Home Schooling book review: The Well Trained Mind

Home Schooling book review: The Well Trained Mind

The first book I picked up, although the last that I finished reading, was The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home by Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise, a mother-daughter team. Jessie home schooled Susan and in her turn Susan is home schooling her children.

This is an outline for a classical curriculum follow the model of the trivium: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Roughly, they divide education into three stages. From about first through fourth grade the child is in the grammar stage and their developmental aptitude is for memorization. This is the time to teach them facts, rules, etc. You are laying down the foundations for other learning. From about fifth through eighth grade is the logic stage when the child starts to be capable of abstract thought. Now they learn to analyze, to ask why things happen, to understand cause and effect and to see relationships between different areas of knowledge. Then in the high school years, ninth through twelfth, they are in the rhetorical stage, and expression of their own ideas in well-crafted language building on the first two stages.

In general I know that I lean toward a classical model of education. The trivium makes sense to me as it follows the child’s own development. Of course the great thing about homeschooling is that you can tailor your curriculum to each child’s actual stage of development. Thus you are able to forestall the frustration of the child who is being pushed beyond his current abilities as well as the boredom of a child who is not being challenged enough.

The authors “suggest that the twelve years of education consist of three repetitions of the same four-year pattern: the ancients (500 BC-AD 400), the medieval period through the early Renaissance (400-600), the late Renaissance through early modern times (1600-1850), and modern times (1850-present).” I like this model, though I have seen others suggested. Domenic doesn’t like it so much. He’d like to see American history given its own focus rather than incorporated into world history.

Obviously, you would start off simple and get more complex with each repetition. In the first stage the child learns stories and memorizes facts such as names and dates; in the second stage the focus is on cause and effect, relationships; in the thrid stage they are equipped to express conclusions.  Other subjects in the curriculm are linked to history. At all times the focus is on primary sources, especially biography and literature. They also link science: beginning with biology, then earth science and astronomy, then chemistry and finally physics. Roughly corresponding to historical development in these fields.

I especially like the emphasis on reading literature and primary sources. This forms the imagination and is a much more effective way of teaching history than learning disconnected facts. It introduces them early to the methodology of true scholarship and makes education a voyage of discovery.

The book gives many long reading lists and several curriculum suggestions for each subject at each grade level. It is more a reference book than a book to be read straight through. I didn’t read every bit but skimmed through the lists and read the intruductory and explanatory passages in each section.

The authors present a secular curriculum in that they do not write specifically for any one faith tradition. But they do emphasize the importance of incorporating religious education into the curriculum. They do suggest some materials that are specifically Christian and when they do they always note that fact and generally specify how the content is affected (such as Bible verses in a math workbook).

Mostly because it isn’t specifically Catholic and because we still haven’t decided about the structure we want to follow for history study, I think I’d find this book most helpful as a reference resource. I doubt I would use it as a roadmap to closely map out a path. But then it is designed to be either.

I borrowed the revised edition from the library. I think since it will be four or five years before I start buying curriculum material, that I will put off purchasing this book until closer to that point because it is possible another revision will come out with more updated lists.

Other suggestions I liked: the use of timelines constructed by the student; the use of binders to organize student portfolios for each year’s study so the student may review what she’s learned and the parent has a solid record of academic achievement. They also have some good suggestions for projects, and I like some of the suggestions for structure and scheduling.


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  • Don’t worry. I am such a bookworm, you’d have to tie my hands behind my back and shove a gag in my mouth to prevent me from reading to my little ones.

    To me reading is like breathing. I don’t understand how people can not do it. One year I gave up novel reading for Lent so I could focus on spiritual reading instead. And believe me that was a huge sacrifice. (Guess that’s why I majored in English and became an English prof.)

    My nieces and nephews know what to expect from me for their birthdays: books. The first year Dom and I were dating I forgot to put a card or tag on my gift but his sister still knew who she should send a thank you note to for the book.

    So what I mean by formal education is perhaps a bit different than what you do. By that I mean when I plan to tell my child that we are having school time. Most kids I’ve known start to want to sit down and play school by about four or five, especially if they have older siblings or cousins.

    So at about kindergarten age we’ll probably begin to formally call some of the learning time “school time”.

    But I plan to have reading for fun beginning at birth and continuing through high school. We’ll both read out loud to the kids as my parents did with me and as I did with my younger brothers and sisters.

    I like what my good friend Stephanie’s father used to do: read from the classics at meal times. Maybe we’ll do that. Or maybe we’ll have a story time after supper. But I consider that unformal learning because it is simply family time together and fostering the idea of reading as entertainment. There will be no tests or papers just great books.

  • We are just finishing our 16th and final year of our homeschooling adventure, and I have no regrets at all. 

    One thing you should consider while you are reading up on the subject is that “formal” homeschooling begins at about 4 to 6 months, or when your baby is able to sit upright on your lap.  Buy lots of board books and books with textured pictures and books that you can make sounds to (like animal noises).  Start reading to your little one every day, and make it as animated and affectionate an experience as possible.  If you do this consistently for a few years (keep buying new books!) you will have laid a firm foundation for whatever homeschool plan you choose. 

    God bless!