Notes – The Well-Trained Mind, Part I

These are my notes from the first part of “The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide To Classical Education At Home”. It covers concepts and instruction from the typical kindergarten through fourth grade period of education. My notes will remain fairly rough for now; later I may go back and compile them into a comprehensive “1 sheet summary” to classical education for home schooling. For now I will just provide my notes chapter by chapter, with the understanding that there is a mixture of direct quotes with clarifying commentary or analysis from me personally.

Chapter 2, A Personal Look at Classical Education: Susan

The author states that her personal experience with classical education applied at home was like this:

Our education was language-centered, not image-centered; we read and listened and wrote but we rarely watched.

Trivium

A classical education revolves around three core disciplines: grammar, logic and rhetoric. These three disciplines become an organizing principle for a home school family attempting to follow a classical education, and a model of the individual child’s intellectual development:

  • Grammar stage, the building blocks for all other learning are laid
  • Logic stage, cause and effect, relationships among different fields of knowledge, the way facts fit together into a logical framework, learn and apply the scientific method
  • Rhetoric stage, write and speak with force and originality, express conclusions, begin to specialize knowledge, specialized training

As the authors suggest, a child will go through three distinct “parts” of their education mirroring these stages; within each discipline or educational topic they’ll also individually progress through these stages.

Principles of classical education:

  • Language-focused, language requires the mind to work harder; images allow the mind to be passive
  • Three part pattern, the mind must first be supplied with facts and images, then given the logical tools for organization of those facts and images, and finally equipped to express conclusions (grammar, logic, rhetoric)
  • Mastery in skill areas, discovery and exploration in content areas; workbooks and textbooks are valuable for building skill areas; content areas are fields of study that are open-ended and can’t be mastered, we steer away from textbooks in the content areas, and towards collections of “living books”, books written by single authors, exploring particular issues and ideas
  • All knowledge is interrelated; history as an organizing outline of knowledge

Twelve years of education consist of three repetitions of the same four-year pattern: ancients (5000 BC to AD 400), medieval period through the early Renaissance (400-1600), late Renaissance through early modern period (1600-1850) and modern times (1850-present). The student will end up visiting each of these historical periods once each in the grammar, logic and rhetoric stages.

Move forward chronologically and organize the bulk of your history by time period, rather than by individual country. The traditional American method of studying history by region does nothing to help students draw connections between events, vital to critical thinking about history.

They suggest a 4-year pattern for sciences instruction:

  • biology, classification and the human body
  • earth science and basic astronomy
  • chemistry
  • basic physics and computer science

The classical pattern lends coherence to the study of history, science and literature.

Virtuous men and women can force themselves to do what they know is right, even when it runs against their inclinations. Classical education continually asks a student to focus not on what is immediately pleasurable but on the steps needed to reach a future goal.

“The Great Conversation”: the ongoing conversation of great minds down through the ages.

Part I, The Grammar Stage K-4

Chapter 3, The Parrot Years

A classical education requires a student to collect, understand, memorize and categorize information.

Your goal is to supply mental pegs on which later information can be hung.

The elementary years are ideal for soaking up knowledge.

The child should be accumulating masses of information: stories of people and wars; names of rivers, cities, mountains, and oceans; scientific names, properties of matter, classifications; plots, characters, and descriptions.

Seize this early excitement. Let the child delve deep. Let him read, read, read. Don’t force him to stop and reflect on it yet.

The immature mind is more suited to absorption than argument.

There is nothing wrong with a child accumulating information that she doesn’t yet understand. It all goes into the storehouse for use later on. [like language]

Children like lists at this age.

The goal of grammar-stage instruction is not to restrict your child but rather to protect her love of learning. Children mature out of the grammar stage into the logic stage at different times. Children mature unevenly. Give your children the time and space to mature, in each subject area, from grammar into logic-stage thinking.

Prioritize reading, writing, grammar and math.

A child who reads and writes well will pick up surprising amounts of history and science as he browses.

Chapter 4, Unlocking the Doors: The Preschool Years

She’s learning that words are used to plan, to think, to explain: she’s figuring out how the English language organizes words into phrases, clauses and complete sentences. [sportscasting with an infant]

Repetition builds literacy.

After you read to your toddler, ask her questions about the story.

As soon as your child begins to talk teach her the alphabet.

Teach a child from the beginning to hold a pencil correctly.

Start with counting: fingers, toes, eyes and ears; toys and treasures; rocks and sticks.

Most four-year-olds have microscopic attention spans, immature hand-eye coordination and a bad case of the wiggles.

Children can listen to and enjoy books that are far, far above their vocabulary level. Audiobooks stock a child’s mind with the sounds of thousands of words.

Many children are ready to read long before they have the muscular coordination to write. Why delay reading until the muscles of the hand and eye catch up?

Do “daily” math by adding and subtracting in the context of everyday family life.

Do lots of addition and subtraction with manipulatives (beans, buttons, pencils, chocolate chips).

Chapter 5, Words, Words, Words: Spelling, Grammar, Reading and Writing

Your goal, in grades 1 through 4, is to make the proper use of language second nature to your child.

Begin the academic year with three-ringed notebooks, a three-hole punch, and lots of paper, both lined and plain. Also lay in a boxful of art supplies: glue, scissors, construction paper, colored pencils (good artist-quality ones like Sanford Prismacolor), stickers and anything else that strikes the child’s fancy. For elementary language arts, you’ll want to make use of two of these notebooks. Label one “Literature” and the other “Writing.”

Always spend as much time on one level as you need and progress on to the next level only when your child has mastered the previous one.

Three levels of reading:

  • Instructional level, the student is still working hard at the mechanics of reading, and rarely has the comprehension to match
  • At-level reading, the student knows all of the letter combinations and words she’ll encounter, tends to be slow and requires concentration
  • Below-level (or “fun”) reading, these are the books that use only the words and combinations that the student is completely comfortable with, and is important because it allows the child to enjoy reading and it improves reading speed

Aim for the “reading periods” to include all three skills, each week.

Try to give the child simplified versions of the original literature that he’ll be reading in the higher grades or introduce him to a writer he’ll encounter later.

After a child reads, you can ask questions about the reading and the oral answers are called narrations.

Learning how to identify one or two items about a book as more important than the rest is a vital first step in learning to write; a young writer will flounder as long as he cannot pick out one or two of the ideas in his mind as central to his composition.

Children in the 3rd or 4th grade can write down their own narrations after reading. Instead of learning to complete fill-in-the-blank questions, the child uses all his mental faculties to understand, remember, and relate the main points of a story.

Every three or four weeks, the child should also memorize a poem and recite it to you. Memorization and recitation of poetry is an iomportant part of the reading process; it exercises the child’s memory, stores beautiful language in his mind, and gives him practice in speaking aloud.

Spelling is the first step in writing.

We don’t think you should allow spelling to consume your language arts time.

It’s important to allow students to progress at a natural pace in each of the language arts areas without frustrating them by limiting their progress to the speed of their worst subject.

Grammar exercises should be done orally with 1st and 2nd graders.

Early writing instruction should focus on developing those tools, rather than demanding a great deal of original content.

How to more quickly develop writing capability:

  • Most people try to teach children to express ideas at the same time they are writing them down, Inarticulate idea -> Idea in words -> Words on paper
  • We recommend you separate each step into a discrete action, ie, first Inarticulate idea -> Idea in words, then Idea in words -> Words on paper

The young writer practices putting ideas into words, and then putting words down on paper, before trying to do both simultaneously.

The classical pupil learns to write by copying the great writers.

Chapter 6, The Joy of Numbers: Math

Mathematics is a language because it uses symbols and phrases to represent abstract realities.

Mathematical literacy (numeracy) involves learning both the procedures and the reasons why they work (conceptual math).

Two primary methods of learning math:

  • Spiral approach, assumes students learn best when they practice a skill at a basic level, move away to other skills, and then return to the first skill and practice it at a slightly deeper level.
  • Mastery approach, teaches fewer topics per year but focuses on each longer

Chldren aged 5 through 7 usually need concrete objects; children aged 8 through 10 begin to shift into “mental image” mode. Abstract thinking begins around age nine or ten, which coincides with the beginning of the logic stage.

Firm principle of elementary mathematics: no calculators.

Math is a science of not being wrong about things, its techniques and habits hammered out by centuries of hard work and argument. With the tools of mathematics in hand, you can understand the world in a deeper, sounder, more meaningful way.

Chapter 7, Seventy Centuries in Four Years: History and Geography

The history of the world is but the biography of great men.

Thomas Carlyle

History is the study of everything that has happened until now. Unless you plan to live entirely in the present moment, the study of history is inevitable.

Keep one central fact in mind: history is a story.

The logical way to tell a story is to begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end.

The history curriculum covers seventy centuries; America occupies only five of them. [don’t over-emphasize your time and place in historical study]

The goal of the classical curriculum is multicultural in the true sense of the word: the student learns the proper place of his community, his state, and his country by seeing the broad sweep of history from its beginning and then fitting his own time and place into that great landscape.

Tackle original sources.

[why does the history curriculum begin with 5000BC, what about pre-history? biological history? spread of mankind over the globe?]

Three goals of studying history:

  • to give students an overall sense of progression of historical events from ancient times to the present
  • to develop skills in reading and writing
  • to teach geographic awareness.

Progressing chronologically from your chosen starting point gives students an organized and orderly way to think about history; the majority of your history study should be done with a worldwide focus, not country by country. [comparing and contrasting simultaneous developments]

Follow the same basic pattern:

  • Read the material to your child as they follow along; as they gain reading skills, alternate the reading responsibility
  • Make a narration page.
  • Ask the child to illustrate what has just been read, or color a picture related to the story
  • Find the geographical area under discussion on a globe, wall map, etc. and color the appropriate black-line map
  • Go to the library to find more books on the subject

Give priority to reading, grammar, spelling, writing and math. History and science follow on these basic abilities.

History should be a delight-centered activity for the grammar-stage child. Allow him to explore, do activities and projects, and have fun; you can always hurry over (or skip) later chapters without injury.

Chapter 8, Investigating the World: Science

Two important attitudes to cultivate: a sense of amazement; a commitment to look hard at the world around us.

Parents who are themselves scientists have told us that they prefer to teach the sciences as connected to each other rather than related to history.

Chapter 9, Dead Languages for Live Kids: Latin (and Other Languages Still Living)

Reasons to study a “dead language” like Latin:

  • Latin trains the mind to think in an orderly fashion.
  • Latin-trained mind becomes accustomed to paying attention to detail.
  • Latin improves English skills
  • Latin prepares the child for the study of other foreign languages.
  • Latin guards against arrogance.

A foreign language “provides one with entry into a worldview different from one’s own… If it is important that our young value diversity of point of view, there is no better way to achieve it than to have them learn a foreign language.”

Whole-to-parts Latin instruction is frustrating and counterproductive, and breaks down the very skill that systematic Latin lessons develop– the habit of systematic thinking.

Conversation is the only path to fluency.

Chapter 10, Electronic Teachers: Using Computers and Other Screens

During school-time, we read books, do experiments, and write about what we’re learning. It’s hard work, but the more the student reads and writes, the more natural reading and writing become.

Chapter 12, Finer Things: Art and Music

Art for elementary students should cover art techniques and elements, and learning about great artists.

Two years is the minimum time that it takes to begin to enjoy an instrument, rather than simply struggling with it.

Why We Don’t Read The Rainbow Fish To Our Children

If you’re the parent of a young child, you probably have a copy of The Rainbow Fish somewhere in the house– probably two or three! It seems this is one of several books that every family member and friend wants to be the one to give to you.

The book’s popularity and appeal are rooted not just in its attractive art style, including reflective foil silver fish scales, but also in its moral lesson. In simple terms, the book teaches about sharing and every modern parent knows that sharing is the Cardinal Virtue of Childhood. Whatever your child’s other vices, shortcomings and individual weaknesses might be, if he or she knows how to share and does it consistently in public social settings the parent can be confident, even proud, that they’ve raised their child right.

But why is sharing so important? Ah, this is the question to which no parent seems to know the answer!

We do not read The Rainbow Fish in our house, not to our children and not for the pleasure of the adults. We don’t think “sharing” is a virtue, cardinal or otherwise. We think it is an unthinking codeword of social metaphysics– the idea that one’s individual value is relative to what other individuals think it is.

Here is how The Rainbow Fish teaches social metaphysics to children:

The eponymous pisces is born with beautiful shiny scales. His shiny scales are coveted by other fish who are born without them. These fish ask for his scales, which he does not give to them. As a result, the other fish scorn and ostracize him. He meets a “wise” octopus (ie, a not-fish) who tells him that he can be desirable to the other fish if he gives the virtues he was born with to others. He proceeds to do so until he is left with one shiny scale for himself, all others being distributed pro-rata to the other fish. At this point, the other fish are happy with him and he is accepted into their community.

What’s going on here? Let’s parse this.

The protagonist is an antagonist. The school of fish, the fish community, is the protagonist and he has antagonized them simply be existing. The reason his existence is bothersome is because he was born with qualities (beauty, in this case) which they lack. They feel lessened in their pride and their own existence by witnessing things he came into life with that they were not.

Without making any attempt to know and understand the Rainbow Fish, the other fish determine he is unlikable because he won’t give them the things they have, simply because they ask for it. His virtues are vices if they can’t have them for themselves.

The Rainbow Fish faces exclusion and emotional pain if he chooses to keep himself to himself. He is not free to exercise his property rights as he likes without fear of being alienated by the other members of the community.

To gain wisdom about how to participate in a community of his peers, he speaks with a creature outside of his species. He learns not to trust his instincts or his own rational capabilities but to trust in alien powers. He learns that he is wrong “as a person” just for being who he is– he must make some gift, offering or sacrifice of himself to the community to be accepted.

Finally, he gives up what is desirable and virtuous of himself to others. Only when there is equality are the others happy with him. And suddenly, he is happy with himself for being liked by them. It is not explained how and why he needed to be unhappy without that condition being met nor why he couldn’t survive and prosper without giving away his virtue and strengths to others, now totally diluted.

We believe that the strengths and capabilities people are born with are virtuous. At minimum, they benefit the individual and at maximum they may be utilized in social cooperation to benefit others as well. But they do not harm or hinder other people who are born without them.

We believe that people should be free to choose who they associate with and on what terms. Giving away one’s values and virtues is not an acceptable condition for gaining group membership or loyalty in our minds. Any group that values an individual as a member should be able to value them for who they are, not for what they can take from them.

We believe individuals should trust themselves and their own reasoning. They should not need to rely upon the “wisdom” (opinions) of people who are not like themselves to learn how to live their own life truthfully and successfully.

We do not believe that self-sacrifice is a reasonable price to pay for the approval of others. We do not believe the approval of others to be valuable or desirable criteria for self-esteem and the ability to live life joyfully on one’s own terms.

We believe there are other means for establishing group harmony and the bonds of community than simple equality of property, possessions or ideas. The Cardinal Virtue in our minds, in childhood and otherwise, is Integrity– honesty with oneself, full visibility of one’s individuality, and the courageous nobility of embracing the unique challenges and triumphs of each person’s identity.

For these reasons, we do not read The Rainbow Fish in our household even though many families do.