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3.01 A Call to Revive the Pedagogy of Our Tradition



Many of us have entered into or are just now entering into classical Christian education with pedagogies already shaped, for better or worse, by prior learning and teaching experiences. You might say that we have stumbled into this movement with pedagogical hangovers. So it is worth considering what we have imbibed.

In 1905 Andrew Carnegie established the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching with an initial endowment of 10 million dollars intended to fund pensions for college professors. Leaders of the foundation commandeered the endowment to instead invest in educational reform. Troubled by the challenge of objectively assessing the aptitudes and abilities of applicants, and displeased by the unpredictable array of freshmen college performance, the foundation sought a mechanism for measuring a student’s preparatory school experience. They introduced the concept of a “unit” – defining one unit to be a one-year course of five instructional periods per week, then leveraged this academic accounting device with hopes of achieving unification and consistency. The implied pressure of accountability caused schools to organize days into countable experiences: units, courses, and periods. Thus was catalyzed the modularization, standardization, and measurement of success that still burdens us today (Tyack and Cuban, 1997).


The administrative progressives of the early 20th century attempted to further standardize learning (Tyack and Cuban, 1997), including the standardization of buildings and equipment, professional qualifications of staff, administrative procedures, social and health services and regulations, and other educational practices. Yet the progressives also maintained a strong commitment to child-centric education wherein curricula is differentiated to fit the backgrounds, needs and destinies of particular students. Critics of the progressive movement cite the lack of a common telos or end as making the movement susceptible to diversion and failure. From a classical perspective, the movement placed the child at the helm of the ship without a compass pointing toward any transcendental concept of truth, goodness, and beauty.


By the middle of the 20th century a diversity of unequal learning experiences had emerged. Inequalities in educational experiences largely corresponded to the social and economic inequalities of the time. Thankfully cases such 1954 Brown versus the Board of Education catalyzed campaigns to bring equal educational opportunities to minorities and even students with special needs. New initiatives aimed to equalize the experience of all students through a commitment to teaching “the basics.”


In 1957 the Cold War intensified with the Soviet’s launch of Sputnik. Fears of global insecurity and instability began to drive reformers to double down on teaching the basics: science, mathematics, and foreign languages. The dull and disorderly young of the nation now needed rigor, discipline, and higher cognitive expectations.


Unfortunately, for the next 20 years, reform was compromised by: teachers untrained to manage student discipline; teachers lacking coherent philosophies of education; schools facing little accountability to standards of student achievement; and a proliferation of elective courses that imposed upon the instructional minutes of core subjects.


By the early 1980s reformers sought a mechanism to prevent the perpetual “dumbing down” of students. They agreed that minimum standards of competency must be established – standards that would hold schools accountable to prioritizing and going “back to the basics.” State departments of education applied pressure on teachers through the mandatory minimum competency testing of their students. Teachers began to teach to the tests. Commissions analyzed testing results to determine students’ competencies and weakness and then published corresponding recommendations for further reform.


In 1983 the National Commission on Excellence in Education published A Nation at Risk, addressed to the U.S. Department of Education, wherein the commission declared, “We have, in effect, been committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament.” Reform now also took on the concern of making our nation more economically competitive by making our educational aims and emphases for utilitarian.


Discourse in the late 1980s and early 1990s focused on test scores now including international measures of achievement such as TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) and PISA (Program for International Student Assessment). American students were compared to those of top performing countries like Japan, Singapore, and China. In their book The Learning Gap: Why Our Schools are Failing and What We Can Learn from Japanese and Chinese Education(1992), authors Stevenson and Stigler describe America as being in an educational crisis with a poorly educated workforce compromising our nation’s productivity and economic competitiveness.


Throughout the 1990s, examination of motivations, beliefs, attitudes and practices in the teaching of mathematics and science in particular, resulted in a growing consensus of critique published in formal reports and scattered across the shelves of our bookstores, including conclusions such as: teachers compromise their pedagogy in order to rush to the end of oversized textbooks; teachers exclude and de-emphasize content without considering longer-term effects; a lack of content mastery limits teachers to piecemeal, prescriptive, and incoherent instruction; our ability-based culture excuses students from struggling their way into enduring understanding; and teachers wait too long to engage students in logical and persuasive argumentation. Yet these conclusions did not translate into corresponding reform because the critique called for a reform of teachers’ pedagogy, educational philosophy, and subject matter mastery – three things that cannot be transformed through simple fixes of new texts, content standards, standardized tests or more money.


While most educators continued hoping that reforms would eventually develop an informed and economically competitive citizenry, Christians had already been looking our their windows at the culture wars of postmodernity and the rise of moral relativism creeping in. Christian parents wanted their children to be more than a member of a productive and informed workforce - more than a cog in an economically competitive machine. The grassroots and countercultural phenomenon of classical Christian education thus emerged. 


Chris Schlect of New Saint Andrews College has described this emergence as follows: “Born out of the culture wars of the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s ardent Protestants mobilized around family values and strident critique of mainstream culture. Some sought to reform American culture through political and legal channels, introducing new battles over curriculum, vouchers, and charter schools. Others set about the task of building countercultural institutions leading to a dramatic rise in homeschooling and Christian school startups. Christian hoped to avoid problems in mainstream education by searching the past for inspiration and models, giving particular attention to Dorothy Sayers’ 1947 address, “The Lost Tools of Learning.” Classical Christian education thus emerged with an emphasis on interpretations and applications of the medieval Trivium – interpretations strongly influenced by Sayers.


While our 21st century schools continue to bob up and down upon the changing tides of ineffective educational reform, while pedagogical pendulums continue to swing to the changing rhythms of emerging fads and best practices, and while any coherent foundation of truth, goodness, and beauty erodes at a landslide pace, we now find ourselves a part of this grassroots movement called classical Christian education. Yet our roots may not be as firmly planted as we might hope them to be.


Much work has been done in the last few decades to recover and articulate the content (the what) and aims (the why) of classical Christian education. However, most efforts to articulate pedagogy (the how) have been limited to an unnecessarily restrictive commandeering of the Trivium. Resultantly, the critiques that I have already offered against the instructional methods of the last century too often also apply to our own instruction. So hearing these critiques let us respond by:  treating our textbooks like resources not prescriptions; collaborating with others in order to make better decisions about the content we include and emphasize; re-committing ourselves to learning the content we teach more deeply and conceptually; letting ourselves be continually transformed by the truth, goodness, and beauty we are encountering; teaching grammar, logic, and rhetoric to all students at every grade level; purposely designing lessons wherein students struggle and learn through problem solving; and engaging students while they are still young in the art of speaking persuasively and eloquently.


To be both classical and Christian, we must do more than respond to the charges of the last 100 years of confused reform. We are not simply trying to graduate baptized modern productive workers ready to compete in our global economy. We must let our pedagogical roots grow deeper – plundering our way through the topsoil of recent reform, even through the early years of our own movement, into the depths of our ancient and medieval tradition. Classical schools are a part of a tradition with a history deeper than the last 100 years of reform. Our history prioritizes a kind of teaching and learning that cultivates wisdom and virtue and orders affections.


The pedagogical topsoil of our movement is an interpretation of the Trivium that prescribes three narrowly defined stages of instruction reflecting three stages of cognitive development. This interpretation, suggested by Dorothy Sayers in 1947, is helpful but it is also slightly misguided and in need of a serious theoretical update.


The order of the Trivium was first determined by convictions about the nature of knowledge not by Piaget’s or Sayer’s theories. George Kennedy, in his book Classical Rhetoric and its Christian and Secular Tradition form Ancient to Modern Times described two different sequences of the Trivium. Ancient schools progressed from grammar to rhetoric to logic while medieval schools progressed from grammar to logic to rhetoric. The medieval ordering was based on a philosophical view that there exists at all ages a cycle of discovering knowledge dialectically and then expressing it rhetorically – a more integrated view of the Trivium than a segmentation of the Trivium into cognitive stages.


Yet there does indeed exist some serendipitous correspondence between the medieval grammar-logic-rhetoric sequence and 20th century cognitive stages theory. Children do grow in ability over time to think abstractly and communicate persuasively. Students do learn to assign meaning to concrete experiences, then associate this meaning with symbolic representations, then construct original statements or ideas composed and expressed in these symbols, then connect statements to form arguments, then arrange arguments to cohere logically, and then color these arguments with beautiful and persuasive language. However this progression does not represent limits, boundaries, abilities, or inabilities that constrain teaching and learning. You might say that the Trivium offers us not three stages but rather one cycle of learning.


Contemporary science is revealing a mind and brain that develops much more dynamically than the Trivium could ever describe. Esther Thelen and Linda Smith, professors of psychology and cognitive science at Indiana University, offer us this metaphor: “According to Piaget, the developmental revolutions in cognitive structure control and pervade all of cognition. …All of cognition does not move forward in lockstep. Cognitive development does not look like a marching band; it looks more like a teeming mob (Thelen and Smith, 1994).” Young children can contemplate and learn from abstractions, even make transitive inferences. Our youngest students are more than just “concrete thinkers” stuck in a “grammar stage.” Children do not develop according to the strict parameters of cognitive stages. Instead they develop more dynamically as they make sense of their environment (Dynamic Systems Theory).


Children are capable of abstract and imaginative thought and are often captivated by it. This should not only influence what we teach but also how we teach it. A pedagogy that limits itself in its earliest years to didactic presentation of facts to be memorized and procedures to be rehearsed makes no account for our students’ incredibly plastic, imaginative, affective, liturgical and dynamic brains and bodies.


Let us stop attempting to spin, tweak, and adjust our interpretation of the Trivium to extract a classical and Christian pedagogy. Instead, let us ask anew, how now shall we teach? The ancients and medievals, as well as the master teacher Christ himself, have no prescriptions to offer us but their practices and values do paint for us a picture of teaching as an art form that: begins in incarnation, is grounded in relationships, is invigorated by contagious affections, stops to wonder, employs imaginative storytelling, engages in Socratic conversations, and includes plenty of movement and formative liturgy. This is the picture of teaching classically and Christianly that we will explore over the course of the next modules.


  1. What kind of pedagogical hangovers are your recovering from?

  2. What danger is there in limiting our pedagogy to a compromised interpretation of the classical Trivium?

  3. I have described teaching as an art form that begins in incarnation, is grounded in relationships, is invigorated by contagious affections, stops to wonder, employs imaginative storytelling, engages in Socratic conversations and includes plenty of movement and formative liturgy. How does this description resonate with your own convictions about teaching?



Gutek, Gerald. An Historical Introduction to American Education

Kennedy, George. Classical Rhetoric and Its Christian and Secular Tradition from Ancient to Modern Times

Stevenson, Harold and James Stigler. The Learning Gap

Sayers, Dorothy. The Lost Tools of Learning

Tyack, David and Larry Cuban. Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform

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