Thursday, December 12, 2013

Review of "The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education"

Much of the time, I don't like to use labels. Labels very often turn into a way to separate ourselves from others, and they create a need to compare ourselves to those "other" groups. When it comes to homeschooling, there are all sorts of labels out there - "unschoolers," "Leadership-education," "classical," "Waldorf," and "Montessori," to name a few. While I do feel I identify more closely to some than others, I have always considered our homeschooling atmosphere an eclectic mix. I am wary of lumping myself into one particular group because even though some philosophies and ideas might work in our home, I have yet to run across a single homeschooling philosophy that pairs perfectly with the education I envision for my children. All of this is to say that I think it's invaluable to continue to explore and learn about other homeschooling options. Don't pigeon-hole yourself into one category, but pull from any of the wonderful resources out there when something looks like it might work for you.

This is going to be a long post, so prepare yourself. I do not consider myself a Classical homeschooler, but I know many, many homeschoolers who have read and love "The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home" by Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise (a mother-daughter duo). I have been meaning to read it for a while and finally saw an available copy at our base library so I scooped it up. 

And all I have to say is, "Wow."

It is a great resource. Unless you are following one particular philosophy to a "T," I think you could probably find something valuable in this book. I'm going to be ordering a copy to own so that I can keep it as a resource in the years to come. When I'm trying to decide whether or not to order a book for myself - and there isn't a copy available to look at online or at my library - I rely heavily on good reviews. So I'm going to attempt to give you a fantastic review of this book in hopes of making your decision to buy a little easier. Bear with me... it's gonna be a doozy.

This book is made to be a resource for parents throughout their child's ENTIRE education. Yes, we're talking K-12. It also includes information about scheduling your homeschool year/week/day, keeping records, making a HS transcript and applying for college. The majority of the book is divided into the sections of learning that are one of the defining philosophies of the Classical Education model: The Grammar Stage (K-4th), The Logic Stage (5th-8th), and The Rhetoric Stage (9th-12th). 

Within each of these sections, you'll be given an overview of a possible progression of concepts within each subject. You'll also be given a resource list of curriculum options, additional books for reading, and even some DVD's and other media - all with reasons for their recommendations from the authors. You'll be told how much time per day/week you should spend on each subject, based on the child's age and ability. For parents who feel like they have no idea what they're doing (and especially, for parents interested in a Classical education), this book is AMAZING. It is very thorough, and you are guaranteed to be flipping through it again and again over the years. 

One of the other things I liked about this book was the intermingling of history, geography, and science. History is taught in a progression from Ancient history to Modern history and science concepts are taught in a similar progression based on scientific discovery. For example, while your child is studying Ancient history, they are also studying the things that the Ancients would have studied - biology, plants and animals. I think children are apt to retain more information when there is an obvious correlation between subjects vs. things being taught separately.

And while the subjects of history, geography, science, music, and art are covered in the book, the authors say over and over again that in the younger years, these things should not be the focus of learning.

"Use common sense. History is important, but the first grader is learning all sorts of foundational skills from scratch: reading, writing, putting sentences together, keeping track of dates, telling time, adding, subtracting, and so forth. If the child misses some ancient history in first grade, he'll pick it up in fifth grade, or in ninth grade, or in independent reading. If he doesn't learn to read, write, and do basic mathematical operations, he'll be hampered for years. So in the early grades, give priority to reading, grammar, spelling, writing, and math. History and science follow on these basic abilities." (pg. 112)

Now, a few of the things I don't like about this book... er... philosophy and style of teaching.

The earliest stage of the learning - the "Grammar" stage - is referred to as the "Poll-Parrot" stage. Basically, this style of education emphasizes lots of repetition and memorization in order to teach concepts that it is believed "lay a foundation for learning." You get your kids to memorize things like math facts, parts of speech, and dates in history so that later on, they will be able to draw from that knowledge in the "logic and rhetoric" stages. All of this repetition and memorization is done through a huge amount of copy work, narration, and dictation. One of the reasons I wanted to homeschool was because I didn't want learning to necessarily look like school. I don't want my children to believe that they need to be told what and how to learn, but to understand that they have the power to learn anything and everything on their own (by using the right resources, asking the right questions, and asking the right people). The idea of asking my children to copy information, regardless of whether or not they have interest or enjoyment in learning it, doesn't feel compatible with my vision for our homeschool. I think it's entirely possible to make the information interesting. 

There is also a chapter (in the midst of the early years) about the use of computers and television. The authors advocate AGAINST things like Sesame Street. They believe that such "educational" shows do not really stimulate brain activity, and they list some research to back up this claim. They argue that children will be more creative and imaginative with their time if left alone to play instead of put in front of the tv. And I would agree. HOWEVER, we are now living in the age of technology. More than likely, whatever job our children have in the future will include some aspect of technology. I think it's important for our children to learn how to navigate a computer and to be familiar with the capabilities of technology. I also know that from our own experience, technology has been a God-send for my children's education. They know more about animals than I EVER did, and can rattle off some of the most interesting, unknown animal facts thanks to the PBS show, "Wild Kratts." My oldest daughter's reading has improved thanks to the games and stories on And the information they've learned about virtually every subject under the sun (George Washington, Gandhi, Hanukkah, Ancient Egypt, Ancient China, verbs, nouns, the human body, government, outer space, physics, addition, subtraction, multiplication... and on and on....) has been simply amazing, thanks to the wonderful website, There is absolutely nothing these authors could say to make me believe that the use of computers and television is secondary to copywork. Nothing. 

Then, there is the matter of faith. There is a chapter dedicated to the importance of teaching religion. These authors are coming from a Christian perspective and will probably appeal to many, many homeschooling families. But what about families that might not be religious? I would STILL suggest buying a copy of this book, because though the authors are obviously advocating the need to teach history and science from a Christian perspective, they also advocate that parents teach their children about ALL religions.

"Now is the time to understand the basics of the faiths that have shaped both history and science. Explain Islam and Buddhism and Hinduism and ancestor worship. Discuss the elements of Christianity and Judaism. Teach the Exodus and the Conquest and the Exile and the birth of Jesus right along with ancient history. Show how the world religions have collided - why, for example, the English ruling India were so appalled over suttee (widow burning) while the Indians considered it an honorable act. [...] Religion plays a major role in the formation of any culture. For this reason, it is imperative that the continuing education of the child include how religion has influence art, music, literature, science and history itself." (pg. 204)

And last, but not least, if you consider yourself an unschooler, you will not like the distinction from "unschooling" included in the chapter on why families should home-educate. Then again, if you're an unschooler, you might never be tempted to pick up this book anyway. The reason this small section bothers me is because I don't think it's fair to say that one particular model of education lacks value. Each family and child is different and the reason many families homeschool is because they understand that part of the problem of traditional school is a belief that "one-size fits all." To say that one particular philosophy is the best for children's education is a move away from the beauty of what homeschooling is all about - an education tailored to each individual child. 

My overall impression of this book, however, is that it could be valuable to most homeschooling families. Even if you do not see the value in copywork, narration, and dictation exercises, the suggestions of concept progressions, four-year plans throughout the K-12 years, and resources recommendation is extremely valuable. There is also no doubt in my mind that the chapters about preparing and applying for college after homeschooling will also be valuable for any families homeschooling in their child's high school years. 

I hope this review helps to clarify your decision about whether or not this book might be a helpful purchase for your own family. Like I mentioned earlier, I am going to be purchasing my own copy and I have also decided to purchase a grammar and writing curriculum written by these same authors ("First Language Lessons" and "Writing with Ease"). I am going to experiment with a bit more structure for our grammar and writing, while keeping a very loose, interest-led, technology-using, "curriculum" for science, history, art and music. 

Have you read "The Well-Trained Mind" too? What were your impressions?

1 comment:

  1. We checked out First Language Lessons from the library and loved it :) I also don't like to define our homeschooling "style". We are eclectic and use a different style depending on the subject and also the child since learning styles may vary. Thanks for your review on this book. I checked out this book as well but I wasn't able to get through all of it before it was time to return it and it was on hold since it's so popular.