What Is Classical Education
Classical education is a fairly traditional form of instruction that has become somewhat widespread over the years, both in homeschools and in charter and private schools.
Rooted in the principles laid out during late antiquity by one of the early developers of the liberal arts, Martianus Capella, the overarching goal of a classical education was to not only provide students with a well-rounded education, but to create capable and independent thinkers who are able to critically assess the world around them and allow them to be fully functioning members of civic society.
In the 20th century, the classical approach was re-popularized by a number of educators and influential individuals, most notably writer Dorothy Sayers, whose essay “The Lost Tools of Learning” subsequently formed the basis for a number of classical schools in the US.
Today, the term encompasses a relatively broad study of liberal arts and science subjects and a wide variety of classical curriculum providers and programs have emerged for homeschools to choose from.
Notable Features Of A Classical Education
Although there are a wide variety of classical education-based programs out there, both for homeschools and traditional schools, most tend to have a rather unique approach to student learning and division of their subject matter, known as the Trivium.
Based on a foundation for education laid down millenia ago in ancient Greece, the trivium divides educational progress into three stages – the Grammar stage, the Logic (aka Dialectic) stage and the Rhetoric stage.
For many (though not all) classical curricula, each stage tends to span several grades and are thought to roughly correspond with certain stages of human development and capacity for learning, which we outline below.
Grammar stage (approx. K-4) – “Knowledge”
The earliest stage in a classical education approach is known as the Grammar stage.
This stage is mainly focused on helping students develop their core and foundational knowledge for subjects that they will build upon and explore in subsequent years.
Recognizing that students under the age of 11 or so tend to be more concrete thinkers and may struggle with abstract concepts and reasoning, curricula at the Grammar stage tend to focus more on teaching facts and tend to rely more on rote memorization and repetition as reinforcement.
Lessons, for example, may have students doing a good deal of spiral review, memory work with flash cards, sing songs, chant, learn helpful mnemonics and more.
Logic stage (Grades 5-8) – “Understanding”
At the upper elementary to middle school grades, the focus of teaching in a classical homeschool program or classroom shifts to a more analytical style, emphasizing understanding, reasoning and critical thinking over simple rote memorization skills.
This is in line with the student becoming older and more mature, but also in line with developmental milestones that occur at this age.
At this age students are beginning to be more capable at handling abstract thoughts and concepts, are able to see the world from different points of view, begin to be able to more clearly express themselves and begin to naturally question the world around them and the information they receive.
In a classical program, a subject’s lessons tend to work with these changes by including, for example, more critical reasoning exercises, teaching students to construct and identify reasonable and coherent arguments to help better debate and discuss ideas and introducing compare-and-contrast tasks.
Rhetoric (Grades 9-12) – “Wisdom”
Finally, at the high school level, a classical educational program tends to work to integrate the previous two stages.
To do so they tend to combine knowledge and facts with critical reasoning and proper analysis to help students learn to express themselves clearly and eloquently, argue considered opinions more rationally and help them properly form conclusions from presented evidence.
Curricula at this stage, therefore, tend to focus more on written and oral communication skills, often through exercises such as critical and persuasive essays, oration and debate, Socratic discussion, application-based exercises, critical reasoning questions and so on.
A Note About The Trivium In Classical Homeschool Curricula
Although nearly all classical educational programs draw inspiration from the trivium model, not every program is as clear cut about it (especially homeschool programs, which tend to be more traditionally iconoclastic).
While some follow the Grammar-Logic-Rhetoric progression very strictly, others may introduce elements from one stage to another, such as by teaching critical reasoning skills and logic in the grammar stage, or beginning to work on oration skills at the logic stage.
A Focus On The Liberal Arts
Inspired by traditional learning, a classical education curriculum tends to have more of a focus on the liberal arts, i.e. giving students a broad familiarity and understanding of history and social studies, literature, music/art, logic, science and math.
While the particular focus a classical program places on any given subject can vary quite a bit, particularly with homeschool curricula, by and large there tends to be a stronger emphasis on developing language arts and history than other approaches used today.
The Great Books
Similarly, classical programs tend to make use of a literature-based approach to learning, which supplements textbook learning with authentic and relevant literature to help explore and explain concepts.
While not particularly uncommon in the homeschool and teaching world, classical curricula tend to stand out due to their frequent inclusion and study of the Great Books.
These Great Books are classics of the Western world that have helped shape Western thought, culture and society in a significant way and may include titles such as the Iliad, Don Quixote, various Shakespearen plays, Ulysses and so on.
The overall idea behind the use of these books in a classical model is to help students get a better understanding of Western civilization and thought by analyzing the societies, ideas, perspectives and values of the past.
Classical Language Study
One thing that tends to make a classical education-based approach quite a bit more distinct than others is when it comes to language study.
Most classical programs tend to encourage students to learn a classical language in addition to English language arts.
Traditionally, students in classical programs are expected to learn Latin and/or Greek, which allow them to study many important philosophical and historical texts in their original language and form the basis of the Romance languages (e.g. French and Spanish), in addition to being the origin of many English loan words.
In recent years, however, many classical education programs have introduced alternatives to these languages.
As a notable example, Biblical Classical programs may encourage students to learn Biblical Hebrew in order to better understand the Bible as it was written.
Virtue And Moral Instruction
Like Charlotte Mason and some other approaches to teaching, classical education also places a strong emphasis on developing the whole child.
In other words, a classical homeschool curriculum will work on developing stronger character in addition to building knowledge and understanding.
For example, Christian classical curricula will generally emphasize and instill biblical tenants with a particular emphasis on teaching and instilling the “classical virtues,” e.g. prudence, temperance, justice and fortitude, faith, hope and love.
More secular homeschool classical programs, on the other hand, might emphasize more humanistic or universalist values such as honesty, inclusiveness, patience, grit, courage, tolerance and so on.
Pros and Cons of A Classical Homeschool Approach
Classical education more closely follows the natural stages of childhood development
Perhaps more than many other educational styles, classical education tends to take into account the way children develop naturally.
It recognizes, for example, that younger students often have a harder time grasping abstract concepts and are essentially primed to absorb information while also accounting for the fact that older students will begin to question the world around them and will have a desire to convey their thoughts and conclusions to others.
As a result, those using a classical homeschool curriculum will tend to work with a child’s development and needs, rather than against it.
There tends to be a stronger emphasis on history and language arts
Combining a literature-based approach with works from Western canon means that classical education programs more often than not tend to have a strong emphasis on history, literature, reading, grammar and spelling, and later on analysis and rhetoric.
Given that students are later encouraged to study classical languages, this can also mean that students are able to study relevant texts in greater depth.
This can make the approach particularly suitable for homeschools and parents who are interested in developing a stronger base in these subjects.
There is a strong emphasis on critical thinking and logic
Especially at the upper elementary through high school range, there is a stronger emphasis on critical analysis and thinking in classical educational programs compared to many others, which can help students become more capable and well-rounded individuals in the long run.
Classical homeschooling can be a very engaging and active
Classical educational curriculum tend to be fairly active and engaging, with students engaging in socratic dialogue, discussing ideas, reading and debating literature, engaging in public speaking exercises and even singing or chanting back facts at the Grammar stage.
As a result, lessons in these programs tend to be a lot less boring and present fewer opportunities for students to zone out compared to traditional lecture approaches.
Stronger emphasis on memorization and repetition at younger ages
At the grammar stage of a classical program, i.e. the lower elementary grades, there tends to be far more of an emphasis on getting students to learn facts through memory work, which can be a little frustrating for some students.
A classical homeschool can be parent intensive
Classical homeschool curricula tend to involve a number of activities and techniques for teaching in addition to direct instruction, such as the Socratic method, debate and discussion, essays of various types that need to be corrected and graded and so on.
As a result, parents do need to be more involved in and present during lessons than with some other approaches, a time commitment that can be an issue for those with busier homeschool schedules.
Math and science will need extra attention
Although it can vary quite a bit depending on the particular program and curriculum, for the most part classical education tends to focus a great deal on the liberal arts, particularly history and language, which means that parents will have to pay extra attention to make sure that STEM subjects are adequately covered.
Classical education tends to be a little more rigid
Traditionally, classical education-based programs tend to follow a specific developmental path and, being fairly traditional and top down, tend to follow their curricula pretty closely.
As a result, there tends not to be quite as much liberty for parents and students to deviate and explore topics in their own way.
Classical Education Homeschool Resources To Look At
Elemental Science (K-12)
Elemental Science is a neutral homeschool science program rooted in the classical education approach.
Divided into Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric stages, the program incorporates interesting science readings, research work, experimentation and hands-on activities, optional memory work and more to cover biology, physics, chemistry, Earth science and astronomy in an engaging manner and in a considerable amount of depth.
Noeo Science (Grades 1-8)
Noeo Science is a faith-neutral and somewhat eclectic homeschool science curriculum that integrates elements of Charlotte Mason teaching into a classical approach.
The program is divided into the classical Trivium, covering the Grammar and Logic stages, and begins with a thorough introduction to scientific terms and facts before learning to expand on them with deeper experimentation, analysis and discussion.
To teach its material, the program uses a wide variety of activities and techniques, offering students an extensive book list, vocabulary work, experiments and hands-on activities, journaling and more.
The Story of the World (Grades 1-8)
Created by the author of The Well-Trained Mind, The Story of the World is a very popular and widely used classical homeschool history curriculum.
In keeping with a classical approach to history learning, the program is divided into four distinct volumes (Ancient Times, The Middle Ages, Early Modern and Modern Times), and includes a variety of important historical stories, legends, poems and even primary documents for students to examine and analyze.
The program also includes a wide variety of hands-on learning activities to go with the reading, including arts and crafts, mini-projects, map work, flashcards, timeline work, reviews, discussions and more to keep students actively engaged in their learning.
Simply Classical Spelling (K-2)
Published by Memoria Press, Simply Classical Spelling is a spelling program originally aimed at students with learning disabilities but fairly widely used due to its highly effective, multisensory approach.
Divided across two volumes, the program combines focused repetition, visualization techniques, oral recitation, hands-on work and more to help students carefully and sequentially learn short word lists and become stronger spellers in the process.
Well-known providers of classical curricula to consider
Well-Trained Mind Press
Susan Wise Bauer’s The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home is widely considered the go-to guide for classical homeschooling, offering parents a comprehensive and step-by-step advice and guidance on implementing the principles of classical education.
Building on its popularity, Bauer founded the Well-Trained Mind Press, a publisher that offers classically-aligned curricula for students in Kindergarten through College, with full programs ranging from grammar to creative writing to math and beyond.
The website also hosts a highly informative, useful and sometimes entertaining homeschooling forum that both veteran and new homeschooling parents can make use of.
Classical Conversations is a Christian homeschool curriculum provider for homeschooling families.
The company offers both co-op-style community classes and individual classical curriculum resources that cover the K-12 range.
Through its Foundations, Essentials and Challenge programs, the company covers the classical trivium and offers resources for teaching math, science, language arts, Latin, history, social studies and even fine arts.
The company is known for producing fairly rigorous curricula with a strongly Christian outlook, as well as fostering a strong sense of community and structure in its group classes.
Compass Classroom is a Christian provider of online educational classes and learning materials for homeschooling families
The company offers a number of video-based classical educational courses that are taught by teachers, professionals and even professors in their respective fields, covering topics such as Classical Rhetoric, Latin, History, Logic, the Great Books and much more.
In addition to its video courses, the company also offers resources such as student books, teacher’s guides, exams, workbooks and more, as well as access to an interesting and highly moderated social media-style community.
Veritas Press is a popular and respected provider of classical education curricula with a tightly integrated Christian worldview.
Based on the classical Trivium, the company has an extensive catalog of online, self-paced courses and curricula in history, phonics, bible studies, language arts and more, and offers complete K-12 grade-level curriculum packages that cover the full suite of math, language arts, science and social studies learning.
Through its Veritas Press Academy, the company even offers a full suite of live, accredited online classes, taught by actual teachers, for pretty much all K-12 courses.
Memoria Press is a provider of classical Christian curricula for both homeschools and classrooms, offering resources for teaching subjects such as Latin, History, Language Arts, French and more.
Its Core Curriculum provides packages for families of pre-K – grade 10 students that contains all the resources needed to teach a complete grade with a classical approach, as well as a fairly comprehensive teacher’s manual to help put it all together.
In addition to these grade-level solutions, the company also runs an school (Memoria Press Online Academy) offering live, online classes in a wide variety of courses and even a complete high school diploma program that families can enroll in.
Jennifer Keenes is a writer and a new mom living in Florida. She studied education and, prior to becoming a freelance writer, worked as a substitute teacher at the elementary and middle school level. She is a big fan of the beach, working out and homeschooling her two daughters.
About the Author
Anne Miller is the editor of The Smarter Learning Guide and is a passionate advocate for education and educational technology. A mom of two, she majored in English Language and Literature and worked as a substitute teacher and tutor for several years. When not writing she continues to root for the Yankees and the Giants.