Begin at the Beginning: The Classical Approach
“The beginning is the most important part of the work.”
Toddlers are excellent at grammar. Case in point: my three-year-old was helping me fold laundry this morning, and told me that I was folding her shirt wrong; her babysitter “dooz it like THIS!” Sure, she was wrong — both about the proper way to fold a tee shirt and about how to pronounce “does” — but she was identifying and applying a rule of grammar more accurately than most high school graduates can: the third person singular form of a verb in the present tense is formed by adding -s to the infinitive.
Our brains are wired to begin at the beginning. Just as an infant’s brain starts to identify patterns in language and group those patterns into rules long before they are ready for a lesson in essay writing, elementary-aged students can learn a tremendous amount of facts long before they can comprehend the hows or even the whys behind that knowledge.
Much of modern educational philosophy fights against this natural inclination of our brains, pushing problem solving on kindergarteners (“Buy WHY does Johnny need to run, little Susie?”) when they are not ready for it, or pushing second graders to compare and contrast their opinions of the creation myths of various cultures, when what they really excel at is memorizing math facts. Sadly, those same second graders often reach fifth or sixth grade and are told to sit down, work on their grammar worksheets, and stop asking why so much, just as their brains are ready to question the reasoning behind everything around them. And those middle school students are then pushed up to high school, skeptical of their teachers, self-conscious about how their peers view them, jaded by the process of their schooling. And we wonder why they don’t want to get up in front of their class to eloquently argue a contentious issue, or why they are not able to craft a cohesive and persuasive piece of written work.
The Classical Response
Classical education flagrantly denies the philosophies underpinning much of our modern educational system, and instead embraces the ancient model of the trivium. The trivium is the division of learning into three stages: the grammar stage, the logic stage, and the rhetoric stage. The grammar stage focuses on the memorization of facts and the mastery of as much information as possible. The logic stage emphasizes the hows and whys behind that knowledge, understanding how information connects, particularly through cause and effect relationships. The rhetoric stage sharpens the development of a coherent worldview, encouraging students to claim ideas and beliefs as their own, and to be able to defend those beliefs and share them with others through the art of public speaking, writing, and the creation of other media. As Dorothy Sayers eloquently pointed out in her 1948 speech-turned-essay titled The Lost Tools of Learning, the stages of the trivium project beautifully onto the stages of childhood development, with the grammar, logic, and rhetoric stages occurring during the elementary, middle, and high school years.
Classical education has enjoyed an immense resurgence in North American education over the last thirty or so years. Even a brief glance at an Amazon or Google search on the topic will reveal a host of resources dealing with the whats, hows, and whys of classical education. Classical schools are cropping up over the continent and home schooling parents can benefit from a wide array of curriculum choices that adhere to the classical model of education.
It’s no surprise that the simplicity and effectiveness of beginning at the beginning is cutting through the muddled world of educational philosophy, appealing to parents and teachers alike. As my daughter said, we should “dooz it like THIS.”