Are you a “geek”?! Do you just naturally like to learn? If you are a learner and a thinker, what made you that way? Are you born just knowing how to think, or is this a skill to be learned? Can a “lifelong learner” be created, and if so, what encourages one to remain a learner for life?
Perhaps one of the hallmarks of a lifelong learner is curiosity; the urge to know about the world fuels learning even after graduation. How then can we help our students retain their curiosity? We can provide food for their imaginations, give them ideas to ponder, introduce them to people, places, and events, and we can make sure we never give them all the answers! As soon as we know all there is to know about a subject, we lose interest; we must keep finding new aspects to explore.
To encourage our students to continue learning, we need to move them through the stages of learning appropriately; we want them to feel motivated, capable, and successful, relishing the fruits of their labors. We do this best by equipping them to learn what they are ready and able to learn. Classical education recognizes that there are stages of learning and that these stages correspond quite beautifully to the developmental stages of children. Each stage has certain characteristics, certain natural abilities, and certain attendant skills that should be sharpened in order to advance to the next stage. In other words, we can teach students to —think—to be learners—if we exploit their natural abilities by leading them through the process of learning!
The first stage of learning, the grammar stage, is where all learning begins. A foundational stage, the grammar stage is for the building of a broad base of facts and information. Named by some the “knowledge” stage, this period is spent giving students something to think about. Most students remain in the grammar stage until about the sixth grade, and particular characteristics of children at this stage are easily recognizable. Grammar stage students are open to experiences of all kinds, and they are openly curious about the world around them. These students want to be taught! They love to “know things,” and are flatteringly willing to “take your word for it” when asking for information. They tend to be eager to please, interested in everything, unafraid to fail, and willing to get their hands dirty. A couple of their natural abilities are also readily apparent: they are able to memorize easily and they are happy to hear the same things over and over! (Just think of all the advertising jingles your youngsters know! And think how many times they will contentedly listen to the same book being read.) These two abilities are obviously related! Given these natural characteristics and abilities, we focus on sharpening two basic skills at this stage: memorization and recitation. We give these grammar students much to memorize and lots of opportunities to recite what they have memorized. We pound in the memory pegs by supplying names, dates, places, laws, facts, vocabulary, and timelines. We are preparing the soil and planting the seeds of learning.
In the second stage of learning, the dialectic stage, students are encouraged to develop an understanding of the information gained in the grammar stage. In this “logic stage,” we teach students to think. These middle school students are ready and able to think more deeply and abstractly about the world. The characteristics of these students include a desire to question everything and a growing independence. Any parent of a middle school student can relate: asking “WHY?!” is perhaps the hallmark of the dialectic stage. These students are no longer content to be spoon-fed; they are eager for dialogue and they even want to argue with authority. This innate desire for reasons instead of just facts will help them strengthen their natural abilities. These abilities include the ability to analyze and evaluate information, and the ability to make connections between facts. They are able to discern cause and effect, see the abstract, and integrate ideas. We should focus on sharpening the reasoning skills, building evaluation techniques, and instructing students on the correct ways to argue. We teach these students to analyze and make connections between all the facts they have memorized; we encourage them, by asking questions, to see cause and effect and to understand what they formerly simply memorized. We sharpen their skills by teaching them logic, algebra, historical analysis, and the scientific method. In this stage we are “training the plant,” encouraging healthy growth and preparing the plant to bear fruit of its own.
The third stage, the rhetoric stage, roughly corresponds to the high school years. This stage, also known as the “wisdom stage” focuses on training students to use and pass on that which they know and understand. The developmental characteristics of these students prepare them to continue the educational journey. These characteristics include a readiness to apply the understanding of what they know, a desire to figure things out for themselves, and a proclivity to share what they know with others. Their natural abilities dovetail with these characteristics and combine to produce students who can integrate ideas, think outside of themselves and their own experiences, and present themselves well to others. We serve our rhetoric stage students best when we sharpen their self-presentation skills and hone their communication skills. We want these students to be persuasive, effective speakers and writers; to this end, we teach them apologetics, literature, history, and public speaking. We give them practice debating, presenting papers, leading peer discussions, and lobbying officials. We encourage them to become effective speakers so that they can persuade others of what they themselves have become convinced. We help the plant bear fruit.
Classical education emphasizes skills more than subjects; although we teach various subjects (Latin, logic, history, algebra, and so on), the focus is on imparting the skills of learning, using the subjects as study material. In order to raise thinkers, we must teach our students how to learn; we must give them the tools of learning: memorizing, reciting, asking the right questions, analyzing information, evaluating cause and effect, integrating subjects, and effectively presenting ideas. If we teach our students how to learn, instead of just what to learn, we empower them, and equip them to learn anything they want for as long as they live; we nurture lifelong learners!