Young children have a natural sense of wonder and awe, and it is this gift that is the root of intellectual pursuits.
As Aristotle writes: “All men by nature desire to know” and it is an ancient philosophical principle that wonder is the beginning of wisdom.
Classical education is deeply sensitive to children’s natural development and the earliest stage of learning consists in satisfying this desire to know by guiding students to observe the world around them. Throughout this process, children begin to develop a body of knowledge about their surroundings and a corresponding vocabulary, as well as hone their powers of observation. Children in this stage of development absorb information readily, are eager, and adept at memorizing. Thus, the classical curriculum provides students with a foundational body of knowledge through observation and memorization in their first stage of learning, which Dorothy Sayers named by analogy the “grammar stage” or the “poll-parrot stage.” This first stage of learning can be compared to the primary experience of learning a language. In this case, the child is not just learning English, French, or Latin, for example, but the “language” of each subject or discipline, in which, under the guidance of teacher and parents, children imitate or repeat what they observe in the world around them.
As students develop an increasingly more complex understanding of the world around them they begin to see patterns and connections that lie within the information they have internalized, and as a result they desire to know the source or meaning of these patterns and relationships.
This leads them to begin asking “why?” and “how?” In this phase of their development, students are keen to learn how to organize and structure the information they have already mastered even while they are learning new material. This is accomplished through introducing students to outlining, summarizing, and re-presenting information in both written and oral format. While students in their early years of education are learning the “vocabulary” of each subject or discipline, students in the middle grades begin to examine the “structure” of the language they are learning. What the students articulate is now rooted within their own body of knowledge rather than being an imitation or mimicking of an external source. Students can begin to answer their own questions and show the ability to organize and monitor themselves with moderate teacher supervision based on the principles they have practiced in previous years. They can be asked to construct their own definitions of terms and begin to recognize that some questions or problems have more than one appropriate answer or method of solution.