The classical model of education is a wonderful display of categorization. First, the classical model is traditionally divided into two categories of study — the Trivium and the Quadrivium. The first of these — and the primary focus of the Classical Conversations® programs — consists of learning the three arts of grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric.
Grammar is the skill of memorizing vocabulary, concepts, and rules. Dialectic is the processing of those ideas by asking questions and using logical thinking. Lastly, rhetoric is the ability to clearly explain a subject understood via grammar and dialectic to others.
To learn these three skills, it’s helpful to use a set of five mental tools (i.e., one set of five tools for learning each of the Trivium arts). These classical tools of learning are the Five Core Habits of Grammar, the Five Common Topics of Dialectic, and the Five Canons of Rhetoric.
The Five Common Topics Explained
In this post, we’ll explain the second set of these classical tools — the Five Common Topics of Dialectic. Originally used by great classicalists such as Aristotle and Cicero, these common topics have stood the test of time and remain useful to this day.
For homeschool parents, it can be helpful to visualize these sets of classical skills as toolkits from which you can retrieve one of five useful instruments to aid in teaching your child a new subject. For the Five Common Topics of Dialectic, in particular, consider these tools your secret keys to unlocking powerful conversations with your student to help them better understand and process any new concept.
Without lingering any longer, let’s jump in. The Five Common Topics of Dialectic are Definition, Comparison, Relationship, Circumstance, and Testimony. In true classical fashion, each of these tools can be further categorized into different types. Below, we’ll address each common topic, their subtypes, and questions you can use to help foster more meaningful conversations with your student to learn new subjects.
Before having a conversation about any one subject, it’s important to first understand what that subject is. Naturally, the common topic of definition can help us there. Simply put, definition is discovering what something is.
Aristotle broke down definition further into genus and species. We commonly use these groupings to classify living things, but they can be used more broadly to categorize nearly anything.
- Genus – Broad categories of things
- Species – Also known as division; narrower categories of things within a genus
Use the following questions as a guideline for practicing definition to better understand a subject:
- What is ___? What is ___ not?
- Is this ___ part of a larger category (genus or species)?
- What are the basic features/characteristics of ___?
- How can ___ be divided into smaller parts?
After defining something, we can then compare it to other things to increase our understanding of it. For example, if our topic is Julius Caesar, we can compare Julius Caesar to other Roman emperors, perhaps comparing the length of their reigns or ruling styles.
Comparison is commonly classified into similarity, difference, and degree.
- Similarity – How two or more things are alike
- Difference – How two or more things are different
- Degree – To what degree are things similar or different
Use the following questions as a guideline for practicing comparison to better understand a subject:
- How is ___ similar to/different from ___?
- To what degree is ___ similar to/different from ___?
- Is ___ better/worse than ___?
Next is the common topic of relationship, a natural follow-up to comparison. Of course, practicing relationship helps us to understand how our subject is related to other things. If you and your student are learning about the American Revolution, you can consider what events led up to this war (e.g., high taxation, the Boston Massacre) and whether these former events directly caused the latter.
This tool can further be categorized into cause/effect, antecedent/consequence, contraries, and contradictions.
- Cause/effect – Events, ideas, or actions that directly lead to a given outcome
- Antecedent/consequence – Potential good or bad outcomes of events, ideas, and actions
- Contraries – Two statements that belong to the same categories but cannot both be true
- Contradictions – Two statements where one must be valid and the other invalid
Use the following questions as a guideline for practicing relationship to better understand a subject:
- Did ___ cause ___ ?
- What will happen if ___?
- If ___ is true, what cannot be true?
- Are ___ and ___ mutually exclusive, or can they coexist?
Circumstance deals with possibilities, certainties, and probabilities. For instance, when attempting to solve a math equation, you may consider whether it’s even solvable with the given variables. Circumstance also helps us understand what else was going on at the same time as a specific event, which, of course, is useful when studying history.
The common topic of circumstance can be grouped into possible/impossible and past fact/future fact.
- Possible/impossible – Whether something can or can’t happen
- Past fact/future fact – Determining whether something has happened in the past or predicting whether it will happen in the future
Use the following questions as a guideline for practicing circumstance to better understand a subject:
- Is it possible or impossible to ___?
- What might prevent us from ___?
- Do we know for sure that ___ occurred?
Finally, we arrive at the fifth common topic of testimony. Practicing testimony is hugely important because we need to train our children to recognize when a testimony, authority, or source is credible or not. For example, is a given historical document trustworthy or should we take what it says with a grain of salt?
Testimony can be divided into six classes — authority, testimonial, statistics, maxims, laws, and precedents.
- Authority – An expert in a subject
- Testimonial – Given by someone who witnessed an event firsthand
- Statistics – Quantitative data supporting an argument
- Maxims – Common knowledge
- Laws – A type of testimony encoded in writing and said to be binding
- Precedences – Evidence through past examples
Use the following questions as a guideline for practicing testimony to better understand a subject:
- What type of testimony does this argument rely on?
- Should ___ be considered an authority or expert?
- What are this authority’s biases? Do they invalidate his/her testimony?
- How recent are these statistics? How were they gathered and by whom?
Practicing the Five Common Topics of Dialectic
In sum, practicing the Five Common Topics of Dialectic can help us (and, of course, our students) better understand any new subject. In the Classical Conversations Essentials and Challenge programs, we encourage parents and students to apply these tools to help aid their studies in a variety of subjects.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Five Common Topics of Dialectic, Leigh Bortins’s The Question explains each of these topics more fully and introduces how parents can use them to help teach their children reading, math, history, science, and other subjects.
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