What is the Classical Model of Education and how does it apply to art? What’s a model of education to begin with?

In this podcast episode, Deanna and Julie discuss three hallmarks of a Classical education: Valuing methods over content, the Trivium, and Subject Integration.

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Things We Mention

The Lost Tools of Learning

Since I mentioned it in this episode, and I personally reference it often, I’ve created a downloadable PDF copy and an audio copy of Dorthy Sayers speech, “The Lost Tools of Learning” just for you! The speech is available widely in the public domain (there’s even a free Kindle version) but I have added my own footnotes to the copy I created for you. If you know of anyone who would benefit from this document, please pass it along.

The Classical Model of Education


Episode #23 Highlights

What is a “Model of Education?”

  • The underlying ideas about learning and teaching (beliefs and assumptions- theory and values)

What Do We Mean by “Classical?”

  • Classical refers back to the Golden age of Greece (485-330?) with Socrates, Plato and Aristotle
  • Classical Education is often contrasted with John Dewey’s model of education, which is often labeled as Industrial, Progressive, Pragmatic, or Modern.
  • Current education is often a blend of different educational models.

The Hallmarks of the Classical Model of Education

  1. Methods before Content
  2. Trivium
  3. Subject integration

1. Methods Before Content

  • HOW to learn is more important than WHAT to learn
  • The subject matter is important, but it comes after the skill of learning
  • This is in contrast to an education focused on pre-employment skills.

The Benefits of Knowing HOW to Learn:

  • It grants you freedom to learn any subject you may need to learn in the future. This allows and encourages life-long learning.
  • It gives you confidence in yourself.
  • It gives you confidence as a teacher / homeschool mom.

How Does This Relate to Art?

  • This is why I say anyone can teach art… and anyone can teach any subject! Once we know HOW to learn, we can all pick up a new subject and learn alongside our students.

2. The Trivium; The Three Ways

  • “Trivium” is a Latin word that means ‘the three ways’ (or roads, stages, methods, arts…)
  • The three ways represent the three brain processes or types of learning / training:
    • Grammar: Input knowledge
    • Dialectic / Logic: Process the knowledge for understanding
    • Rhetoric / Poetic: Output the understanding for communication with others
  • Young children are primarily in the Grammar stage, but as adults we move back and forth between the types of learning
  • This structure creates a learning environment where the teacher can gracefully admit when they don’t know everything!

The Grammar Stage

  • Train the brain to retain information
    • HOW to memorize- How to input the knowledge of each subject
    • We’re memorizing good content for each subject but the focus is on HOW to memorize, not WHAT to memorize
  • Focus on the fundamentals of each subject, building blocks- Every subject has grammar: definitions, lists, formulas, dates…

The Benefits of Memorizing the Basics of a Subject

  • It forms a foundation / framework for future learning
  • Knowing the basics and the terms helps the brain grasp and notice concepts (Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon or the Frequency Illusion)
  • It gives us a common language with others (great even for a prodigy)
  • It may feel like a slow way to learn, but it’s actually much faster than learning through experimentation
  • Memorizing terms is a very doable way to start to learning a subject.

How Does This Relate to Art?

The visual arts have their own grammar:

Don’t be intimidated by this list! Most of these are intuitive and there’s a lot of overlap!


The Dialectic / Logic Stage

The Question Classical Converstaions

  • Train the brain to reason
  • In this stage, we use the 5 Common Topics to help us ask quality questions and begin deep discussions: Definition, Comparison, Relationship, Circumstance, and Testimony / Evidence.
  • This wrestling with the subject results in a rich and nuanced understanding of the topic.
  • Questions in the grammar stage look different from questions in the dialectic stage
    • In the Grammar stage, questions are a desire for more information. Students often accept the answers as facts and move on to the next request for more information.
    • In the Dialectic stage, students want to debate and argue. They’re wrestling with the ideas and testing the answers, trying to prove them wrong or insufficient.
  • In the Dialectic stage we want to teach our students HOW to ask questions politely, (overcome self-centeredness), have a formal debate without simply attacking the other person, approach a subject logically

How Does This Relate to Art?

  • We need to show students drills and techniques and then give them time to play with and practice them, without any expectations
    • In modern education, we sometimes ask students to produce an artistic masterpiece without teaching them the grammar or showing them how to practice drawing with various drills. This only works if the student was born with a natural ability to draw.
  • We can have in-depth discussions about the role of art and the impact of art.
  • We can view and discuss a piece of art. (Visit museums, look in books…)

The Rhetoric Stage

Leigh Bortins - The Conversation

  • Train the brain to express
    • HOW to express wisdom (the true, the good, and the beautiful)
  • This is not the same as the modern use of the word, which implies manipulation and propaganda. Instead, “Rhetoric is the use of knowledge and understanding to perceive wisdom, pursue virtue, and proclaim truth.” (The Conversation, by Leigh Bortins, p.38)
  • In this stage, we use the 5 Cannons of Rhetoric: Invention, Arrangement, Elocution, Memory, and Delivery.

How Does This Relate to Art?

  • In this stage we create expressive works of art, speak convincingly about art related topics and teach art. We dance between the stages, teaching what we know.

Going with the Grain

  • These stages / types of learning go along with the brain development of children:
    • Grammar stage (younger than 8-10 years old)
    • Dialectic stage (around 8-10 years old through 13-15 years old)
    • Rhetorical stage (around 13-15 years old)
  • In the visual arts, do not expect student produce a work of art prior to instruction and extensive practice.
  • These stages or types of learning are cumulative, not sequential! As adults, we dance back and forth between them

3. Subject Integration

  • Classical Education makes subject integration a priority.
  • Cross reference as many subjects as possible to deepen understanding of all subjects
  • Some modern educational models are based on a segmented or silo approach. However, soils are artificial. In reality our world is integrated.
    • Segmentation is a form of simplification because it’s impossible to talk about everything at once. However, oversimplification is unhelpful. We have to hold a tension between the two, dancing back and forth and doing both: simple and integrated
    • Don’t take integration to an extreme (STEAM)
  • Integration is a little easier in a mentor / mentee model, where the teacher is teaching all the subjects.

Once you have this framework for HOW to learn, you can use it to learn any new subject! 

In our next episode (published every 2 weeks) we’ll talk about the Grammar of Art and what we call the 7 Elements of Art.


 

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