Lynne Little of Compass Education joins The Teacher’s Lounge podcast and Curriculum Trak blog today. Lynne has been a Christian educator for more than 25 years, serving in early childhood, elementary, high school, and even as an adjunct college professor. She’s also served as an elementary principal and an academic dean. She now uses those experiences to support K-12 Christian schools and curriculum in policy and accreditation efforts and other areas of professional development as well. While her efforts to support Christian education are quite broad, she’s worked with Christian schools of just about every stripe. And you can learn more about her and her consulting firm, Compass Education, at compassed.org.
Michael Arnold: I’m excited today to talk to you about some of the qualities and principles of the classical educational model that every Christian school should seek to embrace, so let me welcome you to The Teacher’s Lounge today.
Lynne Little: Thank you, Michael. And let me just say I have looked forward to this because I’m so appreciative of what Curriculum Trak is doing to support Christian education, more far-reaching than just Curriculum Trak products. And so, thank you for this.
Michael Arnold: We do make it our goal to serve Christian education in any way that we can, and I think that’s what we have in common. You are working to serve Christian schools in your neighborhood and in your region, so to speak. And it’s always great to find like-minded people with similar passion for Christian education.
Right here at the top, I’ve already mentioned classical education. I know that we’ve only got a few minutes before people tune out and say, “Oh, classical education, that’s not me. That’s not what we do.” But we just want to address that head-on before anybody makes any assumptions or starts to tune out. While it may not be possible for every school to be thoroughly classical, there are principles from the classical model that seem to fit the mission of a Christian school quite well. Could you unpack that just briefly and tell us why you believe that to be the case and what we hope to accomplish today?
Lynne Little: Absolutely. And what you have said is true. There are classical principles that apply no matter the structure and model of the educational program. And I think what classical education seeks to do is employ this traditional approach that blends Christian theology with some historical tried-and-true proven pedagogical practices.
Even the history of American public education is rooted in that model. It’s the systematized kind of trivium. We see that even still currently in modern education, so when we go back and draw from the things that we know work well, then that can be applied anywhere. And that’s really what classical education seeks to do. There are some hallmarks that might be very specific to classical education that you might not see in other places, but generally speaking, there are a lot of principles that apply.
Michael Arnold: Sure. We want to talk through some of those principles, but let’s set some more background here so people know where you’re coming from. The bulk of your experience in education, has it been in classical schools or has it been in other models, maybe the more traditional model of education that we might be more familiar with here?
Lynne Little: Yeah, so my own personal education would’ve been in a public school, public university, and Christian university. But my professional education experience has been largely rooted in classical education. There was a classical school here and when coming out of college looking for employment, I came in contact with this model that I didn’t really even know existed. It really spoke to me at a core level, both as a believer and as an educator. And so I spent nearly 20 years in classical education as both a classroom teacher and an administrator.
Michael Arnold: And you had your kids in a classical model as well.
Lynne Little: Yes. So I got to see actually from the product, if you will, of the education that they received and some of the highlights that I think have served them as they’re both finalizing graduate programs in very specific fields. So I can speak to it in two domains.
Traditional Model v. Classical Model
Michael Arnold: So having grown up in the traditional model or the current model of education here in the United States, how would you contrast those two?
Lynne Little: Classical education seeks to take hold of and employ certain things because they find value in a specific way of doing things. A couple of hallmarks that might look different come out in the employment of the Trivium. It’s really this tri-level pedagogical approach based on where a student is in their maturation and their cognitive development. At the elementary level it’s all the facts and figures. It’s chunking in the history, the dates, the parts of speech, the multiplication tables, those types of things. That probably isn’t going to look and feel much different than what we’re referring to as traditional education.
I think where it starts to veer differently is when you get to the logic level, the didactic level, which we refer to as the middle school ages. This is where they’re teaching formal Aristotelian logic, and they’re employing a lot of logic level pedagogical practices, which really help students master the art of analysis and argumentation, but teaching argumentation in a form of respect and a way to be winsome. And then the high school level is what we call rhetoric, the cannons of rhetoric of organization, articulation, and persuasion. For Christian education, when we’re looking at educating the next generation of businessmen, doctors, politicians, and educators who carry the gospel into their communities, into their workplaces, we really want to amplify and elevate the ability of our students to be articulate, to be thinking, to be logical, to be winsome for the purpose of the kingdom.
I think that’s really the end goal for classical education. We’re just picking some valued aspects to be able to accomplish that.
Michael Arnold: Do you find that with the logic and the rhetoric levels, there’s a lot of crossover between classical and traditional? Are there some differences in higher level thinking, critical thinking, even depth of knowledge, principles that all educators are seeking to do in their instructional practices anyway?
Lynne Little: Absolutely. Those are all the same kind of facets of a gem, right? And there are different ways to package and approach it. When I do curriculum work with classical, we look a lot at Bloom’s cognitive taxonomy when we’re talking about grammar, logic and rhetoric. Are we really employing pedagogical practices in those domains that are well suited to the development of that student?
So yes, all of that is very much nuances of the same type of goals. I had a colleague for years and he would say, “You can’t think critically with an empty head.” Sometimes I think classical education people move away from the grammar (elementary) level too quickly because they think it’s so heavily based on rote memorization and those types of things. We just want to chunk in all that information so they have a good full working knowledge base to be able to then come to these logic practices and rhetoric practices and do something with that.
Michael Arnold: I just heard the other day someone describing the Dewey model of education and the forties and fifties approach to education, which was developed to create assembly line workers and entry level laborers. We wanted to educate them to be obedient in the industrial model that we were trying to establish then as a country. And so the question is, do we want to develop students who are just going to blindly follow or do we want to develop students who will lead?
And I know most Christian educators would have some problems with the Dewey approach to education anyway. But still, some of our traditional values or traditional practices I think are worth exploring. Are we trying to develop leaders or are we trying to develop followers in our classroom? I just wanted to give you a chance to respond to that maybe as a comparison to traditional education.
Lynne Little: I would add to that that what we often fall into the trap of doing in what we’re calling our traditional approach, is in the trajectory to get the better job, to get the better paycheck, to have the better house, and so with the expansion of knowledge, especially when it comes to technology and science, there’s so much content. All of the content cannot be taught within a K-12 spectrum of education, or even in higher education. I would say classical education, in some respects, has found a place of comfort in stepping away from some of the content in order to teach students how to think and how to approach learning content on their own when that content becomes needed or applicable to their profession or their circumstance.
Students need to know all these 21st century skills, and yet where does the time and capacity for both the student and the classroom educator come to make sure all of that is passed on? But if we teach them how to think well, then they become their own lifelong learner.
The Essence of the Classical Model
Michael Arnold: What would you say is the essence of the classical model? What’s the purpose?
Lynne Little: I would say the ultimate essence is wisdom and virtue. Not the best ACT score, not the best job, not the best paycheck, not the length and depth of knowledge, but that all of those things come together so that we’re wise in how we function, that we approach community and our civic responsibilities and our family responsibilities well, and that we value creation in one another. And we do that through a thinking process, a learning process. So wisdom and virtue is really the ultimate goal for classical education.
Michael Arnold: And that’s really profound as you think about some of the pitfalls of the educational experience for most students, like the comparison of skills and abilities with people in their peer group and their class, whereas the pursuit of wisdom and virtue is internal and more of a comparison with eternal truths that any faith-based Christian school could embrace quite easily. That’s really profound.
All right, so walk us through the principles. You have about 8 to 10 principles that you think any Christian school could embrace from the classical model, whether they’re a classical school or not.
Principle #1: Festina Lente – Make Haste Slowly
Lynne Little: Although these principles span centuries, they were listed in this domain by Dr. Christopher Perrin, who is a part of Classic Academic Press, and I am borrowing some from him in what I have learned over the years.
The first one is festina lente, which is, Make haste slowly. Time is always the enemy of the classroom teacher, especially when you’re trying to get through all the standards. I’m behind. I don’t have time to plan. Let me just jump right in. And now I’ve found I haven’t done something efficiently and it’s going to take me more time to go back and redo to be able to do it well.
When you jump into a project without proper planning and resources and material, you violate this “Measure twice, cut once” kind of principle. And so that’s how festina lente ultimately takes us to teaching for mastery. We decide exactly what is worth our time and take enough time so that we’re teaching for mastery as a principle to guide our pedagogy.
Michael Arnold: I like the way you said that: what’s worth mastering?
Lynne Little: Absolutely. Really the true goal for festina lente is learning. It’s not covering a prescribed number of pages in a textbook. It’s really mastering the things that we know that a student can use long term.
Principle #2: Multum Non Multa – Much Not Many
Lynne Little: So the second principle is multum non multa, Much not many. If we’re going to master concepts, we can’t do too many at any time. And so it’s better to master a few things than to cursorily cover content that’s soon going to be forgotten. Deep is better than wide.
Getting a few things truly into the student’s mind is better than superficially touching on many things. And this is really true, in our internet, Google search age, which is so problematic for our society. We want to skim the surface of everything and we call that our research. We need to slow down and really give importance and foundational emphasis to what is critical. And that just creates a lot of tension for us because it’s hard. We feel maybe ill-equipped sometimes as classroom teachers to identify what those core objectives are so that we can really focus in on those.
Michael Arnold: So how would you guide a teacher who wants to go deep, not wide, in determining where we go deep?
Lynne Little: It is such a process and when we’re talking about curriculum design, that really is part of that process and it must be done as a whole program. A teacher is certainly going to watch for organic things that happen within their classroom to couple with those planned things. You want to capitalize when your students take hold of something and maybe spend a little more time on that.
But this is so important to curriculum work, identifying those core objectives. Let’s say a worldwide pandemic occurs and we all have to step away from in-person instruction, and now we have to really drill down. This is not the time to try to make those decisions. Those decisions need to be made beforehand.
And we’re not on islands in and of ourselves, hoping we can sail our boat from one to the next and make the trip intact. So, on this continuum of K-12, we need to make sure we can identify those core objectives. C.S. Lewis wrote in his book Surprised by Joy that teaching too many things to students robs them of the hope of ever mastering anything. And so we paralyze our own students.
Michael Arnold: It would seem to me too that focusing on wisdom and virtue can help us identify the lifetime takeaways.
Principle #3: Repetito Mater Memoriae – Repetition Is the Mother of Memory
Lynne Little: Number three is repetito mater memoriae. It means, Repetition is the mother of memory. Lively, regular review and repetition gets information into a student’s long-term memory. And so if you’re familiar with Gregory’s Seven Laws of Teaching, the seventh law is the Law of the Review, and Gregory says that it is the most violated. Because we’re trying to teach so much content, we’re just trying to get through it as fast as we can and we often don’t come back and review. I love textbooks and curriculums that are put together in a spiraled format. They are always coming back to core elements. I feel like that is when you really start to see those things solidify for your students.
Michael Arnold: That also can impact our philosophy of assessment. If we’re just going to lean into summative assessments, we are going to take the test and move on, then obviously we’re violating that law of repetition. But if we’re leaning into formative assessments, then that’s going to build more repetition into our learning as well, which is good for the student and good for the teacher.
Lynne Little: Research says that if you’re going to be a virtuoso, if you’re going to be a bonafide expert in a particular skill or art form, you need to spend 10,000 hours working on that skill or art form. So if you’re going to play the violin as a virtuoso, you have to invest 10,000 hours of time to be able to master that, and that equates to 10 years of work for three hours a day. That’s a lot of an investment.
I think of someone like a great basketball player like Michael Jordan. He spent six days a week shooting at least 500 jump shots in every practice.It was more than 6,000 practice shots each week. And free throws? He would make a hundred free throws in a row every day. That meant if he got to 79 and he missed one, he went back to one. His stats in his final two seasons with Chicago show that he made 997 mid-range shots, which was 250 more than any other NBA player in the league. So repetition is critical to the mastery of any one thing.
Michael Arnold: That’s really powerful to think about what it takes to become an expert in your field. In athletics, we know about batting practice and we know about free throw shots and we know some of the basic practices there. And how does that translate into education? I think there are a lot of analogies that can be drawn. What are we trying to accomplish? What are we trying to churn out in our classrooms? Is it someone who has an education that’s an inch deep, but a mile wide? Or is it someone who can actually go and change the world?
Principle #4: Songs, Chants, Rhymes, and Jingles
Lynne Little: The fourth principle really is a means to accomplish the first three. It’s just Songs, Chants, Rhymes, and Jingles. Anything that is important enough that we want to teach and reinforce, if we can create a song, a chant, a rhyme, or a jingle, it sticks. And so when we identify these core objectives, then whatever we can do as a pneumonic device to embed that in memory is worth the value of time to do that.
Michael Arnold: And it’s not just for early elementary or junior high. High school students love them too. You give them a good rhyme or jingle or a pneumonic device, and they love it. And I could even see inviting them into the process. Let’s create something. Here’s the key concept, here’s the key information. Let’s figure out how we’re going to remember it. I don’t think high school students are going to reject that.
Principle #5: Embodied Learning
Lynne Little: Another principle that’s an emphasis in classical education is what we called Embodied Learning. And it really is the concept that form is just as important as the content. So these rhythms, the practices, the traditions, the routines we create in hallways and in classrooms are important for our learning. And so this even takes into consideration the posture and tone of the teacher and of the student. So in some ways we could liken this to some classroom management, right? It’s where good habits create good routines or bad habits create bad routines.
Embodied learning–imitation and practice–is something that we focus on, so that we set the stage in the environment for a good learning atmosphere.
One practice that you often find in classical schools is standing to speak. And what we found just from an embodied learning practice is that it cut down exponentially on the random, unrelated interjections of students into whatever was happening. It creates an environment of embodied learning and really in some ways it’s learning through the senses, which we would say is a cultivation of the soul because it goes with you after the classroom.
Principle #6: Wondering Curiosity
Lynne Little: So that brings us to principle number six. This is Wondering Curiosity and just imparting this love for truth, goodness, and beauty by modeling our love for what is lovely. In Christian community, we can all pretty much define what is lovely. We would say a passion for learning is caught and not taught. When we present these things and we give this spirit of inquiry and wonder and excitement to our children, it comes back. We see it come back as a fruit then within the students.
If you go into a second grade classroom and you bring in a red spotted tree frog in a little terrarium, and you set it in the middle of the table, we know what’s going to happen. They’re all going to rush to it. They’re going to ooh, they’re going to ahh, and they’re going to be excited. We do not have to fabricate that. It happens naturally. But I fear what we sometimes are guilty of doing in education is squelching some of that, especially as they get to that middle school or high school age. And that’s why the logic and rhetoric levels are designed to meet them where they are developmentally and cognitively so that we can continue to tap into this wonder and curiosity and not squelch it.
Michael Arnold: I think sometimes as educators, especially at those upper grade levels, we fall into the trap of feeling like we need to be that sage on the stage. We have to have all the answers. We need to be able to give reasons and respond to every question. Whereas, if we can just embrace wonder and curiosity as an educator, we could say, “I don’t know the answer to your question, but it’s a great question. That’s amazing. Let’s explore it.” And that encourages students to continue being lifelong learners.
Principle #7: Educational Virtues
Lynne Little: Principle number seven is Educational Virtues. This means that we’re cultivating the virtues. You might think of fables and their virtues, and the literature from this kind of classical time, which elevated and gave you lessons towards love, humility, diligence, constancy, temperance.
We want to cultivate these in the lives of our students and be intentional about shaping the hearts of our students. So it’s not only the mind that we’re after. We use a lot of educational virtue within literature to paint these pictures. Your words, countenance, tone, all aid in this. How you motivate and encourage shapes this for our students and it sets a standard. And so educational virtue is really a principle that we want to step back from at a curricular level to identify and note where that is occurring and maybe where it isn’t occurring.
Michael Arnold: I love that idea of not only connecting with curriculum, but focusing on virtues. Virtues are developed in the hearts of the students. It inspires real life application.
Principle #8: Schole Contemplation and Leisure
Lynne Little: Finally, principle number eight is Schole Contemplation and Leisure. This is the provision of adequate time for reflection, contemplation, and discussion of profound and important ideas. It goes back to those earlier principles of festina lente and multum non multa, so that we have these core objectives and we give our students time to really process them and allow them time to think.
When I started my consultancy, which the Lord put together for me, it wasn’t what I had planned, and yet it’s been such a beautiful thing for me. But I have a home office and there’s time where I’m just thinking, and it took me a while to not have tension with that because I wasn’t doing. Actually, I was doing, but just mentally. And so allowing time to think creates a lot of tension, because we don’t really know what our students are thinking about. We can’t control that. But the more we do it, I think the more they can take a bite of what we’ve given them and chew on it and digest it and actually have something to give to us from what we’ve taught them. And so asking a lot of questions and allowing students time to think and answer before we move on is part of this schole contemplation.
Then, having these leisurely discussions demands time for thinking. And here’s what’s interesting. During the time of the Greeks, leisure would have been what was referred to for time to read or think or go to school. If it wasn’t work, it was leisure and work was physical labor. And so we think of leisure as play in our modern world, but the origin of the word is really more in an academic manner.
And so this leisure, this relaxed time to think and discuss and process, is something that we need to give more focus to, but it can create a lot of tension for us because of limited time in our classrooms.
Michael Arnold: That is really powerful and I think the application of that is, How are we structuring our students’ time? No, we can’t control what they think, but we can control what we’re filling their time with in terms of technology use and even homework assignments. Are we giving them time to think so that they are left alone with their thoughts from time to time?
Lynne Little: I love all of that. And just because I like you, I’m going to give you two quick bonus principles.
Michael Arnold: I love bonus principles!
Principle #9: Docendo Discimus – By Teaching We Learn
Lynne Little: So one is docendo discimus, which is By Teaching, We Learn. That really applies in a strong way to us as teachers. As educators, we must never stop learning ourselves. When we learn, we have more we can impart, but then helping,also giving way for students to be very involved in the classroom. We give them opportunities to share and to present. Classical schools are very presentation heavy, particularly in high schools, both written and oral.
Principle #10: Optimus Magister Bonus Liberet – The Best Teacher Is a Good Book
Lynne Little: The other principle is optimus magister bonus liberet, which is The Best Teacher Is a Good Book. We help students get ahold of the classics, books that will give them enduring wisdom and timely principles to feed their hearts, their minds, and their souls.
Michael Arnold: That’s good stuff. These are wonderful principles.
If you don’t mind, what would you tell an educator today who said, “I’m stuck in my traditional classroom. I’m looking for just one small change that I can make.” What would you encourage them to do as they consider some of these classical principles?
Lynne Little: That’s a great question. Of course, reading for ourselves, right? If we’re going to say the best teacher is a good book, I think as educators finding a good book that presents maybe even the same information in a new way that excites us and reignites a passion. Again, I would recommend John Milton Gregory’s The Seven Laws of Teaching. Find a good book that’s going to challenge what you’re already doing and challenge you to approach it in a different way.
The other thing that I would just present is the instructional funnel. And that is, if you think of your teaching and your classroom practices as a funnel and that wide opening at the top, and as it comes down, it’s really your biblical worldview, your school mission, your pedagogical practice, then your objectives, your assignments, your assessments, and your resources. Just think of how everything has to pass through that funnel in that way so that you accomplish something of value for your students.
Michael Arnold: That’s great. I will encourage people to check you out at compassed.org, Compass Education. And I would highly recommend that school administrators and educational leaders consider working with you in some way. You’ve got a lot of wisdom. Thank you for your time today, Lynne. It’s been great to work with you in this way, but also in other ways as well as we seek to support schools.
Lynne Little: Absolutely. Thank you, Michael. It’s been my pleasure.
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