Classical Education

09 May

Recently, I was asked to describe how I approach Classical Education, and, in particular, how CIRCE fits into that approach.  Well, the question was different, but that was the heart of the question.  So I thought I’d share my response below:

Woah, big question.  It’s kind of like asking, “How do you parent?”.  It’s not a nice tidy thing that I follow in a lock step manner and it’s always changing.  But I’ll give it a go.  :)

How do I use CIRCE as my path?  Well, firstly, it is and it isn’t a path.  CIRCE, in one sense, isn’t a path but rather inspiration from excellent speakers and writers.  It’s not a curriculum either (although they do produce an excellent writing program).  But it is a path in that CIRCE points to a direction that they believe we should be heading; a Classical direction whose primary goal is wisdom and virtue (which differs from the standard ‘line up all your duck in a row ready for university entrance’ goal).  So that’s primarily the crux of CIRCE – they are reviving Classical Education and giving teachers and homeschoolers the tools they need to join the revival.  (CIRCE’s Classical Education differs from neo-classical education, which is the umbrella the Well Trained Mind falls under; neo-classicals aim to revive academic standards.  I need to distinguish between the two as it confuses people to think about Classical Education, when the only example they have of it is the WTM).

How then do I use CIRCE to teach?  CIRCE does not offer a curriculum, or step by step approach.  Instead they offer Classical methodology, specifically mimetic teaching and Socratic discussion.  Mimetic teaching is a form of imitation. Students are invited to ‘gaze on’ a model of an idea that you wish to teach.  For example, if I wanted to teach my students about honour and leadership (this is a lesson I have taught), I would offer a story or event that showed this idea (we read the story of Shackleton and the Endurance).  That would be my model.  As we read the story, I would use Socratic questions to draw the student’s attention towards the truth about honourable leadership in the story.  (Socratic questions are essentially questions that lead the student towards truth while at the same time destroying any false ideas they may have.)    In this way, the student would learn about virtues but they would also learn about people and events.  In the Shackleton example, they would also use three of the seven liberal arts (which are grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy).  As they read the story of Shackleton, draw out honour and leadership ideas from the story, write about the idea and apply it, they would be using grammar, logic and rhetoric skills.  So the liberal arts are the intellectual skills that are used while ‘gazing on’ the ideas of truth, beauty and goodness, while in the search of wisdom and virtue.  (CIRCE doesn’t consider the liberal arts as stages like the WTM does).  This is basically my interpretation of the ‘how’ of CIRCE and Classical Education.

Does it have a bit more of a road map?  Well, not really.  It’s like CIRCE is saying, “You should visit Rome”.  How you get there is irrelevant.  The details don’t matter.  As long as you end up in Rome.  So, with my example of honour and leadership, the model we used is irrelevant.  I could have used any number of worthy people.  (CIRCE isn’t in the habit of laying out a specific ‘road to Rome’). Instead, it’s up to us to determine what story or painting or experience or event would best speak to our children as they gaze upon it and are helped to extract the truth we want them to take away from it.  And, of course, you don’t just present one example to gaze upon.  Over time, the students will be exposed to numerous models.

One criticism of this approach is that we are trying to create godly virtues without God.  But that is not so.  What CIRCE describes is an ‘ordering of affections’.  It’s teaching the children what is good and what is not, what is true and what is not, what is beautiful and what is not.  Essentially, what is God like and what is He not.  However, while on earth, with our flesh and minds, we can only experience shadows of what God is like (it’s an entirely different matter with our spirit).  So Classical Education trains our minds to dwell on the shadows of God – shadows of truth, shadows of beauty and shadows of goodness.  Looking in the right direction is the best that we can do in bringing our children to God and His ways.  It’s up to our children to reach out to the source, the author, of those shadows, and then He will show them real Truth, Beauty and Goodness (which of course is Himself).  That’s the hope of Classical Education as outlined by CIRCE.

So how do I plan for Classical Education?  In many ways, it’s pretty run of the mill but just with a different mindset.  I teach skills with a textbook or a curriculum.  The three R’s are necessary in order to access the true, good and beautiful things.  In content areas, I don’t usually start with a list of virtues I want to explore (maybe I should but I don’t; I haven’t got much experience under my belt yet so I wing a far bit of the journey).  Instead, I list the things we want to learn about – things we are currently interested in, making connections with, have a question about or should know something about.  From these concepts, people, events and places, there are numerous opportunities to see God’s shadow (truth, beauty and goodness).  For example, we’re currently focused on looking at Africa.  Last term, we chose to read about Albert Schweitzer, an unknown (to us) name that came up when I googled people linked with Africa.  When we started reading, this man’s life and work displayed so many virtues for us to gaze on.  Sometimes, like the time we read “Building a Fire”, we read about people who do not place their hope in God and who do not display truth, beauty or goodness.  In that case, the story isn’t offered as something to gaze on and turn towards.  It becomes more of a cautionary tale; as what life might look like without God in our lives.  (In order to use these kinds of models, the student must have experiences with many examples of truth, beauty and goodness, so they can quickly identify its absence.)  So, when planning, I plan in a fairly ordinary way, deciding on the content we want to study, not because I want my students to memorise and regurgitate it for an exam, but, because it may contain things of value to us – examples of truth, beauty and goodness.  Therefore, education is a bit like a sorting process for us.  We explore all manner of things and put them into categories – those things worthy of gazing upon and those things which are not.

Do I plan everything out in advance, or just wait to see where the wind and tides will take us? I’m a ‘wind and tides’ type of gal.  I have a loose plan of where we might dig, while looking for gold, but if something else comes along, I’m happy to pick up our shovels and go and investigate.  Often we have several gold mines open at once.  Imagine us picking up rocks and checking them over to see if we have a piece of black coal or a sparkling treasure (a nugget of truth, beauty or goodness).  We pocket the treasures and, after inspecting the coal, toss it back.  (Perhaps we wouldn’t be exposed to as much coal if I was more experienced with Classical Education.)  When those gold mines are completed, we head back to where we left off and continue on, until another glimmer takes us off on a tangent.  So planning on paper is fairly easy.  I merely set out in what direction we might head: a list of things that interest us or that we should explore.  To that, I add a list of good books worthy of our time.  I might also add documentaries, excursions and activities that might help us dig deeper.  I don’t dwell on specifics and they usually take care of themselves.  For us, the topic we are studying is what usually indicates what we should do with the learning.  For example, when we were learning about the Periodic Table, one of my boys decided that he was going to make one for the wall because we’d been frustrated by not being able to see what was being described in the book we were reading.  Often times, we write in response to what we have learned.  This past week, my boys wrote an essay about whether two characters in a book we read, (Tank Boys) should have disguised a German soldier and smuggled him into the Australia army.  Given our truth, beauty and goodness mindset, one of their final argument was: “In God’s eyes, all men were created equal and these Australian soldiers made the decision to love this German as themselves.”  Did they learn about the content that I wanted them to learn in the book?  Yes.  But, at the same time, they learned about something of infinitely more value.

Do I still read everything aloud to my boys?  I do because I see great value in reading aloud.  As I read aloud to both boys, we are able to engage in dialogue, which leads to greater learning.  Questions are asked, lines of thought are explored, and I can Socratically engage them in pulling out and forming ideas.  I can’t imagine how this process can happen if I send my boys away to their rooms to read by themselves.  I don’t feel like there is anyone to guide and mentor them when they sit in isolation.  Even in the classroom there is a guide, someone to lead them out of immaturity.  So, I see that as my role.  I’m not just the person who determines the path and resources they will use, I’m also the person who will walk the path with them as a mentor in the process.   As an ex-classroom teacher, I also always check back to see why certain teaching patterns began – why is independent work so highly valued in the classroom.  In my experience, independent workers were valued because they didn’t draw on my time.  I could set them a task and then get on with teaching those who needed my direct instruction.  In a classroom, or a bigger group of children, this is a necessity.  There’s nothing wrong with it but I think we have set it up as the ideal for all situations.  As a student in highschool, I remember working independently in several classes.   I completed work quickly and so the teacher told me to work ahead.  I remember it as a rather lonely experience and sometimes a difficult one.  I had to figure out new concepts without the experience and direction of a more learned person.  I could ask the teacher but she was busy with those who needed her more and so I would only ever get a quick explanation.  So, based on my homeschooling experience, my experience as a student and school teacher, sending my children off to complete their day’s work alone isn’t something that I see as valuable or necessary (given that I only have the two students).  Of course, there are exercises that each child is expected to do alone.  I’ll set tasks and expect each child to work on them but I’m always available to help.  So, during school hours, I’m not off cleaning the house or anything.

Packaged curriculum, with all their well laid plans, are a huge temptation, aren’t they.  :) And there’s nothing wrong with them, if they fit your goal.  I often have new homeschoolers come over for a cuppa and a chat and the first thing I ask them is how they imagine homeschooling to look in their home.  Some people are totally honest and say they just want something they can open and do without any fuss.  It may be because they feel insecure or they have limited time because they have to work outside the home or have a large family.  At that point in their life, simplicity and ease is their primary goal and distance ed or packaged curriculums tick both of those boxes for them.  Others imagine different scenarios and may need different resources to fit their needs.  Think of curriculum like traveling the world.  Some people want a travel agent to plan their trip and tell them where to go and what to see with all the details organised for them.  Others thrive on making their own plans, going places others might not go, and leaving things a little open ended so they can embrace unexpected opportunities.  And still others daydream about having a travel agent make their plans, but where they plan to go and how they plan to travel might not be something that travel agents can do for them.  I find myself in this latter category and, while I am tempted by all the glittering curriculums, after dabbling in many of them over the years, I have learned that they won’t take me where I want to go, and they always leave me feeling disappointed.

I think the most important thing to do at the start of the homeschooling journey is to figure out where you want to take your children, where you ‘truly’ want them to end up.  It is a journey after all, and people who journey need to know where they are headed.  In my early homeschooling years, I never really stopped to think about where I wanted education to take us.  I immediately jumped into researching methodologies and curriculum.  I never stopped to think about where we were heading and whether that’s where I wanted to go.  School and society taught me their purpose for education and I just followed along, aiming to fill the kids’ heads with facts to get them into university or jobs.   I didn’t even know there was something more we could aim for.  CIRCE were the people who introduced me to the stars, I suppose you could say.  People accuse Classical Educators of being idealists, wasting their time on stars when their feet should be firmly planted on the ground doing earthly things (like worrying about uni and jobs).  But, Classical Education reminds me of the story of Peter walking on water.  Jesus told Peter to keep his eyes on Him so he could rise above the stormy waters.  My goal is to train my children’s eyes towards Jesus so they can do more than just earthly things.  Lofty?  Sure.  But that’s what goals are supposed to be.  And if our children can ‘walk on water’ so to speak, I feel confident that those all-important university placements and jobs will be thrown in for free.  :)

So that’s my attempt at explaining Classical Education as inspired by the wonderful people at CIRCE.   :)


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