A Brief History
The origins of classical education lie in the instructive approach of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Greek scholars considered the development of reason and rhetoric, along with the cultivation of wisdom and virtue, the primary purposes of education. During the Middle Ages, European monastic and cathedral schools adopted and refined classical pedagogy, and by the sixteenth century it was the standard form of education throughout the Western world. Some of the world’s greatest innovators, thinkers, and leaders, including Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, William Shakespeare, Martin Luther, and C.S. Lewis were classically educated.
Teaching the Trivium
The word trivium means “the three ways,” and was first used during the medieval era to refer to the three components of classical study: grammar (mastery of knowledge), logic (ability to reason), and rhetoric (eloquent communication). While all three disciplines are taught at all grade levels, grammar is emphasized in grades one to four, logic in five to eight, and rhetoric in high school.
Grades JK – 4
The grammar stage builds a solid academic foundation. Children have a natural ability to readily absorb large quantities of information. They find memorization enjoyable, and happily sing and chant phonics and grammar rules, math facts, Latin vocabulary, the names of the continents and oceans, and the important events and dates of history. Grammar school education focuses on the absorption of facts and rules, and lays the foundation for the logic stage.
Grades 5 – 8
By fifth grade, children begin to think more analytically, to ask “why,” and make connections. During the logic stage, students explore cause and effect relationships and the way facts fit together into a logical framework. In the seventh grade students begin to study both formal and informal logic. Teachers encourage debate, and students are called upon to explain their reasoning. For instance, in history students go beyond learning what happened during the War of 1812 to understanding why the War of 1812 occurred, and in math students progress from concrete arithmetic to more abstract algebraic concepts.
Grades 9 – 12
High school students learn to apply factual knowledge and reasoning skills to express their thoughts and conclusions in clear cogent language. Students of rhetoric learn to analyze historical and current issues, formulate arguments, and articulate them effectively in both written and oral expression. With a solid foundation laid, advanced sciences and mathematics are more easily mastered; history is applied to economics and political science, and Biblical studies focus on theology, worldview, and apologetics.
Integration and Continuity
Each stage of the trivium corresponds to a four-year teaching sequence using the chronological study of history (Ancients, Middle Ages, Renaissance and Reformation, Modern) as the organizing anchor. Students move through the events, peoples, and worldviews of world history three times, each time at a more complex level. Subjects are integrated as much as possible. When appropriate, students read the literature of the time period, and write about it, study the art, music, science, and religion of the period, and learn the geography of the places studied. Such integration results in a holistic coherent learning experience, so students enthusiastically engage in their studies. Careful sequencing in all subjects provides continuity from junior kindergarten through high school.
Distinctive subjects taught in a classical Christian school are Latin, (see the article Why Teach Latin?) logic, rhetoric, Biblical studies, theology, and apologetics. Throughout their school years, students of all grades study the great works of literature. Reading and writing are integral parts of the classical curriculum. Classical schools train students in the command of language – both oral and written. Phonics, grammar, and writing skills are taught in a thorough and systematic manner.
In 1947, Dorothy Sayers, a pioneer of modern classical education, observed, “…although we often succeed in teaching our pupils ‘subjects,’ we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think.” Classical education reaches beyond the acquisition of knowledge to develop skills that are essential throughout life – the ability to think critically, communicate eloquently, and learn independently.
For more information on the classical method of education refer to An Introduction to Classical Education: A Parent’s Guide by Christopher A. Perrin.