Brain Wars: Classical Education vs. Brain Science

Brain Wars: Classical Education vs. Brain Science, Marla Szwast, Jump Into Genius, Homeschooling

As I read about cognitive and neuroscience and all the amazing ways our brain learns I often see why I was attracted to certain educational philosophies and also why I didn’t jump all in. In other words, most of the educational philosophies popular in the homeschooling world have clear strengths and weaknesses when viewed through the lens of modern brain science.

It is time to judge these philosophies against the truths revealed by science. This is not to disparage any one philosophy of education, or even to elevate science above philosophy. It is simply that when we consider education from more than one angle we can often get to the heart of the deepest, universal truths. Yes, I said universal truths. Learning is not all relative or unique. Yes, humans are all unique and our kid’s brains may work in slightly idiosyncratic ways. But what goes on in our brains when we learn is much more similar to what happens in every other person’s brain than it is different.

So even though we may tweak the details of our children’s education to personally suit them, we do not need a separate philosophy for each child. Understanding the big, deep, universal truths about how humans learn can transform our homeschooling adventures. With understanding comes confidence and discernment. There is no getting around the fact that our self-embraced freedom as homeschoolers means we have a million choices to make about our child’s education. Making good choices, knowing what each child needs and when, is an art, but that art, like any other, has underlying principles. Once we understand those principles we will be able to compose a beautiful education each day and week, month and year, for our child, with greater ease.

This art of education is more important than any other art in the world, as we are forming souls and shaping the future of humanity. And this art is closer to our heart than any other artistic endeavor we will attempt throughout our lifetimes. These are our children, and we want not only to get it right but to paint the most beautiful childhood for them that we possibly can. In fact, we desire to paint a perfect picture…but the thing about art is that it defies being defined as perfect. Certainly, art comes in various qualities and styles, some works fading away and other enduring over time. But no one piece of art is the ‘perfect’ piece towards which all artists strive.

It is the same with parenting and educating our children. There is no one perfect outcome. There is a nourishing and unfolding of beauty, a discovery of what this canvas is capable of holding and being and doing. There is no perfection.

Here, we dive into what every human canvas, the brain, needs to develop.

Defining Classical Education

I feel I need here a disclaimer as to the definition of classical education. As many versions exist as authors who have written on the topic. For a good overview of this subject, you can check out my guest post here, which covers book reviews of four popular homeschooling books on classical education.

For our purposes in this article, we are going to include the use of the three stages of learning used in much of classical education, the grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric stages. But we will also dive into the idea of surrounding your kids with truth, goodness, and beauty and how that impacts learning. I also want to draw directly from the ancient Greek practices which included large amounts of time devoted to athletics and music in addition to academic pursuits.

Grammar, Memorization, & Brain Power

First, let’s talk about memorization. While there are many things we don’t know about how the ancient Greeks, who are the forefathers of modern-day classical education taught, we do know they memorized. They memorized the whole of classical literature in their world, which was the Iliad and the Odyssey. Now I am not saying we need to make our children memorize the Iliad and Odyssey but I do want to talk about the power of memorization.

When we memorize something, we know it. The information becomes a part of us. We own that knowledge and it forms us. Memorizing takes information from working memory and stores it in long-term memory where we can quickly and easily fetch it whenever needed. This is why we never forget how to ride a bike. Even our muscles have memory and we spent enough time on a bike that the motions and skills are etched eternally into our brain’s long-term storage banks.

How do we get stuff in there? I mean, from short-term working memory, where it resides when we memorize a list of facts the night before a test, to long-term, with you forever memory? Ahhh…here is where the grammar stage of classical education shines, repetition. The reason repetition works so well is really quite simple. Our brains don’t like to work hard. When we make them work on the same bit of information over and over again in our working memory…by talking, reading, singing, or writing down the information…the brain notices. It gets tired of it. It decides this must be something super important because that same bit of info keeps coming up over and over again. It then sends that info to the long-term memory banks.

Of course, in our modern society, we have to deal with a few questions which the Greeks did not, one of the greatest of these being the overabundance of information. We can’t just have our kids memorize all the classics. Even deciding which classics and how many to have your child study can be a loaded decision for a parent. There is no magic list of which classics everyone else in our world has read and will want to reference and have conversations about.

Add to this a culture which is attracted at all times to the shiny and new over the old and we have a constant shift in the literature that is widely read. The ‘classics’ taught in schools are not very old at all. And of course, we still have the Iliad, the Odyssey, and so many more great works that came after them but long before our ‘new’ classics such as Charlotte’s Web and Little House on the Prarie.

Memorizing means we own something and also that we can then connect the information in new ways. Because the info is in our long-term bank we can pull it out to compare, contrast, and look for connections with the information that is in our working memory. And the more information in long-term memory the more bits we have to make connections with when we encounter a new piece of information.

This also makes it easier to store the new pieces because we have this sticky web of stuff in our long-term memory and all we have to do is figure out where the new bit fits and shove it in there. Actually, the more you know, the easier it is to learn more. (reference)

This is a huge win for classical education because it is one of the only educational philosophies that have any focus at all on memorization. For more about the logistics of memory you can check out What’s the Matter with Memory, Does Practice Make Your Kid Perfect?, and Exploring Intelligence: The Magic of Memory

Once we have embraced the idea that memorization is good for the brain and necessary to truly learn a subject we can then take the next step and think about what to memorize. I will not get into a discussion of details here as books have been written on the subject. I suggest you start simple, pick one thing to put into those precious brains, and keep it fun. Memorizing does not have to be painful, it is only the methods we employ to get it done which can bring death by boredom and that is not good for the brain. (See Why Boring Education Hurts Children)

Don’t Kids Argue Enough Without Teaching It?

What comes next is dialectic, sometimes referred to as argument. Have you ever tried to argue with someone who was completely ignorant? What happened? Did either of you enjoy the argument or learn anything from it? The thing is, we need to know stuff before we can argue well. To be intelligent and thorough in our arguments we need stuff in our brain. Facts we can pull out at a moments notice. Connections we can explain. Maybe even a convincing metaphor to make our point. The art of argument is generally assigned to a child’s middle school years in classical education. It seems to be a natural fit as kids that age love to argue. They are busy trying to make sense of the world. They know a lot at that point and they want to test out how everything fits together. But sometimes little kids want to do this too…and a good educator will always be asking questions, getting their brain to actively engage, almost challenging them to argue.

I have never been sure about a strong dichotomy of leaving argument until later. I have fun arguing and hearing arguments from my kids from a young age. But I do think it is true that they can only argue about the things they know. In order to be able to argue within a subject, the child needs to know the facts and vocabulary of the subject first. This means it is much easier to teach argument as a subject in middle school when they are already familiar with many facts and ideas.

I will never forget the day I told my kids they could not take a toy with them in the van because it would be too noisy. One of them (6 or 7) at the time replied, “But Mommy, we are going to make too much noise anyways.” Ah, the truth. He knew it and called it. Was he arguing? Kind of…he did not have an attitude with this comment, he had the demeanor of a boy stating a fact. But he was challenging his mother’s logic. It did not make sense to him. So yes, he disagreed with the premise of my statement. An argument. He knew a lot about noise in the van and what exactly produced that noise, therefore he was able to make this simple, powerful, argument. (I was impressed by his reasoning but was not swayed in my decision to allow the toy. I simply said, you are right, but we are still not bringing it. We do not have to give away parental authority to encourage our kids to argue.)

How does arguing fit into the brain? Well, I have already mentioned we need the underlying information before we can become good at arguing. When we argue, we are forced to make new connections, to evaluate evidence, to pull out and contemplate many different bits from long-term memory until we find just the ones we need. This is important to learning. By using those bits we signal to our brain that we still need them. See, the brain does love to prune out bits if it has been ages and ages since they were used. If it is sure we will never need that bit again it will throw it out. Hence, the pattern of not remembering half of what you learned in school. But how often were you challenged to use what you had learned? Whether we revisit the information in argument, conversation, essays, or math proofs, it is important we keep coming back. Connections are how our brains grow. So yes, classical education wins again with its focus on dialectic and argument. Great ways to interact and use the information that has been obtained and to make sense of the world around you.

Rhetoric is not a Bad Word

Then, in the high school years, classical education shifts its focus to rhetoric. Rhetoric is the art of effective or persuasive speaking and writing. A skill that separates the leaders from the led. In a world where many adults have not yet learned how to have a simple, civil, conversations, especially with someone they disagree with, even the word rhetoric has lost much of its original meaning and is used more often colloquially as ‘hot air, or nonsense’. We no longer respect the art of persuading others in writing or speaking. And yet, writers and speakers the world over still do it. Those who are the best at it win the followers. And so even though we outwardly shun rhetoric as archaic it is very much alive even if it is being used more often to manipulate the masses than it is to bring enlightenment and discovery.

Rhetoric is what separates an amateur from an expert. You cannot communicate well about idea’s which you do not understand. Only years of reading have led me to be able to write this simple, and in the minds of expert communicators, likely, awkward, article. Without those years of ingesting facts, ideas, and vocabulary I could not think about these ideas. Only after some rumination can I write about them. And after I write, I have to edit and whittle and rearrange to attempt to form an argument convincing enough that you might embrace some of these ideas in your home. Practicing rhetoric again pulls on all the information you have stored away, searches out connections, and orders the findings. These are high-level thinking tasks. The kind that experts in every field engage in. This stage is practicing the brain patterns and pathways that will allow your child’s brain to engage with the knowledge they continue to gain as an adult on a deeper level.

Classical education is going deeper into learning and thinking when it leads the teen on this journey into rhetoric. But you can’t start here, which is where many people who argue against memorization wish to start. Deep learning first requires going through the shallows. For more about why your child can’t get to rhetoric before they have the basics down read Why Johnny Can’t Think Like a Scientist Until He is One.

Classical Education Only Fails the Brain When it Copies the Industrialized Education System to the Detriment of its Own Ideals

I think sometimes classical education gets a bad rap because implementing it can look to0 similar to our modern industrialized education systems. You know, the systems we left behind searching for greener pastures. One reason for this is simply that the modern industrialized model is the model we know. It is the one we are comfortable with, so when the classical revival started it did so by working within the model, just shifting some of what was studied and when. Creating systems that conform to classical ideas on the outside but are really just more boring, dry, dull, textbooks.

The problem with programs like that is they ignore some of the other underlying ideas behind classical education. Ideas such as the central importance of truth, goodness, and beauty. Textbooks aren’t beautiful. But why? Does a systematic and regulated approach to a subject have to be ugly and dull? Of course not, workbooks and textbooks can be beautiful, if a publisher cares enough about beauty to make it a priority. When I speak of beauty here I not only mean what is pleasing to the eye as far as pictures, but what is pleasing to the ear in the arrangement of words, what is pleasing to the mind in the arrangement of ideas and what is pleasing to the heart in the arrangement of emotions.

These are the ways we engage the mind to interact with the information we are attempting to teach. If the student is unengaged by a dull presentation their mind will find a way to entertain itself. If they are confused by unclear presentation of the subject their mind will quit trying to understand. If their curiosity is peaked, through beauty, their mind will become interested and alert and the information they are receiving will be sent to the area of the brain we use for higher processing.

This is where beauty comes in and we would do well to call it an engaging education. Classical education should not be boring. When a textbook is used it should be beautiful and engaging in a way that puts every other textbook to shame. (One example I can think of is Song School Latin by Classical Academic Press.)

The Body is not an Accessory

The ancient Greeks revered the beautiful so much that every schoolboy learned by heart the most beautiful literature of the time. But they did not confine their education or their children to academic pursuits all day. The body was considered of utmost importance and hours were spent on athletics which were designed to make every citizen a strong warrior when the need arose. The thing about this that is striking to me is that while we do talk about the importance of movement in our culture we rarely put it into practice. We still see the brain as something separate from the body in that we think putting kids at desks to study for 6-8 hours a day will result in superior intelligence.

The truth is, of course, that our brains are inside our body, inextricably connected to our bodies and that our brain needs us to move for its own healthy development. Sending your kid to run up a hill and roll down it repeatedly does not just serve the purpose of getting them to sit still and listen for 15 minutes afterward. It creates neurons. It stimulates the vestibular system. It pushes oxygen to the brain.  The truth is we would all be smarter if we spent a little more time moving. Some kids will demand these hours of physical activity by driving you nuts if you don’t give it to them, others may have to be prodded out the door, but either way, no one is going to develop to their full intellectual potential without also taking care of their body.

Amazing Academic Knowledge Does Not Equal Amazing People

This brings us to another aspect of being human, the heart. This term is used to express something intangible yet also undeniable. What is the heart? What makes a well-educated man turn to into a good person who persuades others towards kindness instead of an evil dictator who uses his abilities of persuasion to convince thousands of men to kill millions of men?

We have to consider cultivating this aspect of man when we educate our children. What gives us our moral code? The tradition of classical education would point to stories and music as the things which develop the heart. Recent research corroborates the idea by showing that children and adults who read lots of stories have much higher levels of empathy than those who do not. (reference) I have heard several authors testify to the power of stories to develop their heart, as kids, they had very rough home lives and did not get the mentorship and examples they needed to become decent human adults. However, they got all they needed and more from stories, becoming not only decent human beings but helping others ascend by writing more stories. Stories they needed to hear when they were kids. The only reason they can tell these new stories is because of the nourishment their hearts received from the old stories they read. Those stories fed their starving hearts. They are in love with stories for being the parents they did not have.

A great classical education includes stories and music to nurture the hearts of children.

Classical Education is Big, Busy, and Beautiful, Loud, Messy, and Colorful, Demanding, Encouraging, and Restful.

We have talked about grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric. We have talked about truth, goodness, and beauty. We have talked about academics to nourish the mind, exercise to nourish the body, and stories and music to nourish the heart. If you are busy doing all these things it is really quite difficult to get bored. Of course, to fit it all in you have to let go of perfection. To spend hours a day moving and reading stories means fewer hours devoted to strictly academic pursuits. But doing a little of all these things just might raise the best humans possible. Not only have these ideas refused to die over the course of thousands of years but modern-day science also backs them up. Sometimes the answers to our modern day dilemmas can be found in the past. Would continuing these patterns in our homes be the worst thing we can do?

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