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Why Teach Classically?

The reason for teaching classically is that it attends to the nature of the child and the nature of learning. When we teach this way we appropriately honor both the child and the subject.

Classical instruction accomplishes this by making use of two modes of instruction: Socratic, and what is called Mimetic, which I will touch on briefly below.

My big question early on when I found myself in a classical school was, “If I am teaching students in the “dialectic” phase of their learning, how should I teach them?”

This eventually, through various resources, led me to the CiRCE Institute where I discovered the Apprenticeship Program—a mentoring program for 12 teachers/home educators led by Andrew Kern. I immediately applied and discovered principles that have forever changed my teaching.

The first principle of any classroom is that the teacher’s speech and acts are formed out of what has first been impressed into the teacher. The teacher can only breathe out, exhale, what he has first breathed in, inhaled. Likewise, the student will inhale what the teacher exhales.

Breathing is the principle that occurs between a teacher and student.

This dynamic principle, that outlines the process of receiving, absorbing (both inhaling exercises), and re-presenting (the exhaling exercise), also takes place within the individual learner. As the pupil inhales, he proceeds toward a definite goal. The goal, surprisingly, is not to soak up and store an unlimited amount of knowledge. I do not wish to teach my students to “hold their breath,” and consequently, pass out. Rather, I want my students to breathe, I want them to live.

The inhaling act (perception) leads toward apprehension, which in turn leads toward the exhaling act (re-presentation), the final act. This progression outlines the stages of imitation, and is the second principle of the classical classroom.

By nature we learn through the process of imitation. The Mimetic mode of instruction is simply a mode of instruction that leads the student through five stages of imitation.

In short, they are:

1. Pre-perception: assessing what is already known about the idea or truth

2. Perception: looking at types of the idea or truth

3. Contemplative: comparing the types

4. Apprehension: point of understanding the idea or truth taught

5. Re-presentation: embody and imitate the idea or truth taught

As an example, here is a glimpse of what I did when my daughter read the Odyssey earlier this year. We focused on the idea of a home.

Pre-perception: What do you consider a home to be? Have you ever been away from home? Have you ever missed someone?

Perception: Cave of Calypso, House of Circe, House of Nestor, House of Zeus, House of Agamemnon, House of Menelaus, House Alkinoos, House of Polyphemus, House of Skylla, House of Swineherd, House of Odysseus

Contemplative: compare any number of houses, including our own.

Apprehension: can you summarize, explain, or describe what a home is? What must a home be? What makes a home?

Re-presentation: for literature I require my children and students to write an essay. The essay is one way for them to re-present the idea. They imitate the idea through their writing. Another way, which is far more difficult to assess in the classroom, is to observe their daily habits. This, of course, cannot be done in a 45-minute block of time. It requires days, months, or even years.

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