The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home

by | Aug 1, 2000 | Education, POLITICS

When I began to write this review, I hemmed and hawed about where to begin. Flipping through the meaty 764 pages, I was amused to note that the authors began the section entitled, “Using The Well-Trained Mind Without Losing Your Own” with the upfront statement, “This is a very big book.” That fact alone is […]

When I began to write this review, I hemmed and hawed about where to begin. Flipping through the meaty 764 pages, I was amused to note that the authors began the section entitled, “Using The Well-Trained Mind Without Losing Your Own” with the upfront statement, “This is a very big book.” That fact alone is what makes the book highly daunting, and at the same time, refreshingly complete as a curriculum guidebook.

The book puts forth a systematic method and suggested curriculum for 12 complete years of study built around the Trivium–a 3-staged language intensive approach to Classical Liberal Arts education. Although traditionally Christian, the principles of the Trivium are universal. It is a deliberately hierarchical approach which, indeed, yields independent learners with well-trained minds. Classical education requires parental involvement, planning, and leadership. The approach is, “… knowledge focused, not child focused.” (p.585) In response to the “unschooling” or child-led approach to learning:

“We are not impressed by ‘child-led’ education (waiting until the child brings you a book and begs for a reading lesson) for the same reasons that we don’t let our elementary school children eat exactly what they want: young children do not realize that spinach is not only better for them than Twinkies, but actually more satisfying in the long run.” (p.66) [emphasis added]

The authors continually stress the importance of fostering active, independent learning (i.e., students document their studies by building notebooks reflective of their studies throughout the year), and using materials that have high interest for children.

The Stages

The first stage of the Trivium, the Grammar Stage (from K-4th grade), is a time for fact building from parts-to-whole, meaning a student learns the rules first before he attempts to apply them. For example, phonics instruction (sounds matched to the corresponding letter symbols) lays the foundation for reading whole words. By sounding out the “parts” a student will eventually read the “whole” word. Then he can group the written words (parts) to grasp the conceptual meaning of a sentence (whole). The pattern keeps building from parts to wholes, which in turn become the parts to bigger wholes, and so on in a continuous process of integration. Continuous building upon foundational skills is quite effective for teaching the basics in reading, writing, and arithmetic.

History is taught from the ground up starting with the ancients and progressing through the modern day over a span of 4 years. Geography, Literature, and Science are all anchored to the historical period being studied. Latin, Art and Music studies round out the classical curriculum.

At the end of the 4 year Grammar Stage, history “repeats itself.” The second stage of the Trivium, the Logic Stage (5th-8th grade), revisits the ancients and onward with more in-depth study of each historical period. Backing up and adding to the basics learned in the previous stage creates a spiral effect, promoting further integrations and inspiring new questions. The Logic stage student is learning to reason well; to deduct, analyze and build abstract knowledge.

Critical (or logical) thinking requires a basic knowledge of facts to mentally chew on. Factual knowledge, along with the skills of reading, writing, and upper-level mathematics all play an integral role in training the Logic Stage mind to “think straight.”

The final stage, Rhetoric, corresponds to the high-school level (9th through 12th grade). The three distinctive characteristics of the Rhetoric stage are:

1. self-expression and persuasiveness both in writing and speaking skill,

2. flexibility to pursue whatever fields the student chooses to study in-depth,

3. focus on reading great books that have stood the test of time.

The classical curriculum is rigorous and demands a good deal of self-discipline. Throughout the Trivium the goal is always to teach the student how to learn, and not necessarily to teach all subjects comprehensively.

“In its constant demand that the student read and then analyze and write about what she’s read, the classical education trains the mind to gather, organize, and use information. And the student who knows how to learn–and has had practice in independent learning–can successfully do any job.” (p.570) Indeed, any student emerging from the intensive classical education through the Rhetoric stage described will certainly be well prepared for top notch colleges.

Personal Observation

There are a lot of things I like about The Well-Trained Mind. The best parts of the book are its comprehensive structure, extensive resource lists, notebook and time-line ideas, and the authors’ candidness in sharing personal experiences.

The recommended schedules, though, are rather intimidating. Experienced homeschoolers know enough to adapt these suggestions to suite their lifestyle, while new homeschoolers may not. Rigid schedules are a source of unnecessary stress and burn-out for many novice homeschoolers. They may come away feeling defeated if they can’t keep the schedule outlined in the book. A flexible schedule with choices for the student is more apt to yield success and harmony within the homeschool.

As I read through the book I kept searching for something which isn’t there–a section on Motivation. All the planning and resources in the world won’t do much good unless the child is motivated to learn the material. Then it hit me. Traditional Christian homeschoolers expect children to obey their parents; no ifs, ands, buts, or what-fors about it! It’s true that there must be some sort of disciplinary consequence if school work is left undone, but subjects still need to be presented in an intentional manner to stimulate the child’s interest and motivate her to learn.

The Well-Trained Mind recommends high interest materials which require active participation on the student’s part. Depending on the family dynamics, it may be enough to keep both parent and child motivated to carry out the plan. Each has to know the expectations and be committed to achieving common goals.

In Closing:

Use The Well-Trained Mind as a guidebook to help you. Don’t be afraid to deviate from the materials, daily schedules, and time-tables recommended. Use your own judgment and knowledge of your child to set up a homeschool environment that works for you. Remember, homeschooling is all about your choices in educating your children.

In my experience home teaching, there is a delicate balance between parental authority and choices for the child. Homeschooling has to be mutually rewarding if both parties are going to expend the effort to make it work. The teaching parent should be in the lead, but the child’s interests should also count; not as the final deciding factor (as in unschooling), but as a motivating ingredient of happily working together as a team.

— Order The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home by Jessie Wise, Susan Wise Bauer – Save 30% off the cover price! Gail Withrow runs It’s awesome.

Gail Withrow, primary teacher and owner, home-schooled her two daughters for 8 years prior to founding Austin's HomeTaught School.

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