In 1947, Dorothy Sayers presented a speech at Oxford titled “The Lost Tools of Learning.”  The speech lamented the demise of education in England and presented an earlier model of education, a model that had successfully educated free men and leaders since the time of the Greeks. The ancients saw two aspects to education: what we teach and how we teach. What we teach is often referred to as the Great Books and is discussed below. In the Classical school, how we teach is through the Trivium. The Trivium consists of three stages, each corresponding to the development of the mind. The first stage is the grammar stage, followed by the dialectic (or logic) stage and, finally, the rhetoric stage.  

Grammar stage (roughly K-6th)

In the grammar stage, young students are capable of memorizing vast amounts of information, much more than modern educators acknowledge. Consider that every Greek school boy used to memorize The Iliad and The Odyssey. Twenty-first-century Muslim-American children attending Koranic schools memorize the entire Koran. Young children raised in a bilingual or trilingual home are capable of learning two or three languages by the time they are six, without even going to school. 

Our students in the grammar stage learn a lot of information. We use poetry, chants, and songs to accomplish this.  Grammar students learn most of the Bible stories and the truths they teach. Children learn science and history facts. They also learn to read ever more demanding books in preparation for the Great Books they will read in subsequent stages. While grammar students’ minds are not ready for formal logic and rhetoric, we do want students to develop a habit of thinking and expressing themselves, so they ask questions, make connections between facts, and have regular opportunities to speak, write and create. It is also in the grammar stage that Latin instruction usually begins.

In the first few years, which we refer to as a pre-grammar stage, students' focus is also on learning to read and write and do basic arithmetic.  Sea Island School, in its opening year, will offer only the grammar stage unless there are enough interested parents and if we can secure an excellent teacher for this stage.

Dialectic stage (roughly 7th-9th)

Students in the middle school years are well known for developing a desire to argue. The Greeks recognized this and opted to teach students of this age to argue well using logic.

Students take facts learned during the grammar stage and begin to relate them to one another. Previously disconnected facts are arranged in logical relationships until understanding is created.  Teaching students to reason is practically accomplished as follows: Students learn to think in a formal logic class by constructing arguments and deconstructing the arguments of others. The other subjects are used to teach the children to think. According to the Oxford scholar and writer Dorothy Sayers, subject matter is “just grist for the mill.” The teacher uses science, history, Bible, and literature as practice material for argumentation. While students continue to learn more facts, they learn to reason from these facts using class discussion, debate, declamation, and argumentative writing.

Rhetoric stage (roughly 10th-12th)

In the rhetoric stage students are of an age when they want to express their own ideas. So they are taught how to do so, ideally using Aristotle's rhetoric. In each subject the students continue to gather knowledge (grammar stage) and organize that knowledge into understanding (dialectic stage), but now they learn to communicate their understanding to others in the rhetoric stage.

Classical content

The content or subject matter of a classical education is often referred to as a Great Books education. We want to expose students to “the great conversation” that has gone on since the time of the Greeks.  At the grammar stage most our students will not have the capacity to read and comprehend Aristotle or Augustine, but through a succession of high-quality children’s books and the memorization of poetry and short passages from the great books, children can and will move in that direction.

Read, discuss, write

Francis Bacon, the 16th and 17th-century English philosopher and statesman wrote, “Reading maketh a full man, conference [discussion] a ready man, and writing an exact man.”  This sums up much about how one is educated.  In reading, we gather knowledge and wisdom.  In discussion and debate, we hone our understanding of what we have learned.  But in writing understanding is perfected.  Writing is one of the most important tools a student may possess, especially when backed with formal logic training of the dialectic stage of learning. 

Psychologist Jordan Peterson corroborates this in his presentation, "The Deadliest of All Skills" (which we had linked to, but YouTube has removed Peterson's account). He is speaking mostly to college-aged individuals, but advocates that everyone, whether in school or out, should spend two hours a day just reading and writing. Now, an eight-year-old probably doesn’t have the intellectual capacity for thesis writing, but at an early age, we can break the writing process down into bite-sized parts that young people can successfully master, enabling them to eventually become "deadly" in their writing, thinking, and speaking.