Teaching the Art of Learning
by Laura Berquist – © 2011

The Holy Father has told us that we are all called to evangelize, to witness to the truth we have been given. Each of us who responds to this call, will respond in the way that is appropriate to our state in life. For those of us who are raising children our first responsibility for evangelization is within our own families. (I myself find plenty of material there to keep me busy.) When Mother Teresa was asked about how she has been able to accomplish so much for Christ, she said it was by doing daily what was in front of her to do. For parents, the first and immediate duty which accosts them every day is the formation of their children.

Of course, while we do this we need to keep in mind two additional possibilities. The children we are now teaching to love Christ and His Church will probably be called to evangelize beyond our families. Further, even though our primary responsibility is to our own children, we must "be always ready to satisfy everyone that asketh" for "a reason of that hope which is in (us)" (1 Peter 3:15), and our behavior should lead them to ask.

One day, some years ago, I was newly sidewalk counseling outside a local abortuary. Frankly, I was a miserable failure. Everything that came out of my mouth was wrong, and I could tell by the look on the faces of those I talked to that I wasn't getting through. On the way home the passage in Scripture which says not to worry about what you will say, but to pray and the Holy Spirit will give you the right words, popped into my head. Why, I wondered, hadn't the right words been given to me? I had prayed and asked for help. I expressed this thought to another pro-life activist, a college professor. He said, "Well, Laura, I don't think that passage means that you shouldn't prepare what you intend to say, or shouldn't practice saying it. I think what it means is that you prepare both your words and heart to the very best of your ability, and then listen to the prompting of the Holy Spirit about when and what to say." An analogical way of putting this might be, fill your mind and imagination with the right furniture and then let God arrange it to suit His purposes.

We should keep this rule in mind when we are performing our present task of evangelization, the formation of our children. We need to furnish the children's minds and hearts with the true, the good and the beautiful, so that they may speak "in season and out of season" of the faith they have been given.

In this way we are preparing both our children and ourselves for any evangelizing God may call us to. The first step in such preparation is always to live our own faith. Children learn first and foremost by imitation. We can tell them that they should love God with their whole heart and mind and strength, but if they don't see that in our lives they won't learn it. They need to see us participating in Mass, and the sacraments, praying the Rosary, making holy hours and giving of ourselves generously. We need to have our children do these things alongside us.

But it is also necessary to give the children both the information and the intellectual formation which will enable them to answer the assaults on their religious practices and understanding that will inevitably occur. Their ability to answer such assaults will strengthen their convictions, and make it possible for them to evangelize the world when the time for that comes.

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 homeschool 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.

An education that strengthens and forms the intellect is important for all of us, mothers and fathers, doctors, plumbers, lawyers, electricians, and maintenance workers, because we all need to make judgments about the true and the false. We all need to make decisions based on what we learn from other people, or what we work out ourselves. We had better be sure that our conclusions are true, that they follow from a right understanding of reality. Though all men think, thinking can be done well or badly and one can be taught to do it well.

The goal of education, then, is to teach children how to think, not only to accumulate facts. Facts are necessary in education; some, like the truths of the faith, are essential. But even with respect to those truths that need to be known, knowing alone is not enough. One also needs to acquire a method whereby deeper penetration of the truth becomes possible.

After all, how many particular facts do most of us remember from our early schooling? What seems more important than the facts we have forgotten is the skills we have retained. A classical education can help us teach the art of learning.

And what is a classical education? It is 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. This is what most homeschoolers aim for in their curricula, as a matter of fact. Even those of us who are not naturally attracted to mathematics or the sciences will include math and science in our curriculum because we want to make sure that all the important areas of study are covered. But I think we can do this even better by taking a closer look at the particular way the classical curriculum achieves this end.

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 parts of the syllogism, genus, species, and difference, 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.

There is a beginning to the study of grammar that involves learning the vocabulary and forms of language and parsing sentences. Similarly, there is a beginning to the study of logic that involves simply becoming familiar with intellectual argument. Questions like, "What is the main point in this paragraph?" and "How did the author arrive at this conclusion?" will teach children to recognize an argument and tell whether a conclusion follows from its premises. The science of rhetoric begins with an ability to assemble thoughts and ideas and present them well.

When I began homeschooling 15 years ago, I knew that I wanted 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.

Miss Sayers' proposal for the education of children seems natural; that is, it follows the natural development of the intellect. As soon as I read "The Lost Tools of Learning", I knew that this was the kind of education I wanted for my children. But I didn't know enough about teaching or the development of children to understand how the method of the Trivium should fit into my curriculum. I set aside "The Lost Tools of Learning" and proceeded to develop my own curriculum by trial and error, using what worked with my children over a ten year period. Re-reading the essay of Miss Sayers at that point I 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 always 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.

I have a friend who taught swimming to small children. She found that at a certain age the children would begin to retain what they had learned from one summer to the next, and could build on the previously acquired skills. Before that point they would have to start over each summer, getting used to the water and learning to float anew. She finally began to say to the parents of small children, when they asked her to teach swimming to their children, "I'll be happy to accept your money, and play with your children, but if it is learning to swim that you have in mind, I advise you to wait for a few years."

When my oldest children were little I was always trying to move them into the analytical stage. I wanted them to tell me what the main point of a paragraph was, or summarize rather than re-tell a story. When they couldn't do it, I thought sadly, "Poor children, they're just mentally deficient. What on earth will they do with their lives?" Then they got older. The things that had been so hard for them to do were suddenly easy, and fun. Like my friend's experience with teaching swimming, I discovered that there is a natural sequential time frame built into intellectual development.

What does this mean in terms of curriculum? By reflecting upon what had been pleasant in our homeschooling, and what had been too difficult, I arrived at the curriculum I recommend in my book.

One begins by first teaching children to read, write and do simple arithmetic. These are the first tools of any further learning. First, second and third grade are spent acquiring these basic skills. This is not all the child of this age should do. In my book I have made a number of other suggestions. But the rest of what he does shouldn't require what is usually regarded as 'school'. His imagination should be filled with the heroic, the noble and the beautiful. He should listen to stories of the saints, fairy tales and Bible stories. He should go to the zoo, natural history museum, and take walks around the neighborhood, becoming acquainted with God's creation by direct experience. The information and observational skill developed now will help all through the school years.

In third through sixth grade the child's natural intellectual interests are ordered to a certain kind of formation, where observation, memory, and the beginning of definition are the heart of the curriculum.

It is through the use of these natural inclinations that you should form the intelligence at this stage. In the third through sixth grade, children can memorize anything; catechism questions, Latin vocabulary and paradigms, history dates, times tables, doggerel rhymes, and all the verses to 'There was a Hole in the Log'. Use this inclination and ability in all the subject areas you study. (Don't make the mistake of thinking children need to understand everything they learn, right from the beginning. To come to a full understanding eventually, they need to have a structure that will be in place at the right time. Education is not about the accumulation of facts, but a judicious accumulation of facts can be a first step in the process. The structure is important at this stage of development - the content will come.)

In terms of language this means learning an inflected language like Latin and practicing the chants. "Amo, amas, amat" is no harder than "eeny, meeny, miney, mo". This is what the child does naturally at this stage; channel it into something constructive. Later in his formation he will use this information. Right now he is acquiring it. Again, there is nothing wrong with accumulating bits and pieces of knowledge; the mistake is in thinking that is all there is to education.

Memorize in every subject. Train the imagination to retain information; stock the memory with rich and varied images. This ability to memorize will fade as the children get older, though exercising the faculty increases its longevity. Throughout the school years children should memorize, but right now it is at the center of their curriculum.

In particular, I recommend that you have your child memorize the Baltimore Catechism's questions and answers. I love the Baltimore Catechism, because its method is eminently suited to the abilities of children, its pictures are very evocative, and the doctrine is distilled St. Thomas.

One of my sons once called me into his room after he had gone to bed. "Mommy," he said, "I was naughty." "Yes,' I replied, "I know." (I did, too.) "But now, just tell Jesus you are sorry, and make a firm intention never to do that again. God loves you, and He will forgive you if you ask Him." My son replied, "I will Mommy, but I keep thinking about that picture in our catechism of the boy who made Jesus sad. I don't want to make Jesus sad." The picture in the catechism had helped concretize the evil of sin for my child. I was grateful.

When the children are older, we use other materials for religion, but we never find that the teaching of the Baltimore Catechism needs to be modified. My oldest daughter, who is now at Thomas Aquinas College, has found the truths that she learned through the catechism to be a real asset in her college classes. Her grasp of the essentials of the doctrine is clear, and now she can deepen that understanding.

Become familiar with good music, and spend time with a few great works of art. It doesn't require much time or directed instruction for children to be able to recognize The Nutcracker, The Pirates of Penzance or Eine Kine Nacht Musik. All it requires is regular exposure. Pick some great works of art for the children to study closely. Any directed activities should focus on cultivating the powers of observation. The children will both learn to recognize the particular works of art, and learn how to become familiar with other works of art. If they do that, the art work will become part of their imagination, ready at hand for enjoyment and reference later on.

All of these suggestions are ways to capitalize on the children's natural abilities at this stage of formation. At the same time, don't expect from them exercises that are not yet consonant with their abilities. They can not easily write a book report that requires them to summarize, and diagramming sentences is difficult. A paper arguing for a given controversial position is virtually impossible. It's not a question of intelligence, but of intellectual maturity.

At about sixth or seventh grade, quite suddenly, those exercises that would have had us tearing our hair out become pleasurable. The children now like to diagram sentences, and enjoy exploring the various facets of an argument. Book reports are no longer odious, and picking out the main point of a paragraph or essay is relatively easy. Following a well written argument, and seeing the cause and effect sequences in history is positively fun.

On the other hand, papers are often not yet elegant, and the kind of understanding required for in depth poetry analysis, or mature reflection on works of literature and music, is still missing.

But the sixth or seventh through ninth grade student is ready to analyze, sort and categorize. The time to move into this logical level is when the student is able to appreciate and construct an intellectual argument. You don't teach logic here the way it will be studied in college. Rather, you direct the student's attention to the argument present in the materials he is using for his school subjects. Does this follow from that? Where is this said? Is there an implication here? What are the four major sentences in this four paragraph essay? Asking these kinds of questions in every subject is the way to form the intelligence. The subjects provide material for that formation, and discussion and analysis form the heart of the curriculum.

Examples of this approach would include introducing the study of Sacred Scripture, starting with the New Testament. We read and discuss St. Mark's and St. Luke's Gospels in sixth grade and the Acts of the Apostles in the seventh. Through the years I developed a study outline for these Gospels which I include in my book. Both English and Latin grammar are also perfect exercises for analysis. Even if one is not planning on a program of schooling that includes Latin in college, there is still a case to be made for studying Latin. Latin is an inflected language, where the endings of the words clearly indicate their function in a sentence. This means that the nature of the parts of speech is seen more clearly in Latin than in English. For this reason it is a good language to use in teaching grammar. It makes English grammar easier to understand.

The best text I know for beginning the teaching of Latin grammar is Basic Language Principles Through Latin Background. My four older children have worked through Basic Language Principles, and for each of them it was this text that made clear the distinctions of both Latin and English grammar. I like this book so well that I have written a key to accompany it, which Emmanuel Books sells.

One day recently my youngest daughter said reflectively, "Isn't it strange that though we can't see our mouths the spoon always goes straight in?" I laughed, thinking about what her face had looked like after her early meals. Of course, she doesn't remember the mess she made when she was learning to eat with a spoon, she just knows that now the spoon goes straight in.

Constructing an argument is a similar experience. Once you are used to finding the topic sentence in a paragraph, it seems very simple. When you answer a question, you know what information will satisfy the questioner and the order in which it should be presented. But we tend to forget how hard that is to do at first. For this reason children should examine other people's well written papers and practice identifying the key sentences and paragraphs in them.

After a number of such exercises, the children should attempt to write a paper defending a controversial position. When my son was asked to do this he chose to write about the income tax. Frankly, I was surprised at the choice, because it didn't seem very controversial to me. But when he concluded that the present system of taxation was unconstitutional, and that its confiscatory nature made it immoral, I could see that the topic did indeed fit my original intention. In my book I have suggested a number of other topics for such a paper.

In every subject during this stage of formation, whatever materials you are using, ask your student about the argument in the texts he is using. Make sure he sees the reasons for the positions in his text. Have him cite page numbers as well as give answers, and you will find that he becomes a better and more accurate reader. All of these exercises will help him develop his ability to construct intellectual arguments.

In tenth and subsequent grades, he should continue to look for the reasons given in his texts and work on formulating his own discourses, but he should now concentrate on saying it well. We never stop analyzing the positions that are presented to us. There are always questions that need answers, and thoughtful consideration, separation, and categorization are required to bring those answers to light. But we also need to learn how to persuasively present to others the answers we come to.

The art of rhetoric, the third part of the classical Trivium, begins with an ability to assemble thoughts and ideas and present them well, both orally and in writing. The high schooler is able to pay particular attention to this kind of formation, so his stage of intellectual development can be called the rhetorical. It is characterized in the student by a discovery that he needs to know more, and a resulting interest in and capacity for acquiring information. His imagination is active; there is a budding enjoyment, which should be fostered, of the poetical, in literature, art and music. The combination of poetical interests and recognition of his need for information gives the student of this age an ability to express himself well.

The goal of the this part of the curriculum is to help the child express himself elegantly and persuasively. Doing this requires practice; it means writing, and re-writing, cutting down, rephrasing, and re-writing again. It is better to do a few papers well, working on writing and re-writing, than to do many papers poorly. This is true for all the stages of formation, but perhaps especially for the high school years. It is much better to do fewer subjects and do them in more depth, than to do many subjects superficially. You learn more by working on a paper or a subject until you have gotten it right, than by covering a great deal of information. For one thing, you learn what real mastery is. The matter of the writing could be any of the regular high school curriculum courses, or any other area that the student wants to pursue.

I am not advocating a curriculum based solely on a student's interest. But I do think that the area of concentration on writing and discussion can be varied from student to student.

My oldest daughter developed an intense interest in Spanish history when she was in high school. She researched and wrote about and discussed Spanish kings and queens until I knew more than I ever wanted to about them. In the process she learned how to write, and how to present a position effectively.

Most often this kind of interest in the older children centers around the noble in one form or another. Literature, art, and music are all areas where children respond to beautiful work and express their appreciation of that work. I firmly believe that if children of this age are given the opportunity to encounter the best and finest of the arts, they will be moved by it. I thought this was true before my children arrived at their present age; now I am sure, because I have seen it happen with my children and the children of my friends.

At this time of life what is most essential for general development is the time and conversation we give to our children. I will be saying this again, in my next talk, and I can't emphasize it enough. Adolescent children are in formation, and the best source for their formation is our own explanations of the way we live, why we make the choices we do, how we view the Church and the world.

In my experience, if you do that faithfully, thoughtfully, and regularly, your children will come to view the world as you do. They will learn the principles of your decisions and make them their own principles.

Since communication skills are very important in college, it is helpful to have experience discussing. We not only need to talk to our children, and instruct them in how to speak and write well; we need to let them talk to us. We need to listen.

In this method of education one pays attention to the particular intellectual strengths of each child at each stage of his development, and uses those strengths in every subject. This makes homeschooling easier, because one doesn't have to worry about finishing every book or course. If you help your child do what he is ready to do at that point of his intellectual development, he will profit from his work, whether he does all the chapters or not. Ordinarily it is better to finish what you start, but sometimes you can't. And sometimes it is better to slow down and concentrate, practicing skills, rather than acquiring more information. Don't worry about covering every subject exhaustively; concentrate on the important areas in the right way, and do those well.

The tools of learning are acquired by concentrating, at each stage, on the areas of development that are appropriate to that stage. It is not essential to use ancient authors to have this kind of a classical curriculum. What is essential is that the children do what is appropriate at each stage of learning. They should memorize at the grammatical stage. This strengthens and makes docile their imagination so that in the next stage of learning, the logical (sometimes called the dialectical) they will have the help of a trained imagination in following and constructing arguments. In turn, it is essential to this education that when the children are capable of grasping and marshalling arguments, they should practice doing so. If they do, then the last stage, the rhetorical, will be able to be given to articulating those arguments elegantly, in the service of the truly noble.

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.

The child who can think well, who has a trained mind, will be able to give himself, with real effect, to the service of God and His Church. Whether he marries, or has a religious vocation, he will be able to "preach the word: be instant in season, out of season: reprove, entreat, rebuke in all patience and doctrine." (2 Timothy, 4:2)