The Tools of Thinking and Learning

Written by Ryan Evans on April 12th, 2019

“Is it not the great defect of our education today that although we often succeed in teaching our pupils ‘subjects,’ we fail lamentably on the whole in teaching them how to think? They learn everything, except how to learn.” Such sentiments could be levied against today’s progressive system, which appropriately summarizes our modern educational mess. But those words were actually written by Dorothy Sayers in 1947! Not much has changed over the past seventy years.

The focus of classical education has always been on teaching the tools of thinking and learning. While the content is important, the focus remains on teaching students how to think and how to learn. In fact, the Providence mission statement includes the emphasis on “thinking and acting biblically.” In this four-word phrase, three critical things bear commentary:

  1. Education should focus on training the mind how to think. Our curriculum is well-designed and intentional but ultimately serves as “grist for the mill” as we train up students for life-long learning and human flourishing.
  2. Right thinking should lead to right acting. A classical and Christ-centered education should not result simply in head knowledge; it should lead to shaping and honing of a world view and life view of action grounded in loving God and our neighbor.
  3. All our thinking must be filtered through the lens of Scripture. Our thinking should always be informed by God’s Word as we seek to take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.

In contrast, modern progressive education is focused on training a person for college and for the work force. We previously noted that Common Core intentionally seeks to accomplish these two goals. But note what is missing by relegating learning to these limited outcomes. No mention of shepherding the heart, cultivating the affections, or guiding the moral imagination. A classical education seeks to engage the soul by exposing students to a breadth of foundational ideas and content that prepared them how to think Christianly about all areas of life.

As author David Hicks wrote in his classic book, Norms and Nobility, “The end of education is not thinking; it is acting. It is not just knowing what to do; it is doing it. The sublime premise of a classical education asserts that right thinking will lead to right, if not righteous, acting.”

The skeptic may ask: Does this actually work? We recently conducted our first alumni survey, and the results are encouraging in confirming the value of classical, Christian education. We will be sharing more about the results of the survey at our October state-of-the-school meeting, but we were delighted with the responses to questions about academic preparation and the development of a mind that understands how to learn. As one alumnus wrote, “I used to complain about the lack of practicality of the Providence curriculum, but in my junior and senior years at Providence, I began to find a great joy in learning.” Indeed, it’s often at the summit where we most appreciate the climb.