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Can you explain classical education? Many of us are at a loss for words to describe what makes it unique. If you speak to five classical educators, you will get five slightly different definitions of what a “classical education” is. But most explanations share some commonalities.

Classical education–

  • Resembles how education was traditionally handled in Western civilization up until about 1880 or 1890– but its subject matter is not limited to just Western civilization.
  • Is based on the seven liberal arts. The point of the liberal arts (liberal in the sense of liberating or “freeing”) is to free the student from the need for a teacher, by equipping them with the tools for self-directed learning.
  • All subjects are taught in all grades, but each stage has its own focus.
  • Usually is divided into the Trivium and the Quadrivium.

    Photo courtesy of Richardson Classical Academy.

    • The three stages of the Trivium are aligned with the natural development of a child, guiding them to learn what they are naturally ready to learn when they are naturally ready to learn it. These are not hard and fast divisions, but rather gradual shifts.
      • Grammar stage: Roughly grades 1-4. Students learn facts and are exposed to great stories, poems, and works of art and music. Asks, “Who, what, where, and when?”
      • Logic (Dialectic) stage: Roughly grades 5-8. The literature gets longer; students begin to notice principles and relationships; students are taught to argue persuasively in both speaking and writing.
        Asks, “Why?”
      • Rhetoric stage: Roughly grades 9-12. Students are taught logic, articulation, and often will read the “great books.”
        Asks, “How?”
    • The Quadrivium (upper high school /college level) tackles advanced mathematics, geometry, music, and astronomy (which really means all the sciences.)

Philosophy: Classical educational paradigms differ from those of standard educational paradigms. A classical education–

  • Purposefully seeks to cultivate wisdom and virtue, develop imagination, and foster true joy in learning.
  • Focuses more on the tools of learning than on the content.
  • Considers that knowledge has a purpose unto itself, and is not acquired merely for practical purposes, while simultaneously recognizing the value of practical applications.
  • Sees all knowledge as being interconnected.
  • Holds a very high view of the human person, always considering children to be fully human persons.

How it looks in the classroom: Classical education usually–

  • Is heavily word-centered, emphasizing reading, writing, recitation, and formal conversations.
  • Is often history-centered.
  • Usually includes Latin (or Greek) for development of a strong vocabulary and for logic study. Together, Latin and Greek root words account for about 80% of English words.
  • Includes narration, transcription, picture study, outdoor nature study, art, music, and opportunities to see and perform in theater.
  • Teaches formal Logic classes in middle to upper grades.
  • Teaches civil discourse directly, via structured conversations about the subject matter, through Socratic seminars.
  • Reads whole unabridged books rather than basal readers.
  • Asks the student to ponder and reflect, with questions such as, “What does this make you wonder?”
  • Expects the teacher to never stop learning.

    Photo courtesy of Corinth Classical Academy.

For more information and details, here are some recommended websites:

Understanding the Trivium (and Quadrivium):

Understanding Socratic Seminars:

More about the “great books”:

For more information on how to enroll your student in the classical education program offered at ResponsiveEdⓇ, please click here.


About the Writer:

Robin Johnston is a Classical Curriculum Specialist at ResponsiveEd, one of the largest public charter school systems in the nation. Prior to coming to ResponsiveEd, Johnston enjoyed 17 years of working as a middle and high school teacher. Johnston has a passion for classical education, specifically the subjects of English Language Arts and Reading (ELAR) and History.


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