Teaching Children How to Think
by Laura Berquist – © 2011

I began home schooling about 17 years ago. I knew right away that I what I wanted in terms of education was to teach my children how to think. I had read Dorothy Sayers' essay on the "Lost Tools of Learning" and I agreed with her wholeheartedly that education should be directed toward acquiring the art of learning.

However, her essay didn't tell me what to do for English, History, or Science. And I didn't know enough about teaching or the development of children to understand how to implement the method of the Trivium in my curriculum. So I set aside the essay and proceeded to experiment on my little guinea pigs.

Over the years (about 10) I developed my own curriculum by trial and error, using what worked with my children. Then, in preparing for a conference talk, I re-read the essay of Miss Sayers and discovered that my 'trial and error' curriculum fit very well into her three stage classical curriculum. What I came to by using what worked, she proposed from a knowledge of medieval education.

This coincidence of curriculum, arrived at by such different paths, confirmed my belief that education should capitalize on the natural capabilities of the child. When children want to memorize, direct their memorization. When they want to argue, teach them to argue carefully. And when they want to express themselves, let them practice doing so.

Through this use of the natural inclinations of the child, one develops the formation that will result in children who can think, not just accumulate facts.

This does not mean we should let the children do just what they want to and no more, nor does it mean that we should let them decide what their daily schedule should be. Those decisions depend on prudence, and children do not have prudence.

What it does mean is that we should be clear about the right method for the student, and the subject matter, at each particular stage of formation.

Though information and formation are closely related, they differ in an important way. Formation is primarily about developing the habits of thought that make it possible to use information rightly. An intellectually well-formed man is able to think about any subject he chooses, for he can acquire the information necessary when he desires it, and his habit of thought will make it possible for him to follow an argument, as well as make reasonable deductions and right judgments about it. Our home school curricula should be directed toward developing this kind of formation. If we do, our children will be equipped for life. Whether or not they learn all the possible subjects in school, they will be able to learn any subject when it becomes necessary or desirable, because they will know how to learn. Until they know how to do this, most (though not all) of the subjects studied are less essential than that formation itself.

The goal of education, after all, really is to teach children how to think. Facts are necessary in education; some, like those of the faith, are essential. But even with respect to those truths that need to be known, knowing by itself is not enough. One also needs to acquire a method that makes deeper penetration of them possible.

What is integral in acquiring this method is that the student be helped to do what is appropriate at each period of learning. He should memorize at the grammatical stage. This strengthens and makes docile his imagination, so that in the next stage of learning, the analytical (sometimes called the logical or dialectical), he will have the help of a trained imagination in following and constructing arguments. In turn, it is imperative that when the student is capable of grasping and marshaling arguments, he should practice doing so. If he does, the last stage, the rhetorical, can be given to articulating those arguments elegantly, in the service of the truly noble. The student should, at each of these stages, have the opportunity to consider much of the same material in a different light, based on his ability, interest, and level of formation.

Any of these formative activities -- memorization, analysis, and communication -- can be done with many different subject matters. It is usually a good idea to exercise them with the materials that are easiest to use, or that meet the particular student's interests. This is not because there is nothing in one material that is better than another, but because students learn better when their differences in interest and learning style are taken into account.

In explaining a view of education that invokes the difference between formation and information, the question arises, "Isn't the formation within information itself?" There is always some degree of connection; there are degrees of formation within the various materials themselves. Even in the words, one sees the connection. There is 'formation' within information.

Nonetheless, formation and information are not necessarily identical. In the first developmental stage that we address here, the grammatical, the student has a natural inclination to memorize and observe. A child can do this with any number of materials and still attain the same benefit to the imagination. Some materials are virtually indifferent, in terms of formation. Whether one uses Aesop's Fables or The Book of Virtues by Bill Bennet will not materially affect the rest of life. Memorizing poems is a useful and formative exercise, but which poems are chosen is not necessarily significant. In cases like these, the method is more formative than the material.

Other materials are more formative in themselves, but it is not always essential to use one particular source. For example, I like to have the children read and re-tell Bible stories in their early school years. The stories are certainly formative, and the method used in the re-telling is formative, but there are a number of good texts that might be used, and which one is chosen is not particularly significant. This is true about grammar texts as well. It is very important to do analytic grammar in the analytic stage of formation, but which grammar text is used ought to be based on individual considerations. Is the parent going to teach this subject on a daily basis? Then Voyages in English would be recommended. Does the student like to work independently and does he usually work well? Then Easy Grammar might be the best choice. Has the parent ever done diagramming before? If not, Mary Daly's Diagramming Workbook would be highly recommended. The subject matter is important, but the usefulness of a particular presentation depends on circumstances.

There is a third category of materials that are formative by their very nature, primarily from the words used and the order within the presentation of the doctrine. The works of Aristotle, the Summa of St. Thomas, the formulations of doctrine from the Church, and even the Baltimore Catechism are examples of this type of material. In each of these cases, the matter has to do with principles of understanding and being. The clearest example I can think of is the Physics of Aristotle. Learning about matter, form and privation, or the four causes: matter, form, agent and end, or the definition of motion as the act of the imperfect qua imperfect can be life changing. Other texts which may state the same information generally, will not have the same effect, because the understanding of the one writing the original text is so great that it permeates the presentation and is an essential component in the effect achieved in the learner.

Even though, with such powerful material, the formation arises primarily from the information, the method used in teaching is important. At Thomas Aquinas College, the method employed involves student discussion. The classes are not lectures, rather the students grapple with the material and the tutors guide the discussions. This way the questions are truly those of the student, and therefore he can appreciate the answers when they come.

Almost all texts where the formation is essentially tied to the particular text or material are found at the college level. We are preparing our children for that level by paying attention to the formative methods outlined above.

Dorothy Sayers says it clearly in her essay, "The Lost Tools of Learning". "...modern education concentrates on teaching subjects, leaving the method of thinking, arguing and expressing one's conclusions to be picked up by the scholar as he goes along; medieval education concentrated on first forging and learning to handle the tools of learning, using whatever subject came handy as a piece of material on which to doodle until the use of the tools became second nature." Until the formation achieved by method is ours, the method is in general the primary focus of our education. If the method is used well, the student will acquire the tools of learning and be ready for the essential information presented by the materials of the classical curriculum in its fullness.

At every level, however, the truths of the faith fall into the third category outlined above: materials that are formative by their very nature. Nonetheless, the method used with this matter should reflect the current stage of general intellectual formation. For example, the student should memorize and observe at the grammatical stage. He will do this whether you encourage it or not, for he will memorize whatever comes to hand: television commercials, jingles, jumping rope rhymes. At this time of life memorizing is fun in and of itself. In terms of religious instruction, this means that having your student memorize catechism questions is an activity that is appropriate to his particular stage of formation. This is important in itself. Children don't need to understand the full implications of the answers now; if they memorize them, the answers will be in their minds and hearts later, when they need them. This memorization is also important in terms of the formation it gives to the imagination.

Another activity that is important in itself is having your student read (or listen) to Bible stories, re-tell them in his own words both orally and in writing, and then illustrate them. We want our children to be familiar with Scripture and this progression of activities will help achieve that goal. But again, these activities have an additional formative power that make them important as well, for they give the student an opportunity to call to mind the whole story, paying attention to the sequence of events within it, and hold it in mind long enough to retell it, three different times, in three different modes. Both memorizing catechism questions and retelling Bible stories provide ways to strengthen and make docile the imagination, and a strong imagination is necessary for cogent thought.

Then, at the next stage of learning, the analytical, the student will have the help of a trained imagination in following and constructing arguments. Children at this stage are often fond of argument. We can turn this natural inclination in a useful direction. Challenge your students in seventh, eighth and ninth grades to analyze the arguments that occur in the work they are doing. Have them do summaries of the Gospels, because in summarizing one needs to look carefully at the main points of the text. Ask your students questions that require careful reading of the Scriptural text, and discuss the answers with them. Don't stop them with, "But that's not the answer." Ask for the reason that answer was proposed, and be willing to accept a reasonable response, even if it wouldn't be your response. I like to read the Gospel of Mark and the Acts of the Apostles with my children, because the texts are familiar and thus easier for the students to analyze.

I also ask my students to give me the argument in their religion texts. The eighth grade Faith and Life book has a number of well presented, clear explanations of the doctrine of the Church. So does Fr. Laux's Chief Truths of the Faith. These texts are elucidated by passages from the Catechism of the Church. To recast these presentations in their own words, students have to understand what was said, and see the order in it, and then give it back in a way that preserves that understanding and order.

If the student practices analyzing arguments, reproducing them and, eventually, constructing them, then the last stage of formation, the rhetorical, can be given to articulating those arguments elegantly and persuasively, in the service of the truth.

Older children are interested in the beautiful. They like to experience the power of words and images beautifully put. In teaching the faith, we can use this inclination by exposing the children to powerfully moving presentations of doctrine, and then encouraging them to try their hands at constructing similar presentations. We read Surprised by Truth by Patrick Madrid, Beginning Apologetics from St. Joseph's Radio, Prodigal Daughters by Donna Steichen, and listen to the Tim Staples' conversion tape. Then we practice making written and oral presentations of the topics raised. Both the material that is presented and the method of presentation are important in the passing on of the doctrine and understanding of the faith.

Paying attention in this way to the formation of our children is to give them the beginning of the education every educated person in Western Civilization once received, sometimes known as a liberal arts education. In such an education the idea is to educate the man as man, whatever vocation he may pursue. All of his faculties are used. He develops all the powers of his soul.

In the classical curriculum the liberal arts studied include the Trivium: grammar, logic and rhetoric; and the Quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. These are all presupposed to and ordered to philosophy and theology. They are seen as prerequisites to those studies because it is recognized that children, even young adults, do not have the tools or the experience to make the judgments necessary for philosophy and theology. In acquiring the arts of the Trivium and the Quadrivium the student cultivates these important areas of understanding. His intellect is strengthened and formed, enabling him to make good judgments. He becomes a free man (the 'liberal' in liberal arts comes from the Latin 'liberare' meaning to set free), able to direct his own life and the common life of the community.

In college the doctrine of the liberal arts, or the teaching of the truth about these various areas of reality, will be undertaken formally. The student is then ready to make the more difficult universal considerations that are necessary. He will study the principles of grammar, the principles of definition, genus, species, and difference, parts of the syllogism, and the science of using words effectively.

Before the student gets to that point, however, there is a preparation for such an education, which can in an extended sense be said to be classical education. It is this kind of education that I propose in my book, "Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum" and that I am talking about here today.

Such an education has two parts: content and method. The method of this education follows from the content.

In the Trivium one teaches Grammar. Grammar means learning about a particular language, and about language in general. The content of such a course includes learning a language, such as Greek, Hebrew or Latin, and reading the classical grammarians, such as Donatus and Priscian, and their medieval disciples, to attain a theorctical understanding of grammar. The method involves memory and observation.

One also teaches Logic in the Trivium. The study of Logic includes learning how intellectual argument works. It involves a discussion of the parts of a coherent, reasonable conclusion and teaches the student how to arrive at such a conclusion. If one teaches such a course fully one uses Aristotle's Prior and Posterior Analytics and his Rhetoric. That would be the content of the course. The method of Logic entails analysis; one needs to see the parts of a whole and their relationship to it and to each other.

The third element of the Trivium is Rhetoric. In the study of Rhetoric one learns techniques that are effective in convincing an audience of a given position. A complete Rhetoric course includes Aristotle's Rhetoric, and perhaps some of Cicero. It involves what we call communication skills. The method here includes paying attention to the power and beauty of language, and practicing using it well.

Young children generally aren't ready for the content of the Trivium. But the method is eminently suitable to their situation, because it is what they do naturally.

Since what matters in this way of proceeding is that the right method is followed, rather than that particular subjects or authors are read, one does not have to make many changes in course materials. You still teach religion, reading and math, history and science. The difference will lie primarily in acknowledging that the method, which is intended to train the mind, is more fundamental that most of the subjects on which it is exercised.