Jean McDermott: What is classical education?

Published 8:20 am Friday, October 6, 2017

Jean McDermott

Pacelli Catholic Schools

In the spring of 2015, the Pacelli Visioning Task Force – comprised of 22 members of the Austin community and representing a wide range of educational and employment backgrounds, including both public and parochial school educators – concluded that our school should formally adopt the classical, Catholic educational model.

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In 2015-2016, K – 12 curriculum was reviewed with a classical lens. Based on this review, in 2016-2017, Pacelli Elementary School adopted Singapore Math and a more phonics-based reading program, Super Kids. Latin was integrated, in developmentally appropriate ways, into all grades K – 12.  A team also spent time visiting both private and public classical schools in Minnesota and Wisconsin to learn from those who are already immersed in the classical tradition.

Upon the suggestion of several of these schools, we have turned to Dr. Christopher Perrin to help guide us during the 2017-2018 school year in a year of professional learning for teaching staff in classical pedagogy.

Dr. Perrin is working with Pacelli staff via webinars that focus on the 10 essential principles of classical pedagogy.  The principles are not complicated; in fact, they are immediately recognized as common sense and basic insight, yet somehow, we miss and neglect them.

These principles are summarized below:

•Festina lente: We must make haste slowly, mastering each step rather than rushing through content.

•Multum non multa: It is better to master a few things than cursorily cover content that will be forgotten.

•Repetito mater memoriae: Lively, regular review and repetition makes learning permanent.

• Embodied learning: The rhythms, practices, traditions, and routines we create are just as important for learning as our front-of-the class instruction.

•Songs, chants, and jingles: The most important content/skill we wish to create should be taught or reinforced with a song, chant, or jingle.

•Wonder and curiosity: We should seek to impart a love for truth, goodness, and beauty regularly by modeling our own wonder or love of that which is lovely.

•Educational virtues:  We should seek to cultivate virtues of love, humility, diligence, constancy, and temperance in the lives of students.

•Schole, contemplation, leisure: We should provide adequate time for reflection, contemplation, and discussion of profound and important ideas.

•Docendo, discimus: By teaching, we learn; older students should teach younger students to master material; you don’t truly know something until you can teach it.

•Optimus magister bonus liberest: The great books contain enduring wisdom and excellence that make them masters that will master us as we return to them time and again; we expose students only to the best literature.

A “classical education” might sound old-fashioned and obsolete, but a growing number of K-12 educators would argue the opposite. At the heart of a classical education is a reliance on methods and practices of instruction that reach students at their developmental stage. Commonly referred to as the trivium, the three phases of instruction in a classical education are grammar, logic, and rhetoric.

The grammar phase emphasizes the teaching of the mechanics of language, including foreign languages, to the youngest of students. Teaching techniques focus on the memorization of information and facts; the developing brains of elementary-aged children excel within the concrete world and are adept at memorization!

As children mature, so does their ability to reason, which is the focus of the second phase of the trivium. The logic phase teaches middle school children to take factual knowledge, analyze it, and identify arguments that are valid versus those that are not.

The third and final phase, rhetoric, fosters the development of higher-order thinking skills, including abstract thought, as well as oral and written communication skills among high school students. Students learn how to effectively communicate complex thought through debate and the writing of persuasive essays, skills they will rely upon in college and beyond.

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