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

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!

Phonics Full Class Intervention

The core of my classical instruction methods has always been the phonics program I learned when I taught my son to read in 4th grade.  The Orton-Gillingham phonics program works on the basis that in English there are specific letters and pairs or groups of letters that make just about all the English spelling patterns.  If the student masters these, they will be able to decode text.

When I got my first grade class into the classroom this year, I assumed that they would know at least the “first 26” phonograms — that would be the letters of the alphabet and their sounds.  But many did not know these, and some were struggling with the phonetic principle itself.  The modern educational theory for correction of this problem would be teaching the letters one letter, one day at a time, or even one letter, one week at a time.  That’s just not going to fix the problem soon enough!  Teach all 26 phonograms daily right away and in about 2 weeks some of your students will begin reading, and by the end of 2 months some will have gone close to a year in reading ability.

To perform this whole class intervention, years ago I created a powerpoint with each phonogram presented in sequence.   The class sits on the carpet, the teacher shows the PowerPoint on the smart board or projector, tells the students to look at the letter in green, and speaks the sounds the letter makes, indicated on the left column below the letter.   The class then repeats the sounds.  Words which are examples of the sound are presented in the right column.  This drill is performed perhaps two or three times, for about 5 minutes, every day.

You can download the first 26 letter powerpoint for free on my teachers pay teachers store here.  (Note:  I just removed the direct download link from the original post below and put in the link to Teachers Pay Teachers today, 12-30-16) Since I started the drill two weeks ago I have noted several students beginning to read on their own spontaneously.  I expect to see the rest of the class move into the group of “readers” as the weeks go one, some more quickly than others — but with the right instruction, every child in the regular education classroom can and should read in first grade.


Top Websites for Classical Educators

This will have to be a work in progress — the fact is that if you put “classical education” into the google search box you will get a variety of sites.  These were some that seemed particularly helpful and well-produced:

The Well-Trained Mind offers a book, web forums, advice on how to get started on the most basic level, and a long and interesting discussion on the work of Charlotte Mason.  Also: the Well Trained Mind Academy, an online instruction project.

The Circe Institute site provides a fine introduction to classical education, sells the teaching materials The Lost Tools of Writing, and hosts an annual conference for teachers in classical schools, as well as offering a blog and a newsletter.

Classical Christian Homeschooling  contains an introduction to classical homeschooling with a Christian perspective, and includes a description of the trivium and quadrivium along with a discussion of classical learning theory.  It is linked with the organization’s new site which includes slightly different content on the same theme.

Classical Conversations is building a network of homeschooling families using a pre-designed classical curriculum … good discussion of what a classical education is for young students can be found here …

American Classical League is the professional organization for Latin and other classics teachers in the U.S.  They have extensive classical teaching materials available for sale as well as information on the national Latin exam and discussion forums on Latin teaching practice.

If you know of a blog you believe should be added to this list, feel free to comment below.




Review: The Harp and the Laurel Wreath by Laura M. Berquist

The Harp and the Laurel Wreath by Laura M. BerquistThis book, designed mostly for home schoolers, could be of interest to classroom teachers as well. It lists poetry and dictation examples for use in memorization, recitation and dictation by age of students.  The selections the author chooses are organized in order of age, from preschool (The Early Years) to primary (the Grammatical Stage) to middle school (Dialectical Stage) to high school (Rhetorical Stage).  The poetry selections for primary are quite appealing, and include Robert Lewis Stevenson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, among other writers who are perfectly appropriate for a public school classroom but who have been neglected in favor of more “current” but far lower quality work.

I found most interesting the introduction to the book, titled “The Importance of Poetry.” Berquist states quickly and outright that “the appreciation of fine arts is formative for the soul,” a basic tenet of classical education. She then goes on to speak about the impact of the Platonic Triad — the true, the good, and the beautiful — and how “if children are disposed to love the beautiful they will be disposed to love the truth … ”

This has had me thinking all weekend — I thought I taught my kids to appreciate fine arts and beauty, but they still have trouble with moral theology.  Perhaps this will be a source of a future post.

Be that as it may, Berquist has created a useful reference with many poems that are appropriate for all elementary students, and I’m definitely going to bring this one to the classroom this year.

Classical Education: Is it really necessary to study ancient language?

With so much talk about classical education in the edusphere, an increasing trend is noted toward a classical style of education as opposed to, say, actual learning of ancient languages.  But does one need to study classical languages, Greek and Latin, to engage in a classical curriculum?   For example at well known Ridgeview Classical Academy, the website states,

Ridgeview remains classical by upholding the same standards of teaching, of curriculum, and of discipline found in the schools of old. Indeed, we teach English as a classical language. Ridgeview thus takes stock in the “tried and true” rather than in the latest fads popping out of the nation’s schools of education.

Meanwhile, Hillsdale College’s Charter School Initiative says yes … in a excerpt from A Classical Education for Modern Times, by Terrence O. Moore:

“Unlike the old classical schools, today’s classical schools do not make the medium of instruction Latin and Greek (though to be classical they must require the study of Latin at some point).

The good thing about a classical education is that the foundation is all there:  in history, you can just look it up . So in regard to the question, whether one can have classical education without classical language, I propose we consider the past:

The history of classical education typically includes the following moments:

Ancient Greece

Ancient Rome

Medieval Europe

Renaissance Italy

England from the Renaissance to World War II

America from the Revolution to World War II

All of these but the first emphasized the teaching of foreign language.  All except the first two emphasized Latin as a second language.   (Roman school, of course, offered Latin as a first language and Greek as the second).  So why might some in the classical school movement wish to dispense with the requirement to study foreign language, and specifically Latin?  The reason is simple: Because it’s very difficult to teach foreign language effectively in the modern world with the currently available methods, doubly so with a language with no native speakers.  What to do about this?  Should we emphasize classical methods instead of classical language, or perhaps figure out how to master classical language instruction?  The question begs a further blog post … later.



Classical Education in the News — July 6th, 2015

Classical Education news this week:

In Texas, the first graduating class of Founders Academy in Lewisville includes a National Merit Scholar and the 21-member class as a whole wins $800,000 in scholarships.

In California, the John Adams Academy, a classical charter school, buys a building that previously belonged to the local junior college.

Marva Collins, famous inner city classical educator, passed away.

In Georgia, freelance writer Dan Kurtz tries to alert his local Savanahites of the work being done at inner-city Savannah Classical Academy, and suggests that a classical education can liberate citizens from generational poverty.

And, to round up the list, blogger Gregory Pappas in the Pappa Post, debunks the claim that Greek was the founding father’s second language.


What is Classical Education?

When I started with the goal of practicing “classical education” in our home school my aim was simple – I would to do away with all the worthless dross that had been added to my own public school education in the 70’s, put in a highly focused and performance based set of activities, and thereby have the time and the energy to do all the things I wanted to do with my children, art, music, hiking, etc.  It would be classical simply because it would get down to the basis of what it meant to be educated, and wouldn’t waste time with stuff they didn’t need.  Since my husband was a classicist, with a nascent interest in classical education, we figured we would crown the process with Latin studies.  I concentrated on “teaching to mastery” whatever we covered.  In math, they had to learn the material to 80% on their tests or redo it.  In reading and science, we discussed the material to make sure they understood completely.

Back then no one asked us what classical education was, so I never had to explain that I didn’t know.  The education was classical because it was rooted in tradition (whatever that meant) and we worked harder and faster than other home schoolers and included mythology in our studies – “the classics.” To me classical education always had “high seriousness” so I added that too … we weren’t just doing our own thing; although I always respected the unschooling movement, I knew it “just wasn’t me.”  We used no computers.  They didn’t have them in antiquity and anyway I believed that they were, generally, destructive to intellect.  My two oldest thrived on this curriculum.

Later, when I began working with my third child, we discovered that  he had dyslexia.  I found that explicit and highly focused phonics instruction of the type promulgated in the book The Writing Road to Reading was necessary for him to learn to read.  But still, our philosophy of “teaching to mastery” was fundamental and I taught Writing Road to him until he mastered the 70 phonograms, written from oral administration and spoken from sight.  He did learn to read properly and today, as a young man, he is able to do his college level work without undue difficulty.  I added “explicit phonics instruction” to my definition of classical education.

Eventually I found my home schoolers moving on to college and prep schools, and I myself entered, for pragmatic reasons, a public school classroom as an elementary teacher.  I brought my knowledge from classical homeschooling to my classroom.  Using these methods, from the beginning, my students were successful.  Since it seemed teachers and administration at the school spent untold hours trying to figure out how to accelerate learning for our students, I wanted to share with colleagues that my students were successful because of classical education practices.  But I still didn’t know how to simply explain what classical education was.

I believe it was Rousseau who said “Writing is a way of finding out.”  So this blog is such an attempt:  to find out what classical education is … and perhaps what it isn’t.  This blog will seek to bring that information to a world which is desperately in need of this knowledge.  The reason to do this, to quote Susan Schaeffer-Macaulay, is “For the Children’s Sake.”