What do you mean by Classical Education?

The following is a continuation of my previous post.

About a month ago, I was visiting my cousin on a trip to Richmond to do some research, and in the midst of some casual catching up, I started sharing the news that my wife and I were homeschooling. And I mentioned that we were pursuing a classical model of education. My cousin, Jeff, and his wife, Tracee, are both well-educated, parents of four and founders of the Da Capo Institute. On top of that, they are both professionally trained musicians. In other words, they are both on the sharp edge of sharpness, and Tracee nailed me with the question I wasn’t prepared to answer: what do you mean by classical? I wiggled my way out of that one, somehow, but I had to admit that I really didn’t know. I thought I knew something or other about it; I liked the idea since it sounded cool and I’d always heard classical was the way to go, but for the most part, I had only vague generalizations floating around in my mind. So when the opportunity to learn about the classical model presented itself, I jumped at the opportunity.

As I mentioned in my last post, on April 17, my wife and I were able to be schooled in classical education by the NC State Manager for Classical Conversations, Lisa Bailey. We participate in a local chapter of Classical Conversations. The stated purpose of this organization is to

lead the home-centered education movement by equipping parents and students with the classical tools of learning needed to discover the order and beauty of God’s creation and to inspire others to do the same (from the CC website).

Lisa came to further instruct us in the classical model and to inspire us to persevere. The following is basically a summary, with a little paraphrase, and some of my own commentary mixed in of her presentation. I hope this can serve you as a source of information for what we’ll be doing and what you may consider doing for your children. The concluding post of this series will be what I think homeschooling is (juxtaposed with with I think homeschooling is not from my first post).


What do you mean by Classical Education?

Classical education is a model of learning based on the Trivium, or three ways of learning: Grammar, Dialectic, Rhetoric. When we speak of the trivium, we are not limiting ourselves to language arts. Each of these three ways of learning correspond to three stages in the development of the human mind. Grammar corresponds to the developmental stage from pre-K to around grade 6. During this stage, the student learns primarily through the accumulation of knowledge. The Dialectic stage corresponds to the assimilation of knowledge and analysis of information which leads to understanding that occurs around our grades seven and eight (approx. ages 9-11). The final stage of development, or the Rhetoric stage begins about age 12 when the students mind is best able to use judgment in not only learning new material, but communicating subjects persuasively. This is understanding applied, or wisdom. These three stages also correspond to the steps from reading to writing to speaking. One also finds that in each stage, there are particular tools for learning being used by the teacher and skills for learning being developed by the student.

Prima facie, this model appears to correspond to elementary school, middle school and high school, respectively (could there be a reason for that?). So what’s the big deal with the classical model? Let’s dive deeper into each “stage.”

Grammar, or Knowledge, Stage

In the most basic understanding, a Grammar for a given subject is its vocabulary of facts and rules. The end goal is mastery of the Grammar of each subject. So, in this stage a student is being inundated with information. The beautiful thing is that children at this age are most adept at learning concrete information en masse.  Such mastery can be compared to memory pegs on which more information and still later analysis and connections can be hung. Imagine your child is getting ready to climb a rock-face cliff. You, the teacher, are placing the anchors securely in the cliff for her so that it will hold her weight. Since education is life-long, you can imagine  that your daughter would be climbing this cliff daily for her whole life, or that the height of the cliff is several miles, or that there will be a whole team of climbers. Whatever it is, it is the strategic placement and the quality of the hold that are analogous here. Your child might not be able to understand why they are learning such a deluge of information of this age (and they won’t be asking “Why?”, at least in the academic sense, at this age anyway), but the better they understand the content, or the placement of these anchors, the better they will remember where they are in the future, and the more successful will be their climb.

The tools for mastery of the Grammar stage are fundamentally related to memorization. This is achieved by the combination of repetition, duration, and intensity. For instance, this stage is 6+ years long and requires, inter alia, the daily repetition of 160 history timeline events in world history. After reciting these perhaps 500 times by age 10, the student is able to plug any event or person in any subject into a timeline in their head. A horizontal timeline all of a sudden becomes broad. This is also a necessity for Math, student won’t get algebra, much less calculus, if the effort isn’t made at a young age to memorize multiplication tables or master simple math. Keep in mind though that memorization can and should be made fun and accomplished creatively.

The skills being created developed this stage are reading, listening, writing, and reciting.

Once a student has mastery of the Grammar of each subject, she is ready for the second stage…

Dialectic, or Understanding, Stage

“Why?” Well, I’m glad you asked. Actually, the end goal of this stage is to develop within this student not just the desire to ask why, but to develop  tools for answering the question themselves. What is meant by Dialectic is the assimilating of knowledge and the connecting of ideas. The student is encouraged to question, to reason, to think critically about all of the information in which they have been submerged during the previous stage. They are “learning to think!”

Tools for this stage include discussion, coaching, modeling and correcting. Skills to be developed include reasoning, critical questioning, analyzing, evaluating, abstract thinking, comparing/contrasting. This stage is a critical step between rote memorization and putting it all together to be able to communicate. Which is something that begins to really happen in the next stage…

Rhetoric, or Wisdom, Stage

If you really think about it, it is this stage that sets the classical method apart. If these stages were taken paradigmatically for every learning model, one would find that even though most teachers aim for dialectics, they rarely leave the grammar stage. Sadly, I find this to have been the case with most of my post-secondary education 😦 .

Commentary aside, this stage is the apex of all three. If dialectics is grammar assimilated, then rhetoric is dialectics applied. The end goal of rhetoric is an independently motivated learner and effective communicator. In this stage, the student learns to love learning (though this is being instilled throughout)–the student begins pursuing Truth, Beauty, and Goodness.

The tools that the teacher use are “they” asking questions, “they” leading discussions, introducing new subjects, and new applications of subjects to their world. Skills being developed are good judgment, effective expression, persuasive communication, and a vocabulary of philosophical categories and ideas.


This is classical education in a nutshell. I didn’t even go into how each subject is approached through each stage, which is very informative of the approach. There are numerous resources on the web for the classical model. You can see how we will be doing it with Classical Conversations online as well. Let me know if you have any questions, because your question may lead me to grow in my understanding of this model as well. In my next post on the subject of homeschooling, I will tell you what I think homeschooling IS.



Add yours →

  1. That is some excellent writing Wes.
    It was well formed, with a solid structure and a clear message presented and reinforced throughout. I would have liked to hear about some personal examples, and some successes as well as short fall and known failures with this approach.
    If you apply the model to music and even “commenting”, you might even experiment and come up with something like the Da Capo Way: Passion, Discipline, and then Application are the way to Love Music, Learn Music, and most importantly LIVE IT. http://www.dacapova.org/aboutus/Whatwedo/dacapoway.html

    Nice job Wes!

    • Thanks, Jeff!

      I’m still on the short end of the program, but I’ll share more as we come along. Still, I may give an example or two from the method Classical Conversations takes. Let me think about it! I still need to critically assess what we’ve been learning.

      I’m diggin your approach at Da Capo. Thanks for the link. Love it! Learn it! Live it!

      Love ya cuz


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