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Classical Approach

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In recent years there has been a renewed interest in the academically-challenging classical model of education. The classical approach is a history-based, idea-oriented educational model that exposes students to the great minds of the past through literature, essays, philosophy, etc. It has been successfully used to educate students for hundreds of years and has produced many of history's great minds. Advocates of this language-intensive approach believe the key to educating students is to provide them with intellectual tools that will help them learn to teach themselves.

Dorothy Sayers is one of those associated with the recent interest in classical education. Sayers was an English writer and scholar who became concerned that people were displaying a general lack of intellectual ability to discern and think logically. She proposed that without critical thinking abilities the citizenry could be too easily influenced and persuaded by such tyrants as Adolf Hitler. In 1947 she advocated a return to the classical form of education through presentation of her well-known essay "The Lost Tools of Learning". Those "lost tools" of learning include language and thinking skills that can be applied throughout one's life.

Advocates of the classical approach believe that children move through certain developmental learning stages. The learning strengths of each of those stages are considered carefully as classical educators systematically teach students to learn in three sequential, interrelated levels. They apply teaching methods they consider appropriate at the various levels in order to help students learn more effectively.

The three level process for educating students using the classical approach is called the trivium. The three levels include the grammar, dialectic/formal logic, and the rhetoric stages. The trivium educational pattern is designed to train students to learn and apply facts, think logically, and express themselves effectively.

  • Grammar stage (elementary grade level) - At this stage, children display a natural ability to memorize and absorb large amounts of information. The emphasis at this level is on filling the students' minds with facts and on developing and refining their skills of memorization, observation, and listening.
  • Dialectic / Formal Logic stage (middle school level) - At this stage, children begin to demonstrate independent and abstract thinking. Teaching at this level, takes advantage of the students' natural tendencies to argue and question. Students are trained to support their ideas with facts, draw logical conclusions, and recognize flaws in arguments.
  • Rhetoric stage (high school level) - At this stage children become more concerned with how they are perceived by other people. Knowledge and skills acquired from the prior stages are applied and built upon. Students are trained to write and speak with clarity, eloquence, and persuasiveness in order to present their ideas and express themselves effectively.


Adler, Mortimer J. and Charles Van Doren HOW TO READ A BOOK: THE CLASSIC GUIDE TO INTELLIGENT READING, Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1972.

Wise, Jessie and Susan Wise Bauer THE WELL TRAINED MIND: A GUIDE TO CLASSICAL EDUCATION AT HOME; W. W. Norton & Company, 1999,

Resource Web Links:

American Classical League website

The Well Trained Mind website

Websites for the Classics

The Great Books Foundation