Friday, June 10, 2005

What is Classical Education?

Although the expression “classical education” is often an unfamiliar one to families in this day and age, it is a time-tested educational approach dating back to ancient Rome which achieves academic excellence by laying a firm foundation of language and math, training students to think clearly and critically, and to eventually express themselves effectively through both verbal and written means. A strong foundation of learning will be pursued through content-rich classical education methods, which will be followed both in the classroom and at home.

Classical education in founded on the concept of the Trivium, or the three stages of education. Each stage has a method of education which is developmentally suited to the age of the students, and which builds on the previous stages.

The first stage is the grammar stage, which occurs during grades K-6. It is this foundational stage that SLO Classical Academy currently emphasizes. During this stage, the child’s mind is like a sponge, eager to soak up facts. Thus, curriculum is chosen which is filled with hearing and reading stories, memorizing poems, learning spelling rules, chanting math facts, and learning about characters from history. While the program is often rigorous, learning these facts, however, is not dull, as the methods used to teach them focus on creative teaching and students’ natural interest in the world around them. The goal is the mastery of the fundamental skills of reading, writing and math, wed with a broad introduction to music, art, science and history. In addition, students will be encouraged to study Latin with a recommended local teacher.

The grammar stage is an important time in a child’s development, as it will lay the foundation for the rest of their academic career and life. Mastery of the fundamentals can be hard work, yet done well, children love it, and will more deeply develop their love for learning as the skills they are acquiring continue to open up the world around them. In order to accomplish this, we also incorporate some of the specific learning methods of classical educator Charlotte Mason. It was Mason’s belief that each child is valuable, and must be taught and respected as a person. She believed that language was the best tool of learning, and this is incorporated into school in a couple of key ways. The first is through the reading of living books versus textbooks. Living books include the original source documents and well-written fiction and non-fiction. Thus, this educational method encourages immersing the child in good literature rather than textbooks, which is far more stimulating to the mind and soul. Secondly, Mason’s belief was in the value of whole class discussions in seminar format rather than lecture format. Again, this stimulates learning and thinking and encourages participation in these educational processes. It is our goal at SLO Classical Academy that this form of discussion occurs in our classrooms. In addition, Mason encourages good writing skills which promote creativity and self-expression, developing skills in observation (teaching children to observe and enjoy their world), and a focus on speaking skills through the retelling of what one has read, learned, seen, etc. A distinguishing component of Charlotte Mason’s classical approach is the value of the world of the child. She emphasizes a balance of the child’s learning day must be free for creative exploration and play.

Parents should expect to help their children work hard, and are encouraged to teach their children with a certain level of structure. At the same time, the curriculum is so rich in content, that parents are also encouraged to develop the love of learning through hours spent in good books, in nature and in following children’s natural desires to explore the world (and subjects) around them. It is our goal that this program allows for the success of every child and family, and we expect this to look different depending upon each child. We desire each child to achieve at the highest level possible for that individual, and while the curriculum does require a standard of learning which matches and exceeds the California State Standards, we also expect to personalize the program for each child according to his or her own interests, abilities and styles of learning.

Completion of the grammar stage sets the foundation for the following two stages. During the dialectic stage, grades 7-9, students will develop emerging abstract reasoning skills, and will have the factual foundation on which to build these skills. They will continue to make connections between all the facts and subjects they have learned, but at a more rich and complex level. During the rhetoric stage, grades 10-12, students will have the thinking skills necessary to develop an ability to express themselves clearly and persuasively in writing and speech. In the end, they will be equipped to reach their own conclusions and express themselves with confidence.

There is an increasing amount of research demonstrating that students who are trained classically perform exceptionally well on college entrance exams and are well prepared for life choices after high school. We encourage you to spend time studying Classical education further as you consider this method for your child.

There are many excellent resources on the internet and in print which describe classical methods in great detail.

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