Classical Education 101: Putting the Puzzle Together

classical-educationI remember when I first heard the word classical education. To me, the term sounded daunting. Images of students being instructed by Socrates, Plato and Aristotle passed through my mind. I envisioned education at the fountainhead of the Athenian system: Reading, writing, mathematics, music, art, gymnasium, science, rhetoric, geometry, and astronomy. With hindsight being twenty/twenty, nothing could have been further from the truth.


Dorothy Sayers in her essay The Lost Tools of Learning gives us a glimpse of what lies at the heart of the modern classical education movement: “Is it not the great defect of our education today—a defect traceable through all the disquieting symptoms of trouble that I have mentioned—that although we often succeed in teaching our pupils “subjects,” we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think: they learn everything except the art of learning. In a nutshell, classical education is about teaching a child how to learn. If a child knows how to learn, then they are equipped for life.” (1)


When I read Sayers words for the first time seventeen years ago, I felt like I had been given a gift: a puzzle in a box which needed to be assembled piece by piece. The end result of the assembly would be a master plan of the classical education model. This master plan would serve as our child’s educational foundation and compass throughout a lifetime. In preparation for assembling my puzzle pieces, I procured two resources which proved to be invaluable: The Well Trained Mind: A Guide to  Classical Education at Home by Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer and Designing Your Own Classical Curriculum: A Guide to Catholic Home Education by Laura Berquist.


The foundation of classical education is rooted in the Trivium. The word Trivium means “the place where three roads meet.” Within the structure of classical education, the trivium refers to “the three part process of training the mind.” (2) Traditionally, the trivium is comprised of the grammatical, dialectical and rhetorical stages which coincide with a child’s mental development. In addition, the primary stage is incorporated at the beginning of the trivium. It is by assembling these four sections of the puzzle that the infrastructure for classical education is established. The infrastructure for classical education is akin to the construction of a home. In my research and experience of classical education, I discovered Laura Berquist’s definition of the trivium corresponds closely with what Dorothy Sayers expressed in her essay The Lost Tools of Learning. In the subsequent paragraphs which follow, I will defer to Laura Berquist interpretation of the Trivium.


To begin assembling our puzzle, let’s take a look at the first section called the primary stage. The primary stage is comprised of Kindergarten, First and Second Grade. The primary stage is when the child acquires the necessary skills for further learning. At this stage the student is concentrating on the three r’s: reading, writing and arithmetic. It is important the student learn the basic foundational skills within these three subjects. If the proper foundation is laid during the primary stage, then it will be easier to assemble the support beams of the house in the next stage of the Trivium.

Our next puzzle piece, which is the second section, is called the grammatical stage. The grammatical stage  aka the grammar stage  is comprised of the Third, Fourth and Fifth Grade. The grammar stage is when the child gathers intellectual information via observation and memorization. This stage helps to train the child’s mind while gathering information for the next stage of the Trivium.


The dialectical stage is our next puzzle piece which we will add to the primary and grammatical stages. The dialectical stage is comprised of Sixth, Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Grade. In essence, the dialectical stage involves the science of reasoning. Assimilating the how and why of how things work. The child switches their focus from memorization to analysis. The dialectical stage provides the support beams of the home in this stage of the Trivium.


The final puzzle piece, which will be added to the primary, grammar, dialectical stages to complete our puzzle is the rhetorical stage. The rhetorical stage is comprised of Tenth, Eleventh, and Twelfth Grade. In the final stage of the Trivium, the student assimilates what they have learned in the primary, grammar, and dialectical stages. The student realizes they need to acquire more knowledge which results in an interest for acquiring information. It is within the rhetoric stage the expresses themselves through the medium of the written word. The rhetoric stage provides the walls, windows, roof and door of the home as it reaches completion. As Dorothy Sayers’s states in her essay The Lost Tools of Learning “The doors of the storehouse of knowledge should now be thrown open for them to browse about as they will. The things once learned by rote will be seen in new contexts; the things once coldly analyzed can now be brought together to form a new synthesis; here and there a sudden insight will bring about that most exciting of all discoveries: the realization that a truism is true…. Any child who already shows a disposition to specialize should be given his head; for, when the use of tools has been well and truly learned, it is available for any study whatever.” (3)


Upon completion of my puzzle, I realized I had been bestowed with three precious gifts. The first gift is one of providing our child with a solid educational foundation which would instill a love of learning within their soul. The second gift is a moral compass which would guide our child through life. The third gift is the one of influence for the following generations to come.

Kathy Alphs



  1. The Lost Tools of Learning by Dorothy Sayers. 2005. Old Landmark Publishing.
  2. The Lost Tools of Learning by Dorothy Sayers. 2005. Old Landmark Publishing.
  3. The Well Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home by Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise. Third Edition. 2009. W. Norton & Company, New York, New York.

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