In this article we consider the method by which we aim to instruct students and instill in them the wisdom and virtue. This method includes a discussion of the foundations of a classical Christian education, a discussion of pedagogy, and a consideration of the content and skills to be taught.
Five Foundations of Classical Christian Education
The Association of Classical and Christian Schools (ACCS) has a helpful list of five foundations of classical Christian education. After each of these foundations we have briefly explained how we understand and attempt to implement each one at School of the Ozarks.
- Age Specific Learning
The resurgence of classical Christian education is heavily indebted to a 1947 essay by Dorothy Sayers entitled “The Lost Tools of Learning.” In this essay, Sayers suggests that children learn differently as they age and mature, and that education is more effective when it takes into account the child’s frame of learning. She identifies the poll-parrot, the pert, and the poetical. In the poll-parrot stage, children enjoy memorization, songs, chants, repetition, and hands-on learning. In the pert stage, children become more argumentative and enjoy debating various viewpoints. In the poetic stage, children enjoy talking and communicating ideas. Sayers’ suggests that these three frames for learning correspond well to the three stages of the Trivium: Grammar, Dialectic/Logic, and Rhetoric. She proposes a correlation between the poll-parrot and the grammar stage, pert with the dialectic stage, and poetic with the rhetoric stage. Classical Christian education, then, attempts to match teaching styles with learning styles according to these categories.
- Time-tested method and content
Another foundation of classical Christian education is its return to time-tested method and content. This approach does not entail a rejection of all things new, but it does recognize that these new methods and content have not yet had the benefit of the test of time. They also have been viewed only through the lens of our cultural age. Older works, however, have the benefit of time and a variety of cultural ages to judge them. Those works that stand the test of time prove themselves to be worthy of continued study. This test of time is one way many attempt to define the Great Books. These Great Books, along with the time-tested methods, serve as the starting point for classical Christian education.
- All subjects point to God
Since all truth is God’s truth, classical Christian education teaches all subjects from a Christian worldview, meaning that when rightly understood, these subjects all point us back to God. As we propose above, since all truth is God’s truth, good education must begin by recognizing and relating rightly to him as God in all areas of life, including all subjects in school. Only from this worldview can we pursue any discipline of study with any lasting hope of success.
- Academically rigorous
Classical Christian education strives for excellence in all areas, from content to pedagogy to growth in wisdom and virtue. As such, we cannot expect to be excellent without hard work. Classical Christian education is academically rigorous, and unapologetically so. But academically rigorous does not always mean quantity of work. Rather, wrestling with the Great Ideas of history as discovered in the Great Books is taxing labor, but rewarding. Classical Christian education aims to be rigorous in the pursuit of truth, so that we might be well-trained for whatever we encounter.
- Nurturing community
As mentioned in Chapter 1, classical Christian education ought to be a holistic education of the head, the heart, and the hands. Consequently, we cannot succeed in this task in an environment of educational slavery. As teachers and schools, we are not taskmasters, but rather coaches that help guide students through the process of learning. We aim not to be harsh (though discipline will be necessary), but we do aim to be nurturing. We aim to build community. At School of the Ozarks, we speak of ourselves as a family. This nurturing community helps encourage students, foster growth, and exhibit Christian fellowship, but all the while balancing this community with high expectations and academic rigor.
Pedagogy and Particulars
One important question in understanding classical Christian education relates to the focus of instruction in an attempt to move students toward wisdom and virtue and the good, the true, and the beautiful. The question relates to whether pedagogy or particulars get the focus in the curriculum. Another way of stating the question is to ask whether the most important thing is what is being taught or how it is being taught.
Seven Laws of Teaching
One work that has received significant attention in classical Christian schools is The Seven Laws of Teaching by John Milton Gregory. In this work, Gregory lays out seven laws and explains why they are helpful guidelines for teaching effectively. The work, first published in 1886, predates modern ideas of education and therefore serves as a helpful “return” to what classical Christian educators believe is a more effective style of teaching. We highly recommend the work for those interested in understanding these laws more fully, but below is a brief summary of the law and its principle as outlined in the book.
- The Law of the Teacher: The teacher must know that which he would teach.
- The Law of the Learner: The learner must attend with interest to the fact or truth to be learned.
- The Law of Language: The language used in teaching must be common to teacher and learner.
- The Law of the Lesson: The truth to be taught must be learned through truth already known.
- The Law of the Teaching Process: Excite and direct the self-activities of the learner, and tell him nothing that he can learn himself.
- The Law of the Learning Process: The learner must reproduce in his own mind the truth to be acquired.
- The Law of Review: The completion, test, and confirmation of teaching must be made by reviews.
Ten Pedagogical Essentials of Classical Christian Education
Christopher Perrin of Classical Academic Press has proposed ten essentials of classical Christian pedagogy that we at School of the Ozarks have agreed are helpful and attempt to institute in our own classrooms.
- Make haste slowly (festina lente)
- Deep is better than wide (multum non multa); master a few things rather than cursorily cover many things that will be forgotten.
- Repetition is the mother of memory (repetitio mater memoriae)
- Learning is embodies; the form is as important as the content
- Songs, chants, and jingles should be used for most important content
- Wonder and curiosity
- Educational virtues: love, humility, diligence, constancy, and temperance
- Provide adequate time for reflection, contemplation, and discussion of profound and important ideas
- By teaching, we learn (docendo, discimus)
- Let the Great Books master us as we read them again and again (optimus magister bonus liber est)
In an attempt to educate our students faithfully and effectively, we use a variety of pedagogical methods that take into account the seven laws and ten essentials outlined above, as well as the frame of the learner as proposed by Dorothy Sayers.
Harkness Discussions (Rhetoric; occasionally at Dialectic Stage)
Harkness discussion, also called student-led discussions, are designed to encourage not only student participation in the class, but also student discovery. We recognize that learning does not end when we finish formal school, so in order to become lifelong learners, we need to learn better how to discover knowledge for ourselves. To use an earlier metaphor, we need to teach our students how to navigate the river of knowledge, not simply collect it and distribute it for them. The Harkness discussion method requires students to do reading in advance, usually asking them to annotate the text they have read. Students are then placed in groups from 6-12 and begin a conversation with the aim of discovering and sharing knowledge with peers. Typically, though not always, the teacher is a part of this circle and may at times guide the conversation with focus questions or prompts that get the conversation in the direction of major points that should be discussed, but the teacher is minimally involved otherwise. The Harkness method is an excellent way of gauging student understanding of the material read and discussed in class, and it also serves as an excellent way to develop skills of speaking, debating, and small group communication. As many careers require this kind of collaboration and discussion, this method is not only a great pedagogical tool, but also immensely practical for everyday life.
Socratic Seminar (Dialectic & Rhetoric)
The Socratic seminar has many similarities with the Harkness discussion as it requires significant student involvement through conversation regarding reading and previous class content. A Socratic seminar is primarily faculty rather than student led, yet the instructor still speaks far less than a lecture. In a Socratic seminar, students will typically sit around a table with the instructor who leads the discussion through a series of focus questions, occasionally pausing to provide necessary background information or clarification of what an author says in a text or what another student has shared. This method is utilized in seminar format classes that students will occasionally have in college and will certainly have in masters and doctoral level classes. This does not mean the content or discussion is beyond the reach of younger students, only that the format is utilized in those arenas of higher learning because of a recognition of its pedagogical benefits.
Socratic Dialogue (Dialectic & Rhetoric)
Socratic dialogue is a pedagogical method of asking questions that help students discover answers for themselves. In this respect, it has affinity to Harkness discussions and Socratic seminars, though the teacher involvement is much more direct and it often requires more one-to-one contact with the student. If this method is utilized in a larger classroom setting, it looks like only one student at a time responding to an instructor’s question, rather than students engaging with one another as the previous two methods employ. Nevertheless, though less students are directly involved at one time, all students can glean from answers given by others students and can individually consider their own answers to the instructor’s questions even if not called upon to respond publically.
Lecture (All Stages)
The lecture is often the most common form of teaching in other schools, and there is good reason for this fact. Primarily lecture is prominent because of its superior ability to deliver content in an organized and more comprehensive manner. However, lecture remains the method by which students typically retain the least information. Lecture, nonetheless, does have a place when utilized properly. Often, we will utilize lectures to communicate necessary background content or to teach students a particular concept of theme that we will then expect them to build upon through other pedagogical methods. For example, a literature instructor may lecture on a the historical background of an author and her work, then again on a key theme that is utilized in the work. Henceforward, however, the instructor will utilize the other pedagogical methods in which students, having the necessary tools in place through the lecture, can now discover for themselves while reading the text and discussing with fellow classmates.
Academic Coaching (All Stages)
Academic coaching is the pedagogical method in which instructors ask students to perform some academic task (e.g., a math problem on the board) and the instructor coaches the student by pointing out what he or she did well, completed incorrectly, and/or how to complete the task more completely, efficiently, or precisely. As with sports, academic coaching involves practicing the academic task and receiving feedback from the instructor so that the next attempt gets nearer the end goal. This approach is highly effective but limited in scope as an instructor can only help a handful of students at most at any given time.
Skills and Content
Although pedagogy may take precedence, particulars cannot be ignored. In some ways this statement is obvious, for there must be some material (particulars) in order for there to be a pedagogy at all. But when it comes to particulars, we once again have a question of emphasis. Should the emphasis be on content such as dates, people, facts, and more, or should one teach and hone skills in the student?
In order to help students pursue wisdom and virtue in their education, we believe that students must learn both skills and content. In many cases, the skill to be learned (e.g., analyzing written material to determine an author’s main point) is more important than any particular piece of content the student may learn. This approach stands directly reversed from public schools, and even many private schools, which often place content that can be assessed on a standardized test as the most important. However, we would argue that an emphasis on pedagogy and learning skills will actually produce students who, when they graduate, also retain more of the content than students from content-driven schools.
One must admit, however, that not all skills are easily taught, nor are all skills easily transferrable across disciplines. For example, one who has been trained on reading skills in literature may still find certain reading analysis difficult when picking up a primary source in history or a work of theology. Although the practice of reading and analyzing has begun to develop a skill in reading analysis, different disciplines have different vocabularies, genres, and writing styles. What is lacking in this discipline shift that makes reading harder? Core knowledge—or in another word, content. Certain core knowledge is often assumed by authors as basic information and vocabulary within their discipline, and until a student learns that core knowledge, certain aspects of reading will be more difficult. Nevertheless, we should not therefore assume that a student who has trained well in analytical reading in literature would have no advantage over a reading novice in reading a theological work. The combination of core knowledge and the development of learning skills, in this case analytical reading, helps students become more educated. For this reason, we do not teach skills or content but rather skills and content.
One way to organize these skills of learning is to break them into five categories: history, rhetoric, reading, reasoning, and fine arts. These categories are not subject specific, although one would certainly use more history skills in a history class and more reasoning skills in a math class. Nevertheless, each of these skills play a role in each subject, though one class may carry a greater burden of developing this skill while another puts it into practice. Figure 1 below serves as a visual representation of these skills.
With respect to Core Knowledge, the required reading and subject matter of any school’s curriculum guide helps identify the elements of Core Knowledge they think students should explore in order to be well-educated. However, below are several books we recommend to introduce students or parents to some of the Great Books and Great Ideas covered in a classical Christian curriculum.
- Mortimer Adler: The Great Ideas
- Susan Wise Bauer: The History of the Ancient World; The History of the Medieval World; The History of the Renaissance World; The Well-Educated Mind
- Louise Cowan: Invitation to the Classics
Sayers’ complete essay can be found in Appendix B.
John Milton Gregory, The Seven Laws of Teaching (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2014).
Christopher Perrin, “Ten Pedagogical Essentials of Classical Christian Education.” Accessed from https://www.veritassavannah.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Ten-Pedagogical-Essentials-of-Classical-Christian-Education1.pdf. Also helpful from Christopher Perrin: idem., An Introduction to Classical Education: A Guide for Parents (Camp Hill, PA: Classical Academic Press, 2005).