Classical Education – Educational Theories Defined Part 5

Part of a series Edu Theories DefinedClassical Education seems to be rising in popularity, but it isn’t the next new thing. It’s been around longer than any of the other theories I’ve studied so far – by thousands of years.

What I didn’t know was that Classical Education was behind every other theory – either in enhancing the creator’s ideas for taking it to the next level (TJEd and Charlotte Mason) or in causing a reaction against it to create something new (Waldorf and Montessori).

When was Classical Education created?

The name classical education means more than just an education of enduring excellence. It carries more weight than to just provide a term of quality to the education. It is not the same as traditional, where traditional means education as we have always done it, or classrooms with desks in rows and standardized testing.

No, classical education has deep roots in the Classical Period in history and continues to tie the present to the past by it’s high value on studying the way the Greeks and Romans did. (1)

It was in the Middle Ages that the term trivium was understood to mean the 3 ways of the Classical Model which are: grammar, logic (or dialectic), and rhetoric. (1)

What is the theory?

Classical Education is a system of giving and receiving instruction that is organized into 3 stages. The 3 stages are called the Trivium: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Through these stages, the goal of Classical Education is for learning to form the inner person with wisdom, truth, and beauty. (2)

Along with the trivium as a guide, Classical Education still focuses heavily on learning latin and reading classics. Susan Wise Bauer, author of the well-known classical education guide: The Well-Trained Mind, goes on to explain that the trivium is more than simply a pattern for learning, and reading is more than just an exercise of learning. The use of language-learning focuses on words – written or spoken – which requires the brain to work harder in order to understand than the use of image-learning. (3)

But Classical Education isn’t just about reading, it is to be experienced too. Shawna Howell, of Classical Conversations, says that God designed the mind to function in 3 distinct stages – 1st: knowledge (grammar), 2nd: understanding (logic/dialectic), and 3rd: wisdom (rhetoric). All things from walking to talking to learning lessons happen in this order. She gave a personal example of how these three stages can be applied to all of life – learning to clean – that even as an adult she recognized that she was in the grammar stage. She went back to the first things in order to learn to do it the right way. (5)

Above all, Classical Education is systematic. Studying 3-4 time periods (depending on the publisher or author’s preference) in cycles. Using a 4 time period cycle as an example, the earliest ages 7-10 would go through Ancients, Middle Ages, Renaissance and Reformation, and Modern Times with the purpose of just remembering the facts, then ages 11-14 would repeat the cycle with the intention of asking questions and making connections, and finally ages 15-18 would repeat the cycle one last time with the goal of communicating their own position and teaching it to others. (3)

Every subject is linked to history and systematically studied. The goal for the student, as Susan Wise Bauer says is:

Systematic study also allows the student to join what Mortimer Adler calls the “Great Conversation” — the ongoing conversation of great minds down through the ages. Much modern education is so eclectic that the student has little opportunity to make connections between past events and the flood of current information. “The beauty of the classical curriculum,” writes classical schoolmaster David Hicks, “is that it dwells on one problem, one author, or one epoch long enough to allow even the youngest student a chance to exercise his mind in a scholarly way: to make connections and to trace developments, lines of reasoning, patterns of action, recurring symbolisms, plots, and motifs.” (3)

How is the theory applied?

There are many publishers and educators who use and promote the Classical Education model. They vary greatly in the focus given to one or more of the items of the trivium. They are:

Why choose not to use this theory?

“Progress.” Between 1900-1950, the classical model of education was being replaced by newer ideas from the works of John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Progressive Education stands in sharp contrast to Classical Education. (1, 4)

Locke believed that “truth and knowledge… arise out of observation and experience rather than manipulation of accepted or given ideas”.[1]:2 He further discussed the need for children to have concrete experiences in order to learn. Rousseau deepened this line of thinking in Emile, or On Education, where he argued that subordination of students to teachers and memorization of facts would not lead to an education. (4)

Comparing and contrasting Classical Education to the other theories defined so far – the main difference is the focus on the way the mind guides learning in Classical Education. It isn’t a measure of behavior or development (Waldorf), it isn’t based on interests (Unschooling or Interest-Led), and it doesn’t wait for the love of learning to transform the student’s efforts (TJEd). The stage within Classical Education that is cause for the greatest debate is the grammar stage.

The grammar stage is for memorization and learning basic skills; it is the stage where information connections begin to take place. Critics say that memorization is no longer necessary. But Classical educators reply that memorization is not only useful for knowing facts but also it is the means of laying a good foundation for the use of knowledge in the dialectic (logic) and rhetoric stages. One benefit of the grammar stage is practice. One classical educator’s criticism of other educational models that avoid memorization is that they often produce insecure students during the middle school and high school ages. (5)

Within the homeschool philosophy, many people understand that there needs to be a great influence on individuality in learning – even the encompassing of many different theories into one homeschool practice – the fundamental issues of debate for or against Classical Education are the emphasis on memorization and the use of latin. But I believe it is possible – and is even being achieved in homes across the world – to bring the Classical and the Progressive to a compromise.

Additional resources:


  2. Notes from Cathy Duffy’s session “Classical Education, Unit Study, Charlotte Mason, Unschooling: What Approach Should I Use?” at the Great Homeschool Convention (GHC) 2015
  5. Notes from Shawna Howell’s session “Ignite a Love for Learning – Teach Student’s the Way They Were Designed” from the GHC 2015

If you have been or are Classically Educated, please let me know! What other resources would you recommend to someone interested in Classical Education?

This is theory #5 in the series on Educational Theories Defined. To see the index, click here.

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