A couple of weeks ago I took the kids with me to visit the local Classical Conversations group. Lily spent the morning attending their 4 and 5 year old class, and I spent the morning observing. For those who are not familiar with the program, Classical Conversations sponsors weekly group classes designed to supplement a classical christian education. The classical model they follow is similar to that outlined in The Well-Trained Mind, in which the elementary years (grammar stage) are spent learning the underlying facts and rules of various subjects. These are covered in CC's Foundations program, which is designed for children in K-6. Foundations is followed by Essentials (middle grades) and Challenge (high school) programs. I will limit my review to the Foundations program as it is the only I observed.
Classical Conversations uses a 3-year rotation in the Foundations program. I can't quite remember the cut off dates, but I believe year 1 covers creation through the middle ages, year two is probably Renaissance through modern, year 3 focuses specifically on American history. Science also follows a 3-year rotation, while math facts are repeated every year. Classical Conversations is essentially a memorization program, with new "memorization sentences" being introduced every week.
The week we visited, the children were introduced to the following history sentence (note: this is as I remember it, of course my memory may not be completely accurate...): From 1820 to 1930 more than 37 million immigrants came to America seeking freedom and to increase their personal wealth. The sentence was introduced with pictures and a recorded song. A new math sentence was also introduced: The area of a circle is equal to pi times the radius squared. In science, the elements of the periodic table were being taught, along with their atomic weights and numbers--we were introduced to Hydrogen, Helium, Lithium, and Beryllium.
So what did the kids get out of all this? I'm really not sure. In fact, I have serious doubts about the usefullness of teaching these particular facts to 4 and 5 year olds. Lily, for example, may have remembered the song for the history fact, but I'm sure she doesn't know what 1820 means, or 1930, or immigrant, or 37 million... As for the area of a circle, what is area? The tutor held up a pi plate with the radius labled and the numbers 3.14. The kids might memorize the formula, but without any concept of what it means. Ditto for the elements of the periodic table--at least in the class we attended there was no real explanation of what an element is, or the particular properties of each.
The class also included a scientific exploration time, which seemed somewhat more age appropriate--the tutor poured sprite from a can into a glass, then weighted a strip of paper towel with a paper clip and lowered it into the glass. The children observed the bubbles. They tried using an unweighted strip of paper towel, and observed that it did not sink. I'm not sure there was any specific scientific concept taught, but the kids enjoyed making observations. After this came art time in a different room. The children learned a little about a particular artist (sorry, I can't remember who) and painted their own picture in the same style. Of course they enjoyed painting.
Back in the classroom, the tutor reviewed history timeline cards (these are nice cards produced by Veritas Press) with the children. The timeline cards are separate from the history rotation program--I was told that the entire timeline is taught every year. They also practiced a few words of a scripture in Latin--I don't remember the specific verse, but I believe it was from the book of John. The tutor said they have been working on this scripture all year, first learning it in English. The children then worked on an outline map of the united states, outlining states and bodies of water.
So, would I sign a child up for this program? Based on what I have seen, probably not, at least in the early elementary years. For a supplemental program, it is relatively expensive--yearly tuition and fees come in a little over $400 per child, and required materials adds another $160 or so (the program runs 24 weeks). Of course, the monetary commitment probably makes for a high level of participatory commitment; tuition is non-refundable, so families who sign up for the program are likely to continue throughout the year. The mothers I talked to seemed enthusiastic about the program and their kid's participation, and the kids seemed to be having fun. If you are following a neo-classical education model, and are looking for a coop type experience for social reinforcement, Classical Conversations might fit the bill. Do remember, though, that it is not meant to be a complete curriculum, or even a curriculum core, but functions mainly (at the Foundations level) as a memorization program. Is it effective as such? Probably. The tutors seem to use a variety of methods (visual representations, gestures, songs...) to make the material presented memorable and fun. I was however disappointed in the lack of meaningful experience attached to the memorization facts. I personally question how effective these memorized facts will be as "hooks" on which the children can hang future knowledge, if they are simply isolated facts without real meaning. I think the children will learn more about, say, immigration in the 19th century, by reading a stories or biographies about immigrants. They can learn about geometry by building with blocks. We can explore the world with them, read to them, do science experiments together...and they will all the time be creating their own personal mental "hooks" from which they can build.