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How to Teach Classically

How do I teach classically?

Classical education is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue. Therefore, you teach classically by expending all of your energy figuring out and implementing what it means to cultivate wisdom and virtue.

Then how do I cultivate wisdom and virtue?

Wisdom and virtue are cultivated when the soul is nourished on the true, the good, and the beautiful. St. Paul expands this notion a little bit in Philippians 4:8 when he says, “whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.” Verse 9 explains a great deal more about how to help students meditate on these things when he says, “The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do.” The two essential verbs for the learner are to meditate and to do. When we meditate we contemplate truth or ideas. When we do, we embody them. Thus classical education has always focused on truth or ideas. To achieve these ends, classical educators identified two modes of instruction that are consistent with human nature and therefore extremely effective when teaching.

What are these two modes?

The two modes are called the mimetic and the Socratic modes. Mimetic instruction guides students to meditate on or contemplate models or types to present ideas in concrete (embodied) form so students can inductively rise to the understanding of an idea or truth and then to apply it. Socratic instruction guides students to meditate on ideas so they can deductively clarify and apply an idea.

What are the seven laws of teaching?

John Milton Gregory enumerated the seven laws of teaching in his appropriately titled 1884 book of that name. They are:

    • The law of the Teacher
    • The law of the Learner
    • The law of Language
    • The law of the Lesson
    • The law of Teaching
    • The law of Learning
    • The law of Review

What are the three columns?

Mortimer Adler identified three ends toward which a given lesson will move and the different kinds of instruction that go with each. In so doing, he developed one of the most helpful ordering tools ever designed for planning a lesson. The first column consists of content or knowledge. The second column contains concepts or ideas. The third column includes skills.

How can I teach a specific subject classically?

The two modes, the seven laws, and the three columns are universal principles of education and are used regardless of the class or subject being taught. However, each of the seven liberal arts nourishes a different set of capacities and each subject (or science) is a different mode of inquiry that develops a different domain of knowledge. Therefore, each art or science must be taught by applying the universal principles (identified above) to the given art or science. They must also respect the nature of the art or science being taught.

The teacher is able to do this as follows:

    • By recognizing the nature of the art or science being taught—i.e. by recognizing in particular the mode of inquiry suited to the science or the skills suited to the art (in math class learn how to calculate, not write poetry; in physics class learn how to measure forces, not dance)
    • By recognizing the particular domain of knowledge suited to the science and not asking it to provide other kinds of knowledge from outside that domain of knowledge (i.e. don’t ask biology to teach you about theology) NB: This does not mean the classes bear no relation to each other or that they have nothing to do with each other. See below.
    • By recognizing the place of the art or science in the curriculum and by ordering the art or science to other arts or sciences (i.e. arithmetic is an art that prepares for the sciences)
    • By aligning various teaching approaches with the universal principles outlined above (i.e. memory work is part of the mimetic sequence)
    • By recognizing the stage of the child’s growth and teaching the given art or science in a manner consistent with his personal development

We believe that the best way to learn to teach classically is to follow the classical model of apprenticeship. We learn best when teaching classically is modeled to us, when we have the opportunity to imitate that model, and when we have the opportunity to receive immediate feedback on our teaching. To learn more about learning to teach through the apprenticeship model, read more about our CiRCE Master Teacher Apprenticeship Program. In some cases, however, entering into an apprenticeship program is not possible, yet having classical teaching modeled is still possible (even if the imitation and feedback mechanisms are not), and so we offer online classes at varying levels of time and financial commitment. These begin with our 90-minute webinars, then our six-week intensives, and our year-long Atrium classes. Read more about each of these to learn more about teaching classically and seeing it modeled to you.