THESE 10 DIFFERENCES are a generalization, with variation across thousands of classical Christian and Christian schools. If you spend a few hours in each type of school, here are some of the differences you will most likely encounter.
❶ “English Class” vs. “The Trivium”
(sometimes called “Language Arts”)
CONVENTIONAL: With composition, literature, and sometimes public speaking blended into “language arts” or English class, time is divided between literature and writing for one period each. Writing often focuses on simplified styles, public speaking is limited, and literature leans toward modern works, abridgments, and excerpts. Students receive limited, if any, experience in research, thesis development, or thesis defense. This blend results in the poor writing ability observed by colleges across the country.
What you might see: English class might read 2-3 accessible books and a few short stories per year. Often, they include popular current works. For composition, students often write short essays on personal, popular topics. Students may have literature electives later in high school, often centered around special interests.
- Time: In the secondary, students have one hour of literature, English, and composition per day, often limited to 1 or 2 years in high school. Speech class is often one semester, and takes place in the 9th or 10th grade.
- Coursework: No logic coursework is required or offered. Debate is an elective, if it is taught at all. Because of the fusion between literature and writing, literature is often limited to Modern American works written in the past two or three centuries. This inadvertently biases modern (often non-Christian) thought. Optional specific literature electives are separate from the rest of the curriculum.
- Sources: English classes typically use literary excerpts, anthologies, prose adaptations, or abridgments for ease of reading or to make time for composition exercises.
- Conventional Christian schools often overlook opportunities to apply English literary understanding to biblical or other historical Christian literary forms.
Bottom Line: Adopting the progressive approach to languages significantly narrows the educational experience. Logic, persuasion, and thesis tend not to be emphasized. Students can read and write for technical purposes, but lack the more complex literary understanding that helps lead to wisdom. They have almost no meaningful experience in research, thesis development, and public speaking.
Students do not learn the art of discourse and debate with a truth-seeking purpose. The basis of contemporary education is that truth is individualized and compartmentalized.
CLASSICAL: The Trivium as practiced in classical Christian education (CCE) emphasizes writing, reading, logic, and speaking across all subjects. Our goal is not simply learning grammar and writing mechanics, but rather approaching every subject with clear thinking and eloquence. Writing and speaking are taught in conjunction with research and facts, logical thinking, and ultimately, thesis development. Original sources and full texts are read, from throughout history. Students educated this way are often sought after by colleges. The Trivium sees every subject in three parts and aligns with students’ stages of development.
• GRAMMAR: K–6th grades—content and facts
• LOGIC: 7–9th grades—reason and understanding
• RHETORIC: 10–12th grades—discourse on ideas to build wisdom
What you might see: Students in Rhetoric focus on thesis development, reasoning skills, and defense. All courses have more writing and discussion/debate. Students regularly write and speak in a variety of formats. Literature is in a different class. Juniors or seniors defend a thesis orally and in writing, usually more than 10 pages in length.
- Time: Students spend 4 years in the rhetoric program (high school) practicing the art of speaking and writing persuasively in all subject areas, with 2-3 years of dedicated rhetorical training. They begin with a thorough study of grammar in k-6. They advance to a study of logic and basic composition in junior high (logic school).
- Coursework: The Rhetoric phase involves 4 years of rhetorical emphasis in all high school courses with at least 2 years of formal rhetoric training in writing and speaking. In middle school, you would notice “logic” classes and “composition and grammar” classes. One or two years of formal logic coursework is common. Students defend a major thesis in the later part of high-school. Students write and read extensively.
- Sources: The Classical Trivium draws from ancient, medieval, and modern sources, often primary, such as Aristotle, Cicero, or other medieval rhetoricians.
See the “literature” portion in the Classical Core section below for comparable information on literature and reading.
Rhetorical study is the basis of thesis defense, which is the long tradition of advanced college work. The process closely follows the traditional college thesis defense for masters and PhD level work.
A rhetorical study presumes that truth exists and is not “personal” or different for every person. Thus, students are conditioned to look for Truth in every aspect of their education, not personal truth. Rhetorical antithesis inherently refutes postmodernism and multiculturalism.
A larger, more fully integrated understanding of language, logic, writing, and persuasion helps students build influence for Christ and his Kingdom in the world.
❷ Common Core “Baseline” vs. Classical Core Excellence
AND HAVE MORE BREADTH OF UNDERSTANDING.
Social Studies and/or Common Core
CONVENTIONAL: State Common Core standards can be inherited in conventional Christian schools through textbooks, teacher certification, and policies such as accreditation. Some Christian schools subscribe to the Common Core formally. A key value of progressive education is to create a minimum achievement level for all students. This means, given limited resources, the standards will always be baseline. Schools also inherit this value system through the teacher colleges that certify their teachers. Even Christian publishers tend to accommodate the Core by removing text or rewriting it to a predefined angle. The result is that schools often underestimate the capability of individual students, and impose unintentional standards that work against a Christian worldview.
What you might see: Students use textbooks to read and do exercises or worksheets in social studies. Content tends to be state or US history & geography. History begins in about 1776. Students spend time assimilating information and testing, with a few projects added to break it up.
- Emphasis: U.S. and modern history. Also may include geography, sociology, and psychology.
- Time: High-school “social studies” is often limited to 2 or 3 classes (US history and elective world history, or regional history with church history sometimes added separately). This equates to about an hour per day for two or three years.
- Coursework: Economics, US Government, and Geography often replace history in the junior and senior year. Electives like P.E., Health, and a variety of others make up much of the high-school schedule and often cover a majority of the credits, allowing students to steer their educational course.
- Sources: Each of these courses is centered on learning data. Textbooks summarize to allow quick ingestion of facts. Occasional projects are interspersed to cement the knowledge of facts.
- Examples: History texts would likely contain summaries of approved Common Core content.
With the rising control of Common Core at the federal level, courses will become even more knowledge-specialized. Christian schools are influenced by these standards as they come through text books, teacher training, etc.
Bottom line: Less time is spent on history and literature, with more of an emphasis on knowing facts and a focus on a scientific study of humane, social subjects. This leads to a mono-dimentional, pre-judged version of the Core.
Results: Students end up knowing a few areas (US history, economics) but they don’t relate this knowledge to the bigger picture. The perspective of their textbooks is unchallenged by original sources.
A Classical Core
CLASSICAL: CCE standards are based on a classical core of texts and goals (not “standards”) to take each student as far as they can go toward excellence. The classical core has historically been the anchor of academic institutions, both at the high-school and college level. Unlike Common Core, the classical core is not a standard-set, nor is it an official list of textbooks. Rather, it is a known canon of works and practiced abilities. From the curricular materials to the reading expectations to the skills in math, music, and art, classical education uses higher, more challenging sources, allowing students to develop an uncommon depth of thought.
What you might see: Students read and discuss extensively—often around 20 or more pages of an original work on a typical school day. The works tend to be older and unabridged with in-depth language, ideas, and themes. While difficult to access at first, students grow accustomed over about 10 years of intensive reading in the classical core. History is learned through original sources and spans from the Hebrews and Greeks to the present day. Adjustments are made based upon individual abilities and expectations.
- Emphasis: The unity of ancient, medieval, and modern Western and Christian history, geography, literature, philosophy, and theology.
- Time: High-schools require 4 years of humanities with about 2 hours of history and literature daily throughout high school—much more than twice the time spent in the best conventional schools.
- Coursework: Fewer electives allow students in CCE schools to focus on the importance of the core. This helps keep the important things important—something students might not appreciate until much later in life.
- Sources: Original sources are preferred in all subjects, which are often more complex and thought provoking in the classroom than textbooks. This helps prevent students from reading “scrubbed” works that are interpreted by modern scholars.
- Examples: History texts would likely include ancient historians like Herodotus, Tacitus, Suetonius, or Eusebius.
Common Core is not a factor for classical Christian schools. We don’t use the texts, the teachers, or the accreditation that would influence our schools.
Bottom Line: Our students learn to understand and extract rich and thought-provoking ideas from literature. They spend time gaining an integrated understanding of God’s story, told through history and great-books literature, and making sense of all things brought together in a “university” of knowledge.
Results: Students gain perspective and understanding, as well as a deep knowledge of other time periods and works that help them “become aware of the vast cataract of foolishness in our own time.”— C.S. Lewis. Some specialized subjects may not receive as much attention.
❸ STEM vs. Classical Science
THEY LEARN MORE OF THE “WHY” BEHIND SCIENCE IN HIGH SCHOOL.
What you might see: Specialized science courses are offered in many specialties, with additional options for electives and college tracks. Often, these college-prep courses are the most rigorous courses at the school. Students are encouraged strongly to engage in robotics, computers, and other technology. Graduation requirements are heavy in math, and some science.
- Many schools accept curricular elements for advanced placement or concurrent credit with colleges. These types of courses give the illusion of faster advancement in college. But, they are data-driven or skills-based.
- Many schools promote that their students can enter college as a sophomore, or save thousands of dollars.
- These courses are typically in STEM. For students bound for true STEM fields, their high school earned college credits are often inadequate for their degree.
When you think about it, these credits clearly show the deficiency of modern education—it’s about content. College professors and fellow students become unnecessary to gaining a college education.
*ACCS School SAT Survey, 2018
What you might see: Students may have fewer science options, but they engage core science with rigor. An emphasis on understanding the “why” rather than memorizing scientific methods integrates with other aspects of classical education. Overall, math and science is more proportionally balanced with the humanities.
❹ Bible Class vs. Biblical Integration
KNOWLEDGE THROUGH A CHRISTIAN THEOLOGICAL AND PHILOSOPHICAL LENS.
Bible classes & chapel
CONVENTIONAL: Bible classes and chapel at conventional Christian schools provide a spiritual aspect to an otherwise progressive approach to education. Much of “Christianity” is set apart because the progressive model implicitly believes education has two parts: religious and secular. Academic accreditation, books, teacher training, and other systems shared with public schools ensure that they bypass other opportunities for Christian integration. This inadvertent practice results in a divided view, not a Christian worldview.
What you might see: Students often lead worship at a weekly or daily chapel, have Bible classes, and learn from Christian texts that have content consistent with the state core. Teachers pray before or after class and disciple students.
- Emphasis: Bible teaching and spirituality are important, but separated from other subjects. Even Christian textbook authors mimic the progressive school approach and method. For example, they occasionally add a “spiritual” box at the end of an otherwise secular chapter.
- Sources: The accreditation, teacher certification, and publishing industries interconnect throughout conventional K-12 education. The result–a latent separation of useful, vocational education and Christian truth.
- Bible study takes place in a context of the moral and spiritual, while other subjects are seen as neutral, or disconnected. For example, In US government, students may talk about the Christianity of our founding fathers, but they are unlikely to debate the Christian basis for Locke or Jefferson’s philosophical ideas.
Bottom Line: Students develop a solid knowledge of Scripture, but they lack the experience to apply it in historical or existential ways. This limits their Christian worldview application.
Biblical Worldview integration
CLASSICAL: CCE holds that the truth of Christ’s lordship is manifest in every area of study, with application to all subjects and, as a result, to everyday life. Medieval Christians who practiced classical education had a phrase that meant God is the beginning and the end of everything we can know (“Theology is the Queen of the Sciences”). Everything has unity in exactly one point—it was and is created and sustained by Jesus Christ. With this beginning, CCE schools are integrated. We teach various points of view, and help students see with clarity the differences.
What you might see: Students are asking “why” to a variety of deep theological questions. Students are asked to wrestle with these why’s under the guidance of a teacher through socratic discussion. Each primary work read is understood through a parallel reading of scripture. The school culture is community oriented, with music and worship tied to older, sacred sources.
- Emphasis: We recognize that subjects are merely categories that educators impose for practical reasons. You may see Bible time, or devotions within our schools. But, you’ll more frequently see biblical engagement with every subject and topic.
- Sources: We use fewer “textbooks” that reflect the modern tendency to break knowledge into categories (sacred/secular). When we do use textbooks, the majority of our curricula is built by classical educators using classical methods and theory.
- The Bible is the foremost tool for understanding any point of theology and philosophy. Since our entire core is philosophy based, the Bible formally becomes part of the entire curriculum.
- Our teachers are typically trained outside of the conventional educational certification system.
- ACCS accreditation is independent of conventional school accreditation. This level of independence helps us reorient everything we do toward Christ.
Bottom Line: Students see every inch of thought, history, and natural creation as an extension of the work of Jesus Christ.
❺ Spanish/Chinese vs. Latin/Greek
AND A DEEPER UNDERSTANDING OF IDEAS AND THEIR CONSEQUENCES.
THIS IS WHY THEY OFTEN LEARN WESTERN LANGUAGES FASTER.
Modern Languages Only
CONVENTIONAL: Classes such as Spanish and Chinese introduce students to a modern language. Conventional schools view language as a skill used to communicate, usually for commercial reasons, with people down the street or in our business world today. They rarely offer the seminal languages by which we understand Western Christian thought—Hebrew, Greek, and Latin.
What you might see: Students often spend a limited time practicing a modern language with an emphasis on ordering from menus, reading common text, or basic communication.
- Emphasis: When conventional schools study non-English languages, they focus on Spanish or sometimes Chinese or Arabic. Why? Because these are the languages we are most likely to engage in our day-to-day dealings and to be used by businesses. There’s nothing wrong with this, except that it ignores and often replaces a more substantial purpose.
- Time/Coursework: Typically elective for 2-3 years in high school. Sometimes, a common language like Spanish is offered earlier.
- Typically, foreign languages are reserved for high school. Usually, students do not achieve fluency at this level.
- Even when practical value is achieved, the ability to understand ideas and culture through language, and the ability to more easily learn other languages, is not present.
CLASSICAL: Through Latin and Greek, students better understand Christianity, the West, and the basis of our own language. Because CCE schools find value in original texts and understanding historic cultures, we study classical languages to engage unfamiliar ideas and build the student’s language skills in English. The study of Latin is one of the best ways to learn modern languages and to develop language learning systems in one’s mind. Academic languages also have a hidden pay-off. Students who study Latin outperform students of all other languages, on average, on the SAT—and by a wide margin.
What you might see: Students spend longer with one language and learn it younger—typically starting Latin in the 3rd grade. They develop a much better command of language, and engage ancient cultures and ideas.
- Emphasis: Classical students engage in languages that help them sharpen and deepen their minds.
- Time/Coursework: We begin teaching Latin in grammar school (usually around 3rd grade). Students who begin earlier typically learn a language better. We continue with the traditional “academic languages” for about 6 years.
- Latin is a unique language. First, it’s the language of theology and the West. So, the ideas of the church about God for 2000 years have largely been communicated in Latin. We believe Christians are part of a global historical community that fellowships with our brothers and sisters in Christ over 2000 years of history through the written word.
- Secondly, it’s a base language for English and many other European languages. It has a structure and formality that makes it an excellent point of contrast with English. Just as this document’s “contrasting” approach helps you understand the real differences in education, even more so is Latin useful for helping students contrast all language, and English in particular.
- Ancient Greek is studied as another seminal language in European thought and biblical understanding.
❻ Social Studies vs. History and Philosophy
SYSTEMATIC THINKERS, AND HAVE A BETTER HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE.
CONVENTIONAL: “Social studies” and history textbooks offer an oversimplified and modern interpretation of history. These courses are information-oriented with “teach and test” methods. Historical literature is not covered, except occasionally as part of a literature class. Literature is not aligned with the history curriculum. Students are supplied a limited view, and are guidedby the textbook into how to think about historic events. Christian principles, if present, are superficial.
CLASSICAL: CCE views the study of history as a way to witness the universal Truth of the gospel as it plays out in the circumstances of humanity. History, literature, philosophy, and theology are pursued together to create a rich experience with history throughout time. Ideas and their consequences are in clear view. Students understand the broader influence of culture and thought, along with facts, to build knowledge and wisdom. Original sources are generally used instead of textbooks. We emphasize the cultural and religious influences present throughout history and understood in philosophy and literature.
❼ Student-driven vs. Aspirational School Culture
AT MOST CHRISTIAN SCHOOLS TO CREATE A UNIQUE AND LIFE-CHANGING EXPERIENCE.
CONVENTIONAL: Academics are isolated in most schools, with clubs, sports, and other extracurricular activities in separate camps. Education and student culture are separate things. School “ethos” is often incidental, or at least secondary. Student government and leadership, as well as hallway culture, are more student-driven when schools view learning as information retention rather than virtue formation. This leads to the undervaluing of intentional school culture.
What you might see: You’ll notice the students seem to “own” the hallways as teachers “own” the classrooms. The environment is more frenetic. Student dress varies widely, even when dress codes are in place. Dances, parties, athletics, and other social activities are often patterned after public school traditions.
At many conventional Christian schools, tools that drive the ethos of student life are borrowed from public school frameworks. The students drive the social culture in the hallways, activities, and after school social activities. Teachers and administrators are the “them” that govern the classroom and teaching. This extends from the view that a true education only answers the questions “what do you know and what can you do.”
- Emphasis: Conventional schools view “school” as a series of classes that teach content. The environment of conventional schools is designed to remove roadblocks to this ultimate goal.
- Classrooms are the domain of the teacher. Administrators monitor the halls and common areas to enforce the rules.
- Dances, student government, and athletics often look very similar to public schools, with a few more rules (dress code, etc.) They often inadvertently replicate the emphasis on a teen-dating culture, student popularity-based government, and athletic traditions.
CLASSICAL: School ethos (culture) is central to learning and is therefore intentional in CCE. Our schools are purposeful in building community that “pulls” kids in the right direction—in manners, virtue, and relationships. Systems and programs are interwoven throughout the day to ensure a holistic picture of learning, and community is sought among faculty, staff, and students.
What you might see: You’ll notice the uniforms, but also polite actions like holding open a door and standing politely and quietly in line (grammar school). In upper grades, you’ll notice more respectful relationships between students, and more formal engagement in the hall. Joyful order is a common description.
The medieval culture, carefully studied in most classical schools, saw education as the cultivation of virtue. In part, this is done through the most basic practices of manners, dress, and habits in community.
- The first thing you’ll notice when you walk into a classical Christian school are the uniforms. Often, these are formal.
- The students look you in the eye and greet you, hustle to help out, and engage in conversation.
- Young students quickly want to be noticed as better or “cool.” We recognize that the less we emphasize and encourage that desire, the better it is for the school community.
- Habits are formed young, so the standards of behavior–such as orderly lines to show respect to other students and classes–are set throughout the school.
- You’ll probably notice the formal manners of the students, with greetings when you enter, and training in eye contact and handshakes.
- Structure, organization, cursive handwriting, and homework drive academic discipline.
- Formalized note taking or “common placing” drives students to formal organization.
- Prom, dances, etc. are replaced with events that encourage civility and manners along with fun, generosity, and maturity.
- Teachers take particular interest in shaping the ideas, practices, and virtues of the student. They see each of these things as equally important.
The claim to cultivate virtue through these outward actions is often misunderstood as pretentious. Our culture today sees this as “putting on airs.” But, very few haven’t noticed the increased maturity of character–and the ability to enjoy community across generations–that is present in students.
❽ Child-centered vs. Beautiful School Decor
THE AFFECTIONS AT WORK IN KIDS, IN CONTRAST TO CHILD-CENTERED DECOR.
CONVENTIONAL: Christian schools often practice a “child-centered” approach, from the student’s clothing to what goes on the walls. School decor and practices are based on progressive ideas of aesthetics. These are embedded in the paradigm of public school, like bold primary colors and excessive visual stimuli, with some religious posters and content added.
What you might see: Educational psychologists promote bright, primary colors and lots of “stimulation” on the walls of grammar school. High schools are commercial, institutional buildings with little attention paid to decor—except that posters, student-created signs, and the occasional bulletin board adorn the walls.
Emphasis: The decor that is placed within a school is generally modern, burgeoning the notion that beauty is unimportant, and if it does exist it rests in the eye of the beholder. With such an environment, students are likely to believe that the beauty of the created world is subject to personal and social variation.
CLASSICAL: CCE’s “less about me” approach means individualism is second to community. Students wear uniforms, and school decor lifts aspirations and affections to a higher, outside standard rather than being driven by individual expression or what child psychologists say children respond to. Walls are decorated with great art, and classrooms are decorated with less “bling” and more intentional beauty.
What you might see: The “feel” of the facility is more like a decorated home or a formal space than what we think of as school. For those schools with the resources, the architecture is classically inspired. Student space is decorated with replicas of great art. Student displayed art is often carefully created to imitate excellent classical artwork. Traditional beauty in a CCE school will also often emphasize music.
Emphasis: CCE maintains that beauty in a school matters. Classically construed, beauty is essential to properly ordering the affections of a student. This proper ordering connects to an appreciation for study of all other subjects, especially mathematics.
❾ Lecture vs. Socratic Method
CONVENTIONAL: The currency of progressive schools is information-based testing. Standardized tests, whiteboard lectures, teach-and-test methods, and front facing desks are the defining environment for most Christian schools.
What you’ll notice: Lectures and textbook reading take up most of the time even in history and literature classes.
CLASSICAL: A CCE cornerstone is Socratic discussion—respectful deliberation and analysis between teachers and students, usually based on a question designed to provoke thought on a topic. Students express ideas, engage with others, and search for answers on their own. This practice teaches students to identify good and logical arguments from bad and illogical ones, and to express ideas well. It impacts writing habits, encourages self motivated reading, and creates students who pursue Truth.
What you’ll notice: CCE students spend more time engaging and discussing, and often read original sources.
❿ State-based Teacher Training vs. Classical Scholarship
CONVENTIONAL: Conventional schools have teachers who spend much of their time during college, or even while earning their masters in education, learning classroom and teaching practices outside the subject they teach. Teachers often view themselves as professional teachers, not professional learners. Most Christian schools are accredited by private organizations that also accredit state schools, or have agreements with those that do, that require they enforce the state standards. Nearly every Christian accrediting body enforces state standards for teachers. Why? Today, nearly all schools, public and Christian, borrow their core system from the progressive tradition of education. This typically requires that the school conform to a slate of state standards.
Emphasis: Teaching environments that focus on teacher-based methods rather than learner-based methods undercut the traditional model of the first universities and schools. Teachers who distance themselves from students as learners form a disconnect with their students, failing to inspire a curiosity in students that will lead them to pursue learning beyond their immediate test scores.
CLASSICAL: CCE faculty are often hired without teaching degrees, but rather with academic or professional background in the area they teach. Likely, this means they love what they teach and can be creative in the way they teach. And they often know their subject well because many were trained to practice in it and pursue it, not just to teach it. Students pick up on this and develop a more natural love of every subject. ACCS member schools access teacher training resources specific to classical education.
Emphasis: CCE schools emphasize John Milton Gregory’s Seven Laws of Teaching. These laws emphasize a thorough knowledge of the subject matter at hand in the teacher (not just how to teach it), maintain the constant attention and curiosity of a student, and require students to reproduce the concepts that are being taught until they can express them well in their own words.
Gregory’s seven laws are integrated deeply into our accreditation and certification practices; they require teachers who know and love the subjects they teach, and students who are able to glean concepts from their teachers in ways they will remember and actuate.