How does classical education differ from progressive education? That is a question worth contemplating for parents of students in classical Christian schools.
One way to answer is to contrast state Common Core standards with the texts and goals used by classical Christian schools. They differ dramatically, both philosophically and practically, with a very different vision for student outcomes. Why don’t classical schools use textbooks? Why the emphasis on original sources? From where do the standards arise? The more you think about it, the more questions arise.
Here is a brief, contrasting sketch of each approach, taken from the Association of Classical Christian Schools website:
Social Studies and/or Common Core
State Common Core standards can be inherited in conventional Christian schools through textbooks, teacher certification, and policies such as accreditation. Some Christian schools subscribe to the Common Core formally. A key value of progressive education is to create a minimum achievement level for all students. This means, given limited resources, the standards will always be baseline. Schools also inherit this value system through the teacher colleges that certify their teachers. Even Christian publishers tend to accommodate the Core by removing text or rewriting it to a predefined angle. The result is that schools often underestimate the capability of individual students, and impose unintentional standards that work against a Christian worldview.
What you might see: Students use textbooks to read and do exercises or worksheets in social studies. Content tends to be state or US history & geography. History begins in about 1776. Students spend time assimilating information and testing, with a few projects added to break it up.
Emphasis: U.S. and modern history. Also may include geography, sociology, and psychology.
Time: High-school “social studies” is often limited to 2 or 3 classes (US history and elective world history, or regional history with church history sometimes added separately). This equates to about an hour per day for two or three years.
Coursework: Economics, US Government, and Geography often replace history in the junior and senior year. Electives like P.E., Health, and a variety of others make up much of the high-school schedule and often cover a majority of the credits, allowing students to steer their educational course.
Sources: Each of these courses is centered on learning data. Textbooks summarize to allow quick ingestion of facts. Occasional projects are interspersed to cement the knowledge of facts.
Examples: History texts would likely contain summaries of approved Common Core content.
With the rising control of Common Core at the federal level, courses will become even more knowledge-specialized. Christian schools are influenced by these standards as they come through text books, teacher training, etc.
Bottom Line: Less time is spent on history and literature, with more of an emphasis on knowing facts and a focus on a scientific study of humane, social subjects. This leads to a mono-dimensional, pre-judged version of the Core.
Results: Students end up knowing a few areas (US history, economics) but they don’t relate this knowledge to any bigger picture or narrative. The perspective of their textbooks is unchallenged by original sources.
A Classical Core
CCE standards are based on a classical core of texts and goals (not “standards”) to take each student as far as they can go toward excellence. The classical core has historically been the anchor of academic institutions, both at the high-school and college level. Unlike Common Core, the classical core is not a standard-set, nor is it an official list of textbooks. Rather, it is a known canon of works and practiced abilities. From the curricular materials to the reading expectations to the skills in math, music, and art, classical education uses higher, more challenging sources, allowing students to develop an uncommon depth of thought.
What you might see: Students read and discuss extensively—often around 20 or more pages of an original work on a typical school day. The works tend to be older and unabridged with in-depth language, ideas, and themes. While difficult to access at first, students grow accustomed over about 10 years of intensive reading in the classical core. History is learned through original sources and spans from the Hebrews and Greeks to the present day. Adjustments are made based upon individual abilities and expectations.
Emphasis: The unity of ancient, medieval, and modern Western and Christian history, geography, literature, philosophy, and theology.
Time: High-schools require 4 years of humanities with about 2 hours of history and literature daily throughout high school—much more than twice the time spent in the best conventional schools.
Coursework: Fewer electives allow students in CCE schools to focus on the importance of the core. This helps keep the important things important—something students might not appreciate until much later in life.
Sources: Original sources are preferred in all subjects, which are often more complex and thought provoking in the classroom than textbooks. This helps prevent students from reading “scrubbed” works that are interpreted by modern scholars.
Examples: History texts would likely include ancient historians like Herodotus, Tacitus, Suetonius, or Eusebius.
Common Core is not a factor for classical Christian schools. We don’t use the texts, the teachers, or the accreditation that would influence our schools.
Bottom Line: Our students learn to understand and extract rich and thought-provoking ideas from literature. They spend time gaining an integrated understanding of God’s story, told through history and great-books literature, and making sense of all things brought together in a “university” of knowledge.
Results: Students gain perspective and understanding, as well as a deep knowledge of other time periods and works that help them “become aware of the vast cataract of foolishness in our own time.”— C.S. Lewis. Some specialized subjects may not receive as much attention.