Neuroscience & the Trivium, by Courtney


When I began researching homeschooling, I looked for books on the topic—and luckily enough, The Well-Trained Mind popped up at the top of the Amazon list. While the sheer scope of the book was overwhelming, I was curious about this heretofore-unknown concept of classical education. It seemed like a good idea—but where were the research studies? I was frustrated when I realized that curricula research neglected any major studies of classical education—at least, any studies conducted in the last 100 years (Headlam, Fletcher, & Paton, 1910).

Yet, I did find some research. For example, when reading a chapter on the criminal justice system in a book on the teenage brain, I came across an easy-to-read chart depicting why children need to learn facts and concepts about the world during the grammar stage. There, in black and white, was a neuroscientist’s casual statement that “synaptic learning rises rapidly in infancy and childhood, stays high during the teen years, and tapers off to plateau in adulthood. However, myelination and connectivity do not peak until early adulthood (late twenties), plateauing later in life.” (Jenson & Ellis Nutt, 2015, p. 270)

This statement came with a simple graphic illustration of the superior ability of children to learn facts, decreasing in teens, and sliding down the slippery slope in adulthood, all the way to near zero in senility. It was contrasted with lower myelination in toddlers and elementary children, rising through the teen years and peaking in the late twenties. (Jenson & Ellis Nutt, 2015, p. 270) Myelination corresponds with maturation of the prefrontal cortex, also known as the ability to see other people’s point of view and see the connections between complex concepts.

At last, a scientific justification for the trivium! I have some data behind my insistence on having my child learn as many facts as possible in early elementary school! Does that mean that my child should memorize random facts, just because they can? Of course not—here is why. To quote Dr. Willingham:

Cognitive science has shown that what ends up in a learner’s memory is not simply the material presented—it is the product of what the learner thought about when he or she encountered the material. (Willingham, 2003)

I don’t know about you, but my mind wanders when I’m bored, and there’s nothing more boring than reciting random facts and numbers. In fact, people who study the art of memorization often use a technique called a “memory palace” that allows them to create their own context (Zielinski, 2014) Classical education’s insistence on the overarching narrative of history and science is important because the narrative gives our children context for otherwise meaningless facts.

Conversely, one must be careful with hands-on projects. Students may be more likely to remember the process than the associated information (Willingham, 2003). Timelines are an excellent tool, but if students approach timelines purely as an opportunity to show off drawing skills, the point of the timeline is lost. Inquiry-based learning is a powerful tool—but without an excellent supporting framework of knowledge keyed to good Socratic questions, it’s also entirely possible for students to come to wildly inaccurate conclusions from which you cannot easily budge them. For example, we all know that moving closer to a heat source makes us warmer, and the Sun is often described as a great ball of fire, so many people incorrectly deduce that it’s warmer in the summer because the Earth is closer to the Sun (Kamenetz, 2016). (Tip: The summer warmth comes from the tilt of the Earth, not perihelion.)

Even the common insistence in classical education that even the youngest children learn how to perform narration is an excellent skill for putting information into memory. Narration is a verbal outline, or summary of the information, requiring students to think about the material. One could not design a more perfect technique for requiring students to “actively process the text” (Willingham, 2003).

In short—teach your children well by surrounding them with the stories of math, science, and history, using Socratic discussion in combination with a student-generated narration of the topic.


Works Cited

Headlam, J. W., Fletcher, F., & Paton, J. L. (1910). The Teaching of Classics in Secondary Schools in Germany. London: Wyman and Sons.

Jenson, F. E., & Ellis Nutt, A. (2015). The Teenage Brain. New York: HarperCollins.

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Courtney is a relatively recent, accidental homeschooler of the secular, classical persuasion. Courtney has been teaching online (mostly community college algebra) since 2000, while working towards a ridiculous number of college credits for teaching certifications in general science, social studies, and visual impairments. Along the way, she’s done substitute teaching, face-to-face college adjuncting, technical writing, web design, public relations, data analysis, teaching in a public school, homeschool portfolio evaluations, providing vision education services for Birth To Three, and a whole host of “other duties as assigned.” In her spare time she enjoys reading, photography, cooking, sewing clothes, and other various domestic arts. She lives in the middle of the Appalachian mountains on the east coast of the USA with her husband, her two children, and her mother. Her family’s menagerie currently consists of a dog, assorted lizards, assorted cichlid fish, and assorted cats.

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