In recent years my philosophical thinking about education has focused far more on the how of learning than the what. That is, I've become much less concerned about curriculum and far more concerned about pedagogy as I've been convinced that the industrial, one-size-fits-all model of American education needs to be replaced with something that is much more student-centered.
After all, my reasoning has gone, the digital natives who occupy America's classrooms now have the entire body of human knowledge at their fingertips. What they need are thinking skills that help them process this wide world of information and use it to solve problems. This emphasis on "21st century skills" has been accompanied by a concern for the widely varying developmental needs of children who are often ill-served in schools that have arbitrarily decided that all children sharing the same birth year should be grouped together and taught the same, fragmented curriculum at the same pace.
In response to these concerns, my interests have turned toward Montessori, Sudbury, homeschooling, personalized learning, and other methods that place a much heavier emphasis on the agency of the individual child in the learning process.
But saying a child should have a lot more control of what, when, and how she learns does not necessarily mean there is no place for curriculum. Adults still have a critical role to play in these decisions. As a Catholic Christian, and especially now as a parent, I believe that education serves a greater purpose than to simply prepare children for adult life. Indeed, the well-guided journey of the human soul is the ultimate purpose of education. And not just any learning facilitates such an essential and important process.
This is why I've become interested in the use of student-centered pedagogies in Christian education, where the possibilities of blending such methods with a rigorous, soul-supporting curriculum are quite rich. As I wrote on this blog a few months ago, rediscovering Montessori (as one example) might be a key strategy in the revitalization of Catholic education, which has suffered setbacks in recent decades in terms of enrollments, vibrancy, and religious identity.
That blog post was spotted by a friend who connected me with Corpus Christi Classical Academy, a tiny but thriving independent Catholic school in Simpsonville, Kentucky (Shelby County). My friend, whose wife is a teacher there, wanted me to know about Corpus Christi's aspirations to integrate classical education and Montessori in the same school. So on a hot spring day during the busiest time of the school year for both me and my hosts, I carved out some time and drove to Simpsonville to meet with Corpus Christi principal Leslie Genuis and visit her school.
Corpus Christi has had a long-standing presence in the Shelby County community, but nearly closed last year due to declining enrollments and the retirement of its long-time principal. Genuis took over with a mostly new school board and a vision for revitalizing the school. During my visit, it was a pleasure to see middle school students reading and thoughtfully discussing Homer, with other classics like Wuthering Heights and As You Like It tucked in their desks.
Genuis, whose has experience both in homeschooling and Catholic education, showed me school's curriculum, which draws heavily from materials developed by Memoria Press, an offshoot of Louisville's Highlands Latin School. But the staff at Corpus Christi has thoughtfully modified and adjusted the selection of materials to best meet the needs of their students.
"Classical education" is now a very hot topic in the world of non-public education. Memoria Press defines classical education as "the cultivation of wisdom and virtue through meditation on the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. This is accomplished in two ways: first, through training in the liberal arts; and secondly, through a familiarity with the great books and the great thinkers of the Western tradition." Classical education, done well, is a traditional liberal arts education with a strong emphasis on the development of Christian virtues. In this sense, it is a curriculum that is rigorous, thoughtful, and structured in such a way that a natural coherence of all subjects is maintained and emphasized.
But Genuis and the parents and staff at Corpus Christi recognize that a rigorous curriculum does not preclude alternative pedagogies. This is why they are launching a Montessori pre-school program for the 2015-2016 school year. Genuis is participating in online Montessori training and has already started incorporating Montessori elements at the school. I visited the classroom and saw the familiar pink tower, tracing letters, and other distinctive hallmarks of a Montessori pre-K environment. And while the school only plans to institute Montessori in the preschool for now, visiting the lower primary class it was evident that the Montessori philosophy is making inroads there as well.
Is there a natural tension between a structured curriculum and a student-centered learning approach? Probably, but Genuis and her staff seem eager to explore this tension and discover what is possible. The Montessori Method includes its own, well-developed curriculum, after all. And there appears to be nothing in classical education that precludes the possibility of students exploring that curriculum with a high degree of choice and self-pacing.
Corpus Christi Classical Academy is not alone in its faith that Montessori and classical education go together. This fall I look forward to visiting Bob Nardo and the Libertas School of Memphis, a new charter school that will blend Montessori and Core Knowledge, a secular curriculum that nevertheless shares many of the same features as classical education.
It will be in schools like Corpus Christi and Libertas that educators will pioneer new modes of learning that embrace the student-centered, personalized focus emerging in conventional schooling but with the wisdom and accumulated human knowledge of classical approaches to education. I am most eager to learn from their journey.