Science in the Classical School



Science education sometimes creates a quandary for classical educators. Its origins in the West are from Greek philosophy (for example, Aristotle developed genera and species and other classifications for plants and animals), but with the possible exception of astronomy, science is not explicitly included in the seven liberal arts and therefore has been considered something of a stepchild in many of the more purist classical schooling environments.

But although the names of the scientific disciplines do not themselves appear in the lists of the liberal arts, most modern sciences constitute an application of either arithmetic or geometry, two of the quantitative liberal arts. In addition, the proper study of the sciences shares pedagogical principles classical education already employs in the teaching of the other liberal arts: mastery learning and subject integration.

The employment of these principles can rescue science from the mediocrity that now plagues it. That it needs improvement should be considered a given in light of the decline in ranking of the United States compared to other Western nations in science education and the number of students requiring remedial study before they can begin college courses. If you ask most students if they consider themselves “good in science,” most will say they do not.

The first step to improving academic performance is to critique the way we define success in our classes. One “method” is what I will call the Cram-Pass-Forget cycle. In this cycle, students cram for their tests, pass them, and then soon forget most of what they crammed. Success in such an environment often involves completing banal or ineffective daily assignments, putting off serious engagement with course content until the last moment, and jumping through assessment hoops to get a grade.

Mastery. Such methods should have no place in classical education. The word mastery connotes learning that is several echelons above what we have historically considered acceptable for a passing grade. Is it conceivable that students could remember material from the early chapters of the book as late as the spring semester? If students forget 90% of course content by the second week of summer, what does that say about their education?

Mastery requires culling the material, eliminating the unnecessary and tangential topics, and boiling it down to the essential elements. A curriculum reduced in scope enables students to learn a reasonable amount of material more deeply instead of paying hurried attention to dozens of topics that they can neither process nor adequately assimilate. Students who learn in a mastery context in 7th-12th grades typically outperform their peers as they move to college classes.

Leading students to mastery and retention requires teaching tools and methods designed to produce these results. Pedagogy designed for mastery and retention involves continuous review, ongoing accountability for retention of previously studied material, and the embedding of basic skills into new material.

Integration. A second principle of excellent science education is that instruction must be integrative. A method of integrated teaching begins with removing the strict compartmentalization of disciplines of learning. Instead of unnaturally isolating science and math concepts from other areas of human knowledge and experience, curriculum should employ critical points of integration. Some of these include:

  • Regular use of mathematical skills in science material
  • Maximizing opportunities to develop fluent written expression on exams, lab reports, and papers
  • Pausing regularly in the narrative of the text to observe key historical connections that serve to enhance understanding
  • Exploring the nature of scientific knowledge and the role it plays in leading us toward truth, goodness, and beauty; also, considering the evidence for and the implications of design in the universe
  • Whenever appropriate, tying in connections to music, architecture, literature, ethics, etc.

Christian Use. Finally, it is no trivial question to ask how a science text is best made suitable for Christian use. The most common and least effective way to accomplish this is by peppering texts with Bible verses and devotional insets. But teaching science in a Christian context affords many enriching opportunities for discipleship, service, and worship. We would not miss such an opportunity.

There is an artificial conflict between faith and science, and many voices in the culture strive to separate the two. Good science education should regularly point out that there can be no inherent conflict between faith in the One who made the world, and the study of the world He made.

We should endeavor to inculcate and invigorate a sense of wonder, an aspect of scientific pursuit that is virtually lost today. Students’ minds are renewed and uplifted when the nature and complexity of God’s world is made apparent to them by those who marvel at its features. Historically, Christians have always spoken of the revelatory aspect of creation taught in Psalm 19 and other scriptures. A textbook most apt for Christian school use will avoid the impulse to proof-text nature and instead draw students into a mature engagement with God’s Book of Works.


Originally published in The Classical Teacher Summer 2015 edition.

Physical-Science_NovareNovare Physical Science, 2nd Ed.
John D. Mays
Novare Science and Math is committed to a mastery-learning paradigm. Aesthetically mature graphics, accurate explanations, and thorough treatment of the foundational principles of the physical sciences characterize this course from start to finish. The Resource CD includes course overview, quizzes, teacher keys, weekly review guides, experiment manual, suggested answers to verbal questions, annual schedule, and more! Designed for students in grades 6-8.




Novare General Chemistry
John D. Mays
This fresh, lucid text brings students into the real world of chemistry with beautiful color images, charts, and graphs. The history of chemistry, real-world exercises, and modern-day applications are integrated in a way that makes this textbook especially rich. The Resource CD contains course overview, exams, quizzes, answer keys, and a lesson schedule. Experiment manual sold separately. Designed for high school students.

“Mastery, Integration, and Kingdom perspective …”

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