The Classical Method vs. Modern Education Theory

Trivium Grammar Logic Rhetoric
The Trivium consists of Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric — Image credit: Book of Threes Blog http://bookofthrees.com

In public education, there is always a new theory on how to educate.  New theories, their proponents, and their materials, very expensive materials, dominate public teacher training and affect public teacher’s evaluations.  However, I had the opportunity to observe two other teacher’s high-functioning public first grade classrooms this week.  I noticed right away that the other teachers were using what I would call classical methods to get the students engaged and interested.  They used charts of letter sounds and words and pointed to the chart so the students could recite, which is a basic memorization technique of the grammar component of the trivium.  Then they used a whiteboard (child of the black board) to write phonemes on the board and teach blending. (For more on the trivium and quadrivium, as well as commentary on their origin see the Book of Threes blog).

Meanwhile, our current district curriculum emphasizes every child reading their own book at their own level, and allows teachers to hit phonics and blending for ten minutes in the middle of the day.  Of course children should learn to read their own books!  But many in my class have not learned enough phonics to read independently — and will they ever if I allow them to sit starting at the pictures in a book they can’t read?  Expecting them to learn to read their own books with minimal scaffolding in phonics and blending isn’t realistic. The classical method (not to mention the old classic book Why Johnny Can’t Read) has the answer.

This is a related problem to the constant demand for what is called “Higher Order” questioning in public school classrooms.  (For a brief discussion of Bloom’s Taxonomy and the leveling of questions see the Methods of Curriculum blog). The “higher order,” interpretive and evaluative questions are the ones principals think students need.  But teachers complain that you can not ask interpretive questions until students have basic knowledge of the facts. In the end it becomes a tug of war.  Really the students need both.

In the modern education mentality there seems little attention above the level of the classroom faculty devoted to the fact that it is a problem if the basics of the subject, say phonics and blending in first grade, are not taught to mastery to all students.

Yet I notice that whenever I find highly effective teaching going on, there are components of that teaching which we can consider classical.  I wonder if school boards are considering that, while they are buying expensive new curriculums, the bedrock of the school curriculum, the fundamentals — phonics, writing, speaking well, numeracy, courtesy — remain unchanged for hundreds of years.  If we just accepted these basic methods and used them year after year, professional development could focus on adding “bells and whistles” that make each year different and exciting, without having to reinvent the wheel and exhausting people with new and largely untried methods. I wonder if many have considered that if the students mastered these basics they might  begin to build up to the higher order thinking more effectively, that “before you run you have to walk.”  That is what I have observed happening in classical schools.  School boards should take note!

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