Stages of Development in Classical and CM Education

sDear Reader,

I am in the midst of a mini-series on developmental psychology. My goal with this series is to evaluate the major trends and ideas within this field from a (reformed) Christian perspective with an eye to seeing how we can appropriately make use of the insights of these mostly secular scholars.

The previous posts in this mini-series are:

Having looked last time as Jean Piaget’s theory of the development of the child’s intellect and reasoning abilities, I would like today to look at how the stages he delineates line up with both the classical and Charlotte Mason philosophies of education.

To recap, Piaget distinguished four stages of development:

  • birth-age 2: the sensory-motor period in which the major goal is for children to learn object permanence, the idea that things which we cannot see still continue to exist
  • ages 2-7: the preoperational stage which is characterized by transductive thinking. Children in this stage see things as belonging only to one category. Thus one’s mother cannot also be a sister and the person who is taller is assumed to be older.
  • ages 7-11: the stage of concrete operations in which children begin to be able to do things in their heads. At this point we begin to see that our knowledge comes not solely from the things themselves but also from our logic and the images we construct in our heads.
  • ages 12-15: the stage of formal operations in which children begin to be able to think about thinking. At this point they can handle grammar which thinks about words and algebra which uses abstract concepts.

Beyond these stages Piaget saw no further growth in intellectual ability though one could still acquire new knowledge.

We do not typically associate a Charlotte Mason education with stages of development.  I would suggest, however, that there is at least one major stage distinction she does make, that between school-age children and pre-school age children. A Charlotte Mason education did not begin until age 6 or 7 and she did not expect children to do formal schoolwork or to narrate books that were read to them until that age. Over the course of their school career, children would advance in some ways, moving to harder books, beginning harder subjects like Plutarch, and trading copywork for dictation. She did not in any way describe these as stages, however. They seem to represent more of an advancement of knowledge and ability than new intellectual milestones. Even with subjects like grammar which were delayed until middle or high school ages the concern seems to be not so much for the stage of development as the obtaining of background knowledge which is necessary to understand the subject. On the other end of the age ranges, Mason did very much believe in giving the youngest children real ideas to chew upon and not withholding meaty intellectual materials, albeit age-appropriate ones, from them.

Classical education has many definitions and many versions are available today (see this post and this one). I am going to speak today of what I would deem the most regimented of these modern varieties (at least in terms of staging), that first espoused by Dorothy Sayers in her Lost Tools of Learning and later carried on by Douglas Wilson and others. This version of classical education is characterized by its use of the Trivium [1]. The Trivium distinguishes three stages, each of which necessitates a different approach to education. In the early years, the Grammar stage focuses on memorization. In the middle years, the dialectic stage emphasizes logic and disputation. And finally, in the upper years the rhetoric stage focuses on language and making persuasive arguments. These stages roughly correspond to elementary, middle, and high school levels. In each stage there is a different kind of learning. Those in the grammar stage, for instance, learn mainly through memorization. The grammar stage is for obtaining the building blocks. In the middle, dialectic stage, the child begins to manipulate those building blocks and to make logical arguments. In the rhetoric stage the focus is on expressing oneself and communicating those ideas which have been formed. It should be noted as well that there would also be a pre-school stage, an age below which formal education begins.

“The Poll-parrot stage [= the grammar stage] is the one in which learning by heart is easy and, on the whole, pleasurable; whereas reasoning is difficult and, on the whole, little relished . . . The Pert Age [= dialectic] . . . is characterised by contradicting, answering-back, liking to ‘catch people out’ (especially one’s elders) and in the propounding of conundrums . . . The Poetic Age [=rhetoric] is popularly known as the ‘difficult’ age. It is self-centred; it yearns to express itself; it rather specialises in being misunderstood; it is restless and tries to achieve independence; and, with good luck and good guidance, it should show the beginnings of creativeness, a reaching out towards a synthesis of what it already knows, and a deliberate eagerness to know and do some one thing in preference to all others.” (Dorothy Sayers, “Lost Tools io Learning,” Kindle Loc. 169)

Comparing these three systems would give us the following:

Piaget Mason Classical [2]
0-2: Sensory/motor 0-6: No schooling 0-6: No schooling
2-7: Preoperational      “
7-11: Concrete thinking 6+ Schooling 6-12: Grammar stage
12-15: Formal operations 12-14(?): Dialectic
15-17: Rhetoric

The big commonality here is that all three agree that there is a stage (or 2) that lasts up until age 6 or 7 during which traditional, formal education is not appropriate [3].

One might think from this chart that classical education lines up fairly well with the modern scholarly theory of child development as exemplified by Piaget. I would like to suggest, however, that there are some profound differences.

The biggest differences come in the view of the young child. For Piaget the child does not think like an adult but he is always constructing his reality. That is, he is taking in information and responding to his environment, continually constructing and redefining his mental model of the universe.  For Sayers and those who follow her, the young child, up to age 12, is a memorizing machine. His storehouse, if you will, is being filled with information at this stage, information which he will only really start to utilize in the next stage. Mason does not directly address how the child learns but she presents to even young children what she would call vital or living ideas and she assumes that the child is able to take in, or digest, these ideas.

It is the view of how learning happens and how the child reasons (or doesn’t) that is behind these differences. For Mason the child is able to reason; this is not a taught but an inborn skill and he simply must be given quality material on which to use this skill. An analogy which used to be used frequently in Charlotte Mason circles is that of pegs and things to hang on them. A Charlotte Mason approach says that children need pegs first; they need fixed points, so to speak, things they have relationships with and only when they have some connection can they take information and hang it on those pegs. A classical approach, on the other hand, starts with the information and only when there is a stockpile of facts learned does the child have pegs which allow him to sort it all and fit it all in (of course this analogy was provided by the CM folks, not the classical ones). Another way to say this would be to say that in Mason’s philosophy the facts and information do not make sense to us and will not be retained or be useful until and unless we have a context in which to make sense of them.

In a classical education, the early years, up to age 12, are largely for memorization and the acquisition of information. Reasoning as such is not done at this age and is a skill which must be taught.  The analogy for this would say that the child needs material to work with before he can build. Supplying the building blocks, in the form of facts and information, is the first stage. [4]

Piaget says that children do not reason as adults do but he does see their reasoning skills developing naturally given the right educational circumstances. It is not that young children don’t reason for Piaget but that they do so differently. He sees a process of disequilibrium and accommodation by which children learn. They begin with one view, a thesis, which is then challenged, the antithesis, so that they must adjust and come to a new view, the synthesis [5]. If there is an age before reasoning for Piaget, it is the 0-2 age bracket. The awareness of object permanence he sees as the foundation for all later learning. After it is in place, reasoning can begin. Elkind, who follows and expands upon Piaget’s ideas, sees the years between 7 and 11 as the period of “work” for the child [6]. This work, however, does not equal rote memorization which Elkind deems “anathema to critical, innovative thinking” (Power of Play, introduction). “Even at this stage children  . . . want to understand, not just repeat and imitate” (ibid., p. 7).

The role of the teacher also varies. The teacher in classical education is paramount. He is a mentor and guides the process of learning in a fairly involved way. Though modern applications vary, the process of dialectic which is characteristic of classical education involves a dialogue between teacher and student(s) in which questions are asked and answers elicited. Piaget’s approach, in contrast, sees the teacher as one who creates an environment in which the child can learn, but he would say that the teacher cannot in a real sense teach anything. The child must do his own learning as he builds his concept of the world. Charlotte Mason is a little closer to Piaget on this. For her, the teacher does not create an environment but spreads a feast of ideas, the focus being on intellectual materials more than physical ones, and the child has freedom to “ingest” these materials but cannot be forced to do so.

In the end, I am not sure that the specifics of the staging matter as much as our ideas about children’s ability to reason and how they may or may not develop over time. For both Piaget and Mason reasoning is natural though Mason would say that the child is born with all his faculties intact and Piaget sees reasoning ability as developing over time. For classical educators like Sayers, reasoning ability is something that is taught. The view of the role of the teacher in each follows upon the view of reasoning, with classical educators giving teachers the most involved role and Mason giving them the least. All three would agree that formal learning is best delayed until around age 6 or 7. What happens between ages 7 and 11 is perhaps the biggest divide. For Sayers this is a time of memorization. She calls this the “poll-parrot” stage and says that children of this age take pleasure in memorizing and have little desire to reason (see quote above). For her it is a time to gather materials but not to construct. For Piaget, the child is always constructing reality and takes little pleasure in memorization but desires to understand. Mason’s motto (or one of them) is that “education is the science of relations” which for her means that children must always build relationships with what they are studying.  Information without relationship or context is useless.

My quick take-away from all this would be that modern developmental psychology tends overall to support Charlotte Mason’s views more than those of Dorothy Sayers and the other classical educators who follow her with the caveat that it does lead to a more staged approach which it might be wise for us to take into account.

Nebby

Notes:

[1] There has been a movement in classical circles away from the Trivium as Sayers defined it. See Shawn Barnett, “Dorothy Sayers was Wrong: the Trivium and Child Development,” Circe Institute (Aug. 9, 2019).

[2] The ages here are somewhat fluid depending on whom one is reading. I am basing the specifics on “What is the Trivium”  by Harvey Bluedorn from Trivium Pursuit (1993).

[3] I say “traditional formal education” because Piaget would have schools for children below age 6/7 but they would not be doing seat-work and the other things that we think of as traditional schoolwork.

[4] It is a bit unclear to me why the age divisions given in Sayers’ Trivium are what they are. According to Elkind (The Power of Play, p. 122), the ancients, i.e. the original classical educators, saw reasoning as a necessity for formal education and since this education begins around age 6 or 7 we must posit that reasoning also does.

[5] We can see in this process the influence of the evolutionary mindset which assumes that the organism (a child in this case) must adapt to its environment when there are changes or any kind of conflict.

[6] See this earlier post on Elkind’s theories.

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