Note: This post contains affiliate links.
Recently I began reading books about homeschooling. Gifted, Raising Children Intentionally; The Brainy Bunch; The Self-Propelled Advantage; and now, The Well-Trained Mind. Each book is different. Each one espouses a different philosophy or method of education. Each one has had some influence on my thinking, some more than others. I am glad I have read them all, but I certainly will not apply myself exclusively to any of them.
But this review isn’t about different views of education; it is about a specific book. The Well-Trained Mind is a book on what is known as Classical Education. I had heard of this philosophy, but didn’t really know much about it. I have been using My Father’s World, and I’m pretty happy with most of their options, so I’m not really looking to change what I do as much as just to get new ideas. I want to know how I can give my children the best education possible.
This book is a rather ponderous tome. I wasn’t expecting a 2″ thick book when I reserved at the library! But I soon found that it was basically a complete 13-year curriculum, K-12, and that I didn’t need to read all of it. I don’t think I read quite half of it.
I did read the first part thoroughly. I wanted to understand what a classical education was. Apparently it is what was used as the foundation of our educational system back in our great-grandparents day. Back then, students memorized lessons and really applied themselves. The things they memorized or learned early on gave them pegs upon which to hang new information later, just as learning addition and multiplication prepares a student for more advanced math, or knowing the basics of the body would be foundational to more advanced anatomy.
I found the whole idea of the trivium intriguing, yet it makes sense. Why teach logic to a kindergartener? They haven’t matured enough to really reason with much logic. The grammar stage comes first. Then logic, then rhetoric. Lay the foundation, teach them to think logically about information, and the next step is teaching them to defend what they believe. That is the logic behind the trivium, and it makes perfect sense. It is unfortunate that many in our society seem to be deficient in logic. My husband and I both feel that we didn’t really develop our critical thinking skills until we were about 30. Yet those same skills can be trained into high schoolers, according to this book. It is definitely a good goal to shoot for.
I really appreciated the insights on teaching math and reading for the K and 1st grade levels. This especially since I have decided to take a step back from My Father’s World Kindergarten and go back to Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons. I had started the book last spring with my son, then 5 years old. He seemed to be learning the sounds well, but the blending of sounds just wasn’t clicking. After 10 lessons he was getting very tired of it, so I put it away. Then I pulled out MFW K in the fall and have done 2-4 lessons a week with him. It went well until they wanted him to start spelling words by listening for the sounds in the word and then writing them. His writing skills are a bit low. He traces nicely (though he follows his own rules about what direction to trace; for now I’m not stressing over it, but emphasizing proper form when we work together), and enjoys tracing sheets of letters that I printed and laminated. If I print a Bible verse for him to trace (this site has a great program where you can make any worksheet you want), he will trace it, and he loves it. But he still has difficulty forming letters from his mind, and especially keeping them the right size for the lines available.
So I pulled out 100 Easy Lessons this week and we did lesson 11. And 12, and 13. He is doing so well with it that I think I’ll continue it for now. My goal is for him to be reading simple books by summer. If we haven’t finished the 100 lessons by then, we may stop or may keep up, depending on his interest and reading level. He is sounding out words, slowly, but he is getting it. His retention of the letter sounds is very good.
But back to the review. I’m not sure what to think of the way the Classical lessons are planned, with longer times per class. This would be in contrast to Charlotte Mason, who promoted 15-20 minute classes. On the other hand, there is something to be said for letting a student finish something rather than just moving on when the bell or timer rings. Time limits sometimes are useful motivators (my daughter will focus better on writing, for instance, if I set a timer), but if one gets into a project, a timer can be an annoying distraction. So I really don’t know. I think it might depend at least somewhat on the child. For now, I’m sticking with Charlotte Mason on this one, especially since MFW follows her philosophy quite a bit. But when my kids are older, we’ll see.
The idea of studying history consecutively and then repeating makes sense. In some ways, MFW does that, but they start with a year of geography, and they don’t start until 2nd to 4th grade, depending on the child. Then they do the same sequence of history in high school. I’m not sure how their science matches up with the classical method, but I really don’t care. To me, science is interesting and helpful to know, but not really crucial to know in intimate detail for most careers. If I have a kid whose favorite subject is science, I’m sure I can supplement with library books if MFW isn’t deep enough to satisfy him.
Speaking of library books, the classical method uses lots of books, and their recommendations for high school include a lot of reading that can fall into different categories such as Literature, History, and Science. I love the idea of a literature-rich curriculum, which MFW is. Reading a variety of things makes for balance, and when someone reads aloud, several can benefit.
I liked what they said about electronics and media. They strongly discourage using videos to teach young children. They explained that watching a video requires less effort than reading the information, and this is absolutely true. If we train out children to learn in an effortless way, they will be loath to apply themselves later. I found learning relatively effortless, and I wish now that I had been challenged more. Oh that I had been allowed to skip a grade! Mom started me rather late (I was 7.5 when i started first grade) and wouldn’t let me skip; and because I had to do every single problem in the whole book, I never had time to double up and do two grades in a year. I graduated high school at 19 1/2. My husband finished at age 17. I honestly wish I had dropped out of high school at age 16.
One thing they did approve of was using media to reinforce an idea already studied. Like watching the movie after reading the book instead of before, or watching a documentary of Lewis and Clark after spending a week reading about them. I like this idea immensely. We read about Harriet Tubman recently, and after we had finished the four chapters about her life, we watched a video about her. I’m definitely going to be more limiting and intentional in my use of visual media than I was before.
They discussed the idea that many today have of letting kids express themselves, and how many feel that making a child learn by the rules will stifle creativity. The book says that this is wrong, because in reality we need to give the child the tools with which to be creative. It reminded me of an art class my daughter took. It was called Process Painting, and she was encouraged to look within for the ability to draw and paint what she wanted, as if she possessed all the ability within naturally. No instruction was given. So basically I paid $75 for her to spend 6 hours painting in someone else’s studio with their paints and brushes. She learned nothing except how to clean the brushes between colors (which she knew anyway). I felt like it was a waste of money. I thought that if she could have been taught some kind of technique, she could have expressed herself better. Process painting may be helpful for therapeutic purposes, but for the elementary student, a class that teaches techniques would be much more valuable. So my gut reaction to that experience was validated by the book!
One thing I did not agree with was their choice of literature. It seemed that they encouraged myths and fairy tales and fiction without limit. I mean, there is nothing wrong with being familiar with the story of Achilles or Hercules, and I know MFW will cover some of those things when we study the era of Greece, but letting a second grader read those stories as entertainment? I don’t think I want my kids to know Greek mythology just yet, and especially to read it for fun. They need a solid foundation in the Bible. And while I am not exactly opposed to all fiction across the board, I feel that it is important to guard what we read, especially for pleasure. What we read affects us; it influences and changes us. If one reads trashy romance novels, for instance, one might become dissatisfied with her singleness or marriage. Reading that makes one lose a taste for the sacred is questionable at best, and deadly at worst. Exciting stories dull the taste for more important things. I might read the occasional Biblical fiction (a book wrapped around a Bible character), but first I only read one here and there, maybe a couple a year, and I allow them only because I find the insight into the culture of the times helpful. But I don’t want to fill my children’s minds with “great literature” so much as I want to fill them with truth that will affect their eternal life. I believe that there is no book so calculated to strengthen mental vigor as the Bible. I don’t care if my children ever read Pride and Prejudice. But I want them to read The Desire of Ages and the other books in that series.
Latin is part of a classical education. They gave some compelling reasons for learning it. I see the logic behind learning it, and I am inclined to want to try it. Knowing Spanish rather fluently and comprehending a good bit of French and Italian, I think it would be easy to pick up. At the very least, I could learn to read ancient Latin literature, or comprehend the Douay Bible. I don’t think Latin would help a student speak a Latin-based language easier–each language has it’s own system of pronunciation rules, some quite different from each other (Spanish and French, for instance). Yet if one knew Latin, he could comprehend a good written portion (probably more than 50%) of almost any Latin language without learning the language at all. This would accelerate learning of the language. I base my saying of this not so much on the book, but on my own experience learning Spanish. Comprehension increased my learning. Words that were similar to English (culpable–which is pronounced differently from the English word but written identically–imaginación, mansión, cañon, etc) were easy to learn. I read a book about Creation vs Evolution when I had been speaking Spanish for less than two years and found it the easiest book ever, because the technical words were so similar to English technical vocabulary!
So I see the logic of learning Latin, and may try to find a curriculum to start in 4th or 5th grade. But I need to work on some self-discipline in my kids first.
I felt that the book bowed a little too much to the schools when it discussed dealing with local schools. It recommended reporting your intent to homeschool to the local school district regardless of the laws of the state, and recommended giving more information than many states require. The problem with this, in my mind, is that we are not given the right to homeschool by the state, but by God. If the law requires it, I will register or supply a portfolio or test my child yearly. But if it does not, I won’t. I do not need to ask permission to homeschool my child. I do not need to give them more information than is required by law. In Oregon, testing is only required in certain grades, and though I might do a practice test each year to prepare for the actual test in those grades, I will not do a formal test yearly. Also, one need only report the grade if the school district requests it. I will not volunteer information that is not requested or required by law. I wish an HSLDA lawyer could help them rewrite that chapter of the book for the next edition.
Overall, I think it is a great resource, and I just might buy it for my library someday. For sure if I run across one at the thrift store, I would absolutely buy it! The end-of-chapter lists of resources alone are worth the cost of the book.
But will I adopt the Classical method of education? Probably not. I’m much more Charlotte Mason inspired than classical. I like My Father’s World. It simplifies my life. I can skip things, change them, supplement them, but it provides the foundation upon which to build. I don’t see us switching to something like Classical Conversations or anything like that. But I do appreciate a greater understanding of the principles of a Classical education, and I feel that my time reading the book was well-spent.