Christian classical education is, we believe, the most excellent form of education. But why? What makes our theory and practice good, true, and beautiful? At its heart, Christian classical education both mimics and evokes God’s intended purpose for human flourishing. We are guided in our quest by two books: the laws of general and special revelation. Thus, our pedagogical uniqueness in fact emerges as a summary of all that is good, true, and beautiful in other educational systems, unified in submission to the glory of God in Christ.
The Sine Qua Non in Theory
The purpose of education generally is to teach students to pursue and achieve excellence in their chosen field of study. Excellence, or virtue, according to Aristotle, is doing things in the right way, at the right time, and for the right reasons, all of which are determined by the way the world is designed to function.1 Thus, excellence has intellectual, technical and ethical dimensions, and these must be learned and practiced for students to flourish as human beings.2 Many educational systems recognize this holism.
Christian education, as practiced in a Christian school or university, adds to this general aim for excellence a specific submission of all excellence to the glory of God (Col. 3:23).3 Christian education for excellence trains students and faculty to submit every thought, word and deed to Christ in addition to the laws of nature by which He established the creation. This requires a depth of life-and-learning integration “piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). As Calvin puts it near the beginning of his Institutes, “Nearly all of the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”4 Such personal formation extends human flourishing to our communities and society at large (Matt. 5:13-16).5
Many have pursued excellence in the field of teaching, or pedagogy, and collectively discovered several “natural laws” of learning that together form a coherent theoretical narrative with a beginning, middle and end: learning begins with engagement, develops in stages, and culminates in excellence. As general truths of the created world, they apply equally to all educators.
Students become engaged in a subject when their curiosity is sparked—for students are more like fires to be lit than buckets to be filled.6 The spark comes from the sudden strike of a student’s own concerns against the hardness of the world, be it an intellectual, technical, ethical or any other kind of difficulty.7 The spark of curiosity must be sheltered from the harsh winds of fear and anxiety—fear of being wrong, anxiety over unknown consequences—so that students can take the risks that learning will require of them to satisfy their curiosity. A spirit, or pneumos (breath), of levity or playfulness fans the flame at any stage but especially at the beginning.8 As the psalmist wrote, “Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them” (Ps. 111:2).
Just as one builds a fire from a spark by adding sequentially larger pieces of wood, learning also develops in hierarchical stages. Many educational theorists have noticed this truth and posited their own version of these stages. For instance, John Dewey observed the Five Steps of Good Thinking;9 Gregory articulated the Seven Laws of Teaching;10 Sayers popularized the Trivium as Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric;11 Bloom and colleagues built the Taxonomy of Cognitive Learning;12 Vygotsky argued for a Zone of Proximal Development between the stages of Dependence and Independence;13 and Wenger narrated the social learning journey from Novice to Expert.14 All of these paradigms have their various uses in the life cycle of the classroom, from curriculum development through implementation and assessment, depending on whether the theory is phrased in terms of the teacher, learner, classroom, intellect, emotions, actions, or social relationships. Nevertheless, they share an emphasis on sequential development of increasingly complex, independent problem-solving skills.
To simplify this discussion, I focus on the central cognitive outcome of each stage for the individual student, which together are summarized best by the Trivium model as Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric, often used in Christian, classical education.15 Grammar consists of the basic vocabulary of a subject, such as “atoms,” “reactions,” and “compounds” in chemistry. Logic details the rules or theories governing a valid argument in a subject, that is, its peculiar form of reasoning (which must also accord with the general laws of logic). Chemical logic, for instance, includes atomic orbital theory and stoichiometry. Rhetoric is the original, self-authentic expression of new questions and persuasive arguments in the field. There is an aspect of individuality, beauty and elegance that is produced in the rhetorical stage, the mark of what many would call “mastery” of the subject as it echoes the ancient tradition of master craftsmen. Any expert-like activity, no matter how simple, requires rhetorical skill, whether it is calibrating glassware, designing experiments, or developing paradigm-shifting theories.
*1st: Increasing breadth create
engaging spark, then Fundamentals (Novice) Compound Concepts (Journeyman) Entire Field (Master)
• Good guessing
• Survey • Review
• Categorization • Diagramming
• Research essays • Debates
• Copy-change • Study design
• Calibration • Designing
• Hypothesis generation
• Error analysis
• Report Writing • Presentations
• Novel questions • Inventing new
methods • Theory
Therefore, these stages apply to every scope within a field of study. That is, there are stages (depth) to mastering the nested scopes (breadth) of a subject, from its fundamentals to compound concepts to the entire field. To achieve a state of competency and especially mastery at any scope, the student must eventually use a particular knowledge or skill in expert-like situations. An example might be the challenge of using a pipette correctly: this is a fundamental chemistry skill, but it will not be mastered by listening to instructions or watching others do it—it must be practiced by the student in the lab.16 Moreover, as Wenger notes, much knowledge is tacit, only communicated by mimicking others in the same community of practice until the novice imitates the master so closely he becomes the next master.17 In developing the stages of learning, then, the task of the teacher is to recreate a series of increasingly complex and independent expert-like events that lead students from fundamentals to comprehension of the entire field under study.18 These pedagogical principles dictate certain types of teaching practices for each stage of mastery and each scope of study (Table 1).
The Sine Qua Non in Practice
After the students have been engaged with some felt difficulty, the next step is to master fundamentals of the field. These educational practices begin with observations, labeling, and memorization to build vocabulary. Once this mental structure is present, we find the weak spots through categorizing and diagramming new exemplars. To master the fundamentals, students need an expert-like fundamental activity, for example a simple, real-life taxonomy project like taking inventory of one’s lab equipment.
At the next level, students expand their knowledge of the field by combining fundamentals into compound concepts. Teaching/learning practices here include making predictions, debating positions, and creating written and visual arguments. Every field offers plenty of real-life situations where these skills are practiced, and most can be brought into the classroom, e.g., hypothesis generation, error analysis, report writing, and oral presentations.
At the final, most expansive scope of excellence, teaching/ learning practices aim for broad comprehension of the field. The grammar stage involves exposure to surveys that review the field. The transition from analyzing to synthesizing this vast amount of information can be difficult; the first step should be to copy and yet slightly change a master’s work. With this basic example of their own creativity in mind, students can design their own approach to the teacher’s chosen object of study or research question. To master creativity at a broad scope, a real-life, expert activity could be to choose a topic at will and then invent new methods or theories for investigating it.
The end of learning is excellence: wisely applying this comprehensive knowledge to real-life situations. Thus, it is paramount that students learn to practice true moral and philosophical principles of human flourishing.19 In Christian higher education, this is the purpose for integrating our Christian faith and our learning, which requires its own educational practices.
Integration of faith and learning is a competency like any other insofar as it develops in stages of increasing scope. Mastery in this area is marked by the explicit and appropriate consideration of the things of God in every field-specific endeavor. Such consideration always has an ethical or moral dimension, as we are to do all things— including lab experiments—with the integrity commanded by God. But if doctrine and theory make claims about the same things, Christian doctrines may also require a Christian student to modify her understanding of a particular theory in her field. This is the case in the study of origins and much of social science and the humanities, since those fields make claims about biblical subjects such as God, man, and morality. Thus, one of the fundamental skills of integration is recognizing when it is appropriate and when it is not. The subsequent ability to modify and mutually adjust theories requires increasing creativity as the scope in focus increases. Eventually, the real-life learning situations become real life itself, the whole of one’s life as lived in community before the Lord. Yet though we aim for this total submission, we will not realize it until Glory.
In summary, the task of Christian, classical education has many dimensions. Here, I have laid out two (cognitive depth and breadth) that apply to the individual. As I strive to implement these educational practices for the individual, I unavoidably run into the other dimensions of learning.
I see how social interactions—including my own role modeling—enable or disable independence. I learn which teaching practices create a safe and playful classroom. I discern the difference between experiential learning and experiential entertainment. I recognize when and how a learning challenge is a spiritual issue. Indeed, teaching is part of my own journey to integrate my own faith and learning. My faith requires that I learn to submit my thoughts, words, and deeds as a teacher to the glory of God and the good of others. Because I am a fallible teacher, I am fundamentally a student in my own classroom, learning to pursue Christian excellence alongside my pupils. In fact, this is the telltale. The sine qua non of Christian, classical education is not a disembodied concept of “virtue.” Rather, it is Christ Himself. His glory and lordship extends not only to our educational theory and practice, but also to our very selves—for in Christ, “all things hold together” (Col. 1:17).