I first came across The Well Trained Mind (TWTM), a secular Classical homeschool curriculum, in 2005 when my firstborn was a few months away from kindergarten. By chance, two different friends mentioned this homeschooling reference book within the same week, so I checked it out from my local library. Reading TWTM is kind of overwhelming at first—it’s roughly the size of a dictionary because the book includes instruction on how to homeschool all the way from kindergarten through the 12th grade. I connected immediately with the philosophy, and after some late nights spent reading it, I whole-heartedly wished that I had received an education such as this for myself.
Having used this Classical Education model for three kids, I’ve found it to be an incredibly efficient and organized way to educate your children. The work is generally structured in such a way as to allow for more free time in the school day—as a result, kids have time to play and the work they do doesn’t feel like busywork. I never spent more than three hours a day doing school work through elementary school, and it was oftentimes much less. (This meant we spent copious amounts of time in parks, going on field trips, visiting museums, and attending theater performances!) Here’s a quick breakdown of this method of homeschooling, as well as how it keeps learning relevant, organized, and meaningful:
Classical Education works with your child’s natural learning phases.
Young children love memorizing facts and rules. As they get a little older, they like to question the rules and find exceptions to them. As they get older still, they are able to make an argument and support it with evidence. Classical Education capitalized on these natural abilities by asking young kids to focus on the building blocks of literacy. Then their skills advance toward paragraphs and essays in incremental steps. Instead of asking a child to write a “response” to something they’ve read or listened to—which can be very difficult for a kindergartener or first grader, even if they enjoy a book—a first grade assignment from the TWTM writing curriculum might ask a child to copy a sentence out of whatever you happen to be reading at the time. Asking a child to copy sentences from books they know seems so much more sensible to them than asking them to come up with original content that they are unable to punctuate or spell correctly. As they copy beautiful, well-constructed sentences, they learn to write well.
Additionally, Classical Education supports the idea of the Trivium—that there are three distinct stages of development in kids. As a result, you go through history three times—once from 1st to 4th grade, the second time from 5th to 8th grade, and then finally through the high school years, taking a deeper dive each time. By starting with simple versions of stories, picture books, Bible stories, and Greek Myths, then advancing through abridged and more complicated versions, a high school student tackling The Iliad or original Shakespeare is not so overwhelmed because, by then, the stories are familiar.
History lessons are easy for a child to connect with.
TWTM history curriculum is called The Story of the World. This is an award-winning, engaging history curriculum for elementary through middle school-aged kids. If your history experience included studying Pilgrims closely followed by, say, Ancient Egyptians followed by the Founding Fathers, you will appreciate this chronological approach to history. It starts with the Ancient World and progresses to modern times through four volumes. Kids learn history in order, so they don’t struggle with wondering where things fit on a timeline. Perhaps more importantly, the projects associated with each chapter help young learners to connect with different historical periods. They learn how to make an actual chicken mummy or to carve a Phoenician boat out of a block of ice cream. There are recipes, an archeological dig, costumes, artwork, and poetry. One of my kids loved the tests to see what he remembered from each chapter, and my youngest spent a huge amount of time working on maps.
There are also lists of books to check out from the library that go along with each chapter so that any stories you read are “on theme” with the history period. The amazing thing about this series is that history becomes the backbone for your entire homeschool approach. Not only does literature correspond with the time period you are studying, but so does science—starting with plants and animals and human bodies and progressing through chemistry and physics as those fields became more widely understood.
Writing skills are separated from reading skills.
This might not sound like a big deal, but it removes a tremendous amount of frustration on the part of the student. Writing is usually much more difficult for young children than reading—it requires coordination and fine motor skills that take years to develop. By not mandating a writing workbook during reading lessons, a lack of proficiency in writing does not hinder progress in reading.
TWTM also encourages the learning of Latin. While it might sound boring or unnecessary, I loved having my kids learn Latin—and they loved recognizing Latin words on college campuses or in Harry Potter spells. Latin can be found on our currency, on public buildings, in churches, in botanical names, and medical and science terms.
How does Classical Education compare with traditional schooling?
I always wanted the rigor of our homeschool choices to be such that I could put my kids in school at any point and they would find themselves well prepared academically. That was emphatically the case with all three of my kids. With Classical Education, despite the fact that we spent less time on schoolwork than their schooled peers, they were, for the most part, doing work that was more advanced than kids in school. And, honestly? They were doing their work with more joy and curiosity than schooled kids.
There are a couple of ways the sequence here is slightly different: Kids using this curriculum advance to full essay writing a little later than schooled peers, but, once they start, their papers tend to be more organized. American History shows up much later on the scene when you study world history from the beginning. A kid in school might know about George Washington well before a classical student learns any American History at all. Ultimately, though, they end up on the same page.
There are so many ways to homeschool, and wonderful things that can be adopted from seemingly opposite homeschooling philosophies. To me, The Well Trained Mind was the perfect combination of order, rigor and playfulness—my kids were happy and intellectually curious, and it was such a delight to homeschool them confidently with this fantastic master plan I had to follow.