The Art of Learning

I will never forget Z. He was one of my elementary school students that I wanted to take home and adopt. He and his sister were left alone in a park overnight by their mother. He came to my classroom, and I loved him like he was my own son. I loved all my students, but when I think of the little ones whose lives touched mine, his impish grin is the one I remember most.

I taught Z and my other students with everything I had within me, using creativity and inspiration from the Lord at those times when the teacher’s manual’s tips did not meet their needs. I pulled all sorts of ideas out of my mental “tool-box.”  When I was a college student, I diligently learned all that I could about modern learning theories so I could bring them to life in the classroom.

Yet something elusive was missing.  I had curriculums galore.  The book room was stocked with plenty of old “basal” reading books, and my classroom was filled to the brim with the new “whole language” textbooks that were the current trend in learning theory.  My school district teachers created their own math curriculum using what were termed “best practices.”  I wrote out lengthy lesson plans for each day, and, per district requirements, tied each activity to a state-mandated list of skills that were to be taught to my grade level.

Yet, something was missing.  Several of my students were lagging behind in reading in math because…gasp…they were not practicing at home.  Math facts were taught using manipulatives, but the district curriculum did not leave room for memorization. So I sent home lists of math facts to be memorized at home.  Parents were to be our partners, you see.

But they weren’t.

Instead the moms got new boyfriends who belonged to gangs, and their once-sweet sons started coming to school with surly attitudes towards authority and began drawing gang signs in the margins of their papers and on their knuckles.

Or they tried their hardest to help, but they worked three jobs just to make enough money to put food on the table and didn’t have the time or energy to drill math facts.

Life outside the school walls wasn’t Stepford — at least not in my school.  It was scary and ugly, lonely and difficult, tired and dejected.

So I squeezed in my own daily math drills, made it a priority to listen to every child read aloud, even if only for two minutes apiece, conducted weekly lice checks, found jackets for those who had none, shoes for the little ones whose feet grew out of the toes, pencils (oh, the pencils!) for the ones whose parents hadn’t provided any, and did my best with all the knowledge and insight I had to help my students learn and grow in a safe, loving place.

Yet something vital was missing.

I was fortunate to teach in an era when teachers were allowed to be creative and to deviate and supplement the district-approved manuals when they judged it was necessary.  Today’s teachers are not so lucky and are literally enslaved to the teacher’s manual — teaching guides that often fly in the face of common sense.

ImageIn this real-life example from an area second grade student, the teacher counted as “Incorrect” the student’s response that said all squares are rectangles.  The teacher’s response to the parent’s inquiry about this was, “I completely agree with your reasoning but had to follow the curriculum for 2nd grade.  The math book describes a square as having 4 equal sides while a rectangle has 2 sets of equal sides. Therefore, the reasoning is that a square is not considered a rectangle because it has to have 4 equal sides.”

Apparently teachers are not being allowed to reason apart from the math book!

So how did our modern educational system get to a place where the Ten Commandments are removed, prayer is outlawed, and second graders are taught that squares are not rectangles?  America’s Ivy League colleges were established with a decidedly Christian bent. Reverend Thomas Clap, rector (President) of Yale College in 1740 wrote to his incoming students,

“Above all, have an eye to the great end of all your studies which is to obtain the clearest conception of divine things and to lead you to a saving knowledge of God in His son Jesus Christ.” Reference

As I learned how to become a teacher, I was heavily influenced by the educational philosophy of John Dewey, a progressive philosopher, psychologist and education reformer who fundamentally changed the direction of education.

This brief bio about Dewey’s progressive education from the PBS website explains,

Unlike earlier models of teaching, which relied on authoritarianism and rote learning, progressive education asserted that students must be invested in what they were learning. Dewey argued that curriculum should be relevant to students’ lives…”

Dewey’s approach was decidedly child-centered.  When I was a student in college, “child-centered” was the buzzword for “great education.”  Of course we want our students to be engaged, to be interested, to be motivated to learn!  We want them to help us come up with classroom and school rules and mottos.  We don’t want to force our students to memorize facts — facts are obsolete in the age of calculators (and the internet).  We want our schools to be little communities where our students can learn skills that will help them develop practical life skills. Then these students will go on to become productive members of our society.

Dewey expressed it this way:

“The teacher is not in the school to impose certain ideas or to form certain habits in the child, but is there as a member of the community to select the influences which shall affect the child and to assist him in properly responding to these influences.”

-John Dewey, in My Pedagogic Creed, 1897

Dewey’s ideas took root and are expressed in classrooms around the country, every day.

Because we did not want to force our kids to do the hard work of memorization, they can no longer spell. Because we did not want to force them to memorize math facts and mental math, they struggle to pass Algebra.  They are unable to order historical events, unable to read Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, a book challenging British authority and published in 1776 using “plain language” so the common man could understand it. Can you understand it?

“Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one: for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries BY A GOVERNMENT, which we might expect in a country WITHOUT GOVERNMENT, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer. Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built upon the ruins of the bowers of paradise. For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest; and this he is induced to do by the same prudence which in every other case advises him, out of two evils to choose the least. Wherefore, security being the true design and end of government, it unanswerably follows that whatever form thereof appears most likely to ensure it to us, with the least expense and greatest benefit, is preferable to all others.

I don’t know about you, but I have to squint my eyes and think very diligently to grasp even a modicum of information from Paine’s verbiage!  I suspect the common man in 1776 was a good deal more educated than the average Joe today.

Dewey is not solely responsible for the demise of our education system — but his ideas set in motion a distinct attitude and atmosphere of student-centeredness (that the student should know what is best) that has directly hindered learning — a result I doubt he ever intended.  Many districts are now bending the other direction, mandating that certain skills be taught in certain grade levels and tested, re-tested, and tested again, further squashing all innovation from the teacher and leaching out excitement about learning.

“Is this going to be on the test?”

was a question I heard over and over not just as a teacher, but also as a college student. In other words, if it’s not going to be on the test, why bother to pay attention? The educational system Dewey put into play has so trained students that they don’t have time to learn for the fun of it.

What about God? Many conservatives lament that we have taken God out of schools. I disagree.  God is already IN…everything and everywhere:

“Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation, for through him God created everything in the heavenly realms and on earth. He made the things we can see and the things we can’t see—such as thrones, kingdoms, rulers, and authorities in the unseen world.  Everything was created through him and for him. He existed before anything else, and he holds all creation together. Colossians 1:15-17

Simply outlawing prayer and the teaching of Scripture does not in any way remove God from the schools — a better lament would be that schools are ignoring Him. Classical Christian education seeks to acknowledge that the subjects our students are learning DO NOT EXIST APART from God, and they are better understood when they are viewed with eyes open to how they relate to one another.

Dorothy Sayers is another writer who is perhaps the Anti-Dewey.  Sayers wrote prolific detective fiction, but she also wrote a series of essays about education and was a friend of fellow deep-thinker and writer C.S. Lewis. In her essay, “The Lost Tools of Learning,” Sayers laments the fact that today’s students (mind you, this was in the 1940s) are unable to see the connections between the subjects they learn in schools:

““Do you often come across people for whom, all their lives, a ‘subject’ remains a ‘subject,’ divided by watertight bulkheads from all other ‘subjects,’ so that they experience very great difficulty in making an immediate mental connection between let us say, algebra and detective fiction, sewage disposal and the price of salmon–or, more generally, between such spheres of knowledge as philosophy and economics, or chemistry and art?”

These classical education concepts were difficult for me to grasp because I am a product of Dewey-ism.  One of the biggest shapers of my early educational philosophy was Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning.


Bloom divided thinking skills into discrete levels with the most basic skills at the bottom and the higher-level thinking skills at the top.  As an elementary teacher, I was specifically taught that memorization and drill were big “No-No’s” in education.  Instead, my teaching evaluations were judged on whether I was able to engage my first grade students in higher level thinking.

One of my old college textbooks specifically criticized a “rote-memory” approach to education.  I diligently learned back in the 1990s that memorization was a No-No:

“Children do not need constant drill in lower order skills before they are capable of independent thought…when subjects are taught as a collection of facts and lower levels concepts, much of the knowledge which is taught this way becomes obsolete before it can be used…teachers should…emphasize the thinking processes which are employed by the experts in each of the subject areas…”

Developing a Teaching Style (1992) by Louisell and Descamps, pages 102-103

So, I taught the district-created math curriculum and leaned heavily on teacher’s manuals that considered constant drill a no-no.  When I became a homeschooler, I purposefully RAN FAR, FAR AWAY from classical education when I learned that it included memorization.  Until I dug deeper and found that the classical model of education is a blueprint for how people learn any subject at any age.  I do not jest when I tell you that for me, as an educator, the Trivium is a Thing of Beauty.  It transforms this Bloom’s Taxonomy into three stages of learning.  Simplicity is beautiful!

The Trivium is made up of three parts — each of which are found in Colossians 1:19 — knowledge, understanding, and wisdom.

Imagine an education model that looks like a house. The knowledge, or grammar stage, is like the concrete foundation. It has pipes and electricity conduits and provides a starting point for the rest of the house.  If the foundation is weak, the structure will be in danger of falling.  Just as Jesus tells us not to build houses on sand, we should not build our learning on sandy foundations with loosey goosey recall of the vocabulary, the basics, of whatever it is that we are studying.  When I purchased a new camera, I entered the grammar stage of learning as I had to find out what all the buttons and settings were and what the vocabulary of photography (ISO, aperture, shutter speed, white balance, etc) meant.

The logical stage, or dialectic stage, is the second phase a person experiences in the course of learning something new.  Think of a skeleton house — the beams are beginning to be joined and connected.  When I bought a new camera, I made connections in my brain when I figured out that adjusting the exposure compensation to +5 gives me better photos of my daughter skating on the ice rink. Comparing facts, contrasting information, making connections between subjects — these all fall into the logic, or dialectic, stage of learning.

Now, when the roof is placed on the house, all the insides are held together.  A blank skeleton structure has now become something real and created, a home.  A person enters the rhetorical stage when he is able to create something with the knowledge that he has learned.


When I took this photo above, I did not use “Auto.”  I manually set the shutter speed to 1/2000th of a second because I wanted to create a photo of the sunset with shadowed trees in the foreground.  A student of any subject becomes rhetorical when she is able to produce something beautiful, teach someone else, or otherwise put to excellent use that which she has learned, making the most of all the connections she’s made.

Classical Christian educators are not worried about how our children will perform on standardized tests. Nor is our priority that they be able to learn a skill and get a job.  No, we want to nurture our children in such a way that they LOVE to learn because they have mastered the ART of learning, itself.

Like Dorothy Sayers, we want our children to be confident in their ability to learn anything the Lord places in their paths:

“For the tools of learning are the same, in any and every subject; and the person who knows how to use them will, at any age, get the mastery of a new subject in half the time and with a quarter of the effort expended by the person who has not the tools at his command. To learn six subjects without remembering how they were learnt does nothing to ease the approach to a seventh; to have learnt and remembered the art of learning makes the approach to every subject an open door.”

This emphasis on learning itself as an art rather than on the subjects learned is one of the key differences between modern education and classical educators. I wish I had known about the Trivium back when Z was in my class. I wish I had used my classroom teaching time filling their heads with information over and over again until they mastered it!  Now Z and his classmates have families of their own, entering classrooms much like the ones in which they learned, and the spiral continues.

I am so thankful the cycle has been broken in my daughter!

If you are a homeschooler and want to learn more about classical education, I urge you to find a local Classical Conversations community.  If you are not a homeschooler but are invested in your children’s education, I urge you to stand in the gap for them — be their drill masters.  Make sure they master the material, and if the teacher moves on before they have grasped it so well they can teach another, then stand in the gap. Get them in tutoring. Make up silly songs. Teach them how to study. Do whatever it takes to help them achieve that foundation of learning.

You are the one God gave to raise your child.  He did not give your child to the State of ____ to educate.  He gave your children to YOU.

I found Z on Facebook, but I didn’t message him or anything because, well, that would be weird!  But I was happy to see that his impish grin lives on in his children! My prayer is that this idea of Learning as an Art will sweep the nation so that Z’s children can grow up in a world where nothing is beyond their ability to learn.

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