Sunday, December 12, 2010

Book Review: The Well Trained Mind

I began thinking about homeschooling when my first daughter Charlotte was just a few months old and by some lucky coincidence, one of the first books I found on the subject was W.W. Norton & Company’s The Well Trained Mind, by Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise.   The classical approach had a natural appeal to me and having taught writing at USC for the previous 10 years, I easily related to Susan Wise’s experience in the college classroom.  In the book, she describes how stunned she was to find that many of her students at the College of William and Mary entered her classroom with mediocre to abysmal writing skills.   I too had been repeatedly surprised at the number of students who had managed to be accepted to a major university, but couldn’t recognize an incomplete sentence.   Maybe I was a snob or maybe public AND private high schools weren’t doing their job.  Either way, I knew I could do better.

Reading The Well Trained Mind, (literally cover to cover – I was entranced) really helped me to understand, on a practical level, the day to day aspects of classical homeschooling.  Suddenly I could envision homeschooling fitting in with our general family life and my fairly rigorous educational goals for my little daughter – who at that point hadn’t even mastered sitting up on her own.  Still, I was ambitious and plunged ahead.  I purchased some of the curriculum recommended in the book and over the next several years read widely on the topic of homeschooling.  I mean, REALLY WIDELY!  Having gone from the sort of crazy schedule necessary for graduate school and teaching, I was used to a fairly busy lifestyle.  Suddenly finding myself home all day with a newborn, I was literally flailing about for something to occupy my time.  Researching homeschooling methods became a bit of an obsession.  Yet, I really had already stumbled on the approach that would prove most valuable.  The Well Trained Mind begins with Jessie Wise (Susan’s mother) explaining her approach to homeschooling back in the 1970s and why she chose a classical approach.  Susan, the product of that approach, then describes how well served she and her siblings had been by her classical education and why she has continued it with her own children.

The classical approach places great focus on the written word, an important skill for most professionals and essential to everyone in the age of the internet.  That focus holds an obvious appeal for me, but there are two other important facets of the approach that I find make a great deal of sense.  The first of these is the way classical education blends with a child’s abilities at different stages of development.  Following ancient traditions, The Well Trained Mind categorizes what we think of as primary & secondary education into 3 different stages:  the Grammar Stage (roughly, 1st – 4th graders); The Logic Stage (5th – 8th graders) and the Rhetoric Stage (9th – 12th graders).  Little kids are sponges, so at this “grammar” stage the classical approach takes advantage of that ability and gives them lots of information (generally through a story-telling approach), so they establish little “hooks” on which they later can hang a more thorough understanding.  They also enjoy memorizing at this early age, so it makes sense that this is the time when they learn their multiplication tables, etc.  As they get older and become more interested in cause and effect the approach changes to one where logical relationships are explained and analyzed.   As Bauer puts it:

“A student is ready for the Logic Stage when the capacity for abstract thought begins to mature. During these years, the student begins algebra and the study of logic, and begins to apply logic to all academic subjects. The logic of writing, for example, includes paragraph construction and learning to support a thesis; the logic of reading involves the criticism and analysis of texts, not simple absorption of information; the logic of history demands that the student find out why the War of 1812 was fought, rather than simply reading its story; the logic of science requires that the child learn the scientific method.”

The final “Rhetorical” stage, building on an already strong foundation, allows students to begin to specialize and nurture their own unique abilities and interests:  “these are the years for art camps, college courses, foreign travel, apprenticeships, and other forms of specialized training.”

This 3-fold pattern is known as the classical “trivium,” and although it divides learning into different “stages” of ability, the 2nd thing I like most about classical education is the way it integrates the different “subjects” of learning.  History, literature, science, mathematics and art are inextricably linked and dividing them into isolated fragments to be studied separately from one another has always struck me as ridiculous.  Any work of literature is enriched by understanding the historical events surrounding its creation.   Similarly, we have a better grasp of biology, geometry, chemistry, calculus, physics, astronomy, etc., if we have a chronological understanding of how, when and why different scientific and mathematical discoveries were made.  Focusing on the chronology of events allows students to look for connections, see how knowledge builds on knowledge and understand/analyze cause and effect.

The classical curriculum accomplishes this by “taking history as its organizing outline.”  This can be better understood by looking at the divisions used in the various stages of the trivium.  As each division (grammar, logic and rhetoric) comprises three years, the course of study for those years is divided as follows:

Year 1:  Ancients - Biology

Year 2: Middle Ages – Astronomy/Earth Science

Year 3: Renaissance to 18th Century - Chemistry

Year 4: Modern Age - Physics

(During each year, the student studies the literature, art and music that correspond to that era – and the branch of science as indicated.)

One of the history classes taught at Huck for the younger students operates on this model.  The “Story of the World” classes are based on a series (also by Susan Bauer) of four books, which taken together provide a strong, chronological overview of history.  To me the chronology is key!  It provides an understanding of the resonance of events, how their aftershocks continue to affect the world.   Learning history this way changes the way one thinks about everyday things—whether in our personal life, in raising kids, or in political participation.  People make more informed political choices when they are able to understand, for example, the real economic impact of decisions being made today on our future. More than that, I’d argue that understanding history as a chronological “story” helps build comprehension and promotes a healthy skepticism.  These are things I want for my children’s education.

Beyond the philosophy of education advocated in The Well Trained Mind, it is also a fantastic source for curriculum review.  Ten years ago, without a clue how to approach the teaching of, say, handwriting, this book took me by the hand and showed me several options.  It does that for each subject and at each grade level.  I particularly appreciate how the authors lay out their reasoning for each of the curriculum choices they recommend.  When the 10th Anniversary Edition came out last summer, I happily invested another $25 to get their recommendations on more recent curriculum options and I imagine I’ll do it again in 5 years or so.  I think everyone’s homeschooling approach ends up being a bit of this and a bit of that and mine is no exception.  I, like most, have ended up doing whatever works best for each child.  Still, without a doubt, this is the book that’s had the greatest influence on how I approach my children’s education.

1 comment:

  1. That book was so great when I started homeschooling my 2nd grader! A lifesaver! Sadly, my husband lost his job & I had to go back to work so my daughter's back in school. She likes it though...although she's ahead of her class in a lot of ways!