stage children learn to express what they now understand in the most compelling manner possible. This stage roughly coincides with high school. Cognitively speaking, this stage is where abstract thought reaches its zenith. In this stage, the unknown can be explored because the known is understood; the hypothetical can be introduced and grasped with the mind. The mental jump can be made from the natural to the spiritual, from the practical to the theoretical. Self-expression finally comes into its own in the language arts; “hard” sciences and advanced mathematics are more easily mastered; history can be applied to economics and political science; and Bible study can turn to apologetics.
Key for me in deciding with Molly to use Classically-based education in our home were other factors too, such as the fact that "screens" of any kind (whether TV, computer, etc.) are strongly discouraged as educational tools. The Classical method was used to great effect well before the advent of TV or computers; usually reading is a much more interactive way of learning than "screens" which are passive and don't require thought.

I also like the fact that the same or similar information is covered in each 4-year cycle with a different focus. So, if you cycle through World History from ancient times to the present in grades 1-4, focusing on memorization of key facts and events, you start over in grades 5-8 and cover the same periods focusing on why events happened and what their causes were, and you start over again in grades 9-12 and cover the same periods a third time focusing on developing the student's own analytical skills and having the student offer a defense of a certain position regarding an historical event, or have the student do a formal debate on a topic in history. Other subjects are done this way as well, including Math, Science, Literature, Languages (Latin), etc., even following along with World History in each of the other subjects (teaching, for instance, about Newton's laws of motion when discussing Newton's era of history).

There will be more to come on homeschooling topics such as this, but hopefully this provides a good picture of the vision we have for our homeschool and the education of our children.

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