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March 26, 2015 / BTM

How to Teach Complex Topics to Young Children

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Several years ago I was looking for ideas on how to begin to teach apologetics and Christian theology to our young children (then 5 and 7).  I had a revelation while reading Dorothy Sayers’ article The Lost Tools of Learning that has revolutionized how we teach any difficult or complicated topic to our young children.

In her article, Sayers critiques the ‘modern’ education approach (NB: the essay was first presented in 1947) as failing to teach children how to learn.  Sayers outlines a three staged approach to teaching children how to learn that is based on medieval approaches to education.

Sound pretty archaic?  And yet it works.  In fact, Sayers’ approach is embedded in every activity we’ve done with our kids to date.  It basically breaks your child’s learning life down into three critical phases, each of which build upon each other.

Here’s what I mean and how it works.


Sayers explains that a medieval education syllabus contained three parts: grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric.  The names of these phases do not really matter for our purposes, but here is a breakdown of their practical application:

Grades 1 – 3: The Grammar Phase

This is the age when learning by heart is easy and fun, but reasoning is difficult and uninteresting.

During this phase, focus on fact building.  Children can learn information by heart, identify and name specimens, remember dates and events, etc.  During this phase you are building a library of information to be stored and used during later phases.

You’ll see that the emphasis in the list of apologetics activities I shared before is on facts.  These are the building block for what we are trying to do with our kids.

Grades 4 – 7: The Dialectic Phase

When you move into this phase really depends on your child’s temperament.  If your child is talking back to you, contradicting you, enjoying finding mistakes in what other people do and pointing them out, and showing a readiness for arguing in favour of their position, they have likely passed into the dialectic phase.  Your child doesn’t have to be snarky or mean spirited to have begun to do these things.

Our oldest has moved into this phase.  He has begun to identify connections between bodies of knowledge and to put together (somewhat) logical statements about information he takes in.  He questions us a lot, expects logical responses, and challenges us when our answers are lacking.

This is the phase to master reason and logical thinking.  You can teach formal logic and the art of understanding how to make a case (give sound reasons) for a position.  This will later enable your child to identify faulty reasoning.

To accomplish this, you’ll need a mix of purposeful training in logic, and practice through paying attention to how others make a case for a position (whether it be through advertisements, the newspaper, movies, etc.).  By the end of this phase, your child should be able to write an essay and opinion piece on their own; discuss events or actions taken to determine if they were appropriate; understand ethics;  understand the outcomes or effects of actions or decisions; provide constructive criticism; summarize a position; and be able to identify sources which are authoritative or not and why.  Some of this will be done in school, but you should discuss and challenge your child in his or her assignments to make sure that your child is mastering this skill.

We’re just at the very beginning of this phase in our oldest child’s learning.  We’ve begun by putting together some of the material he’s already learned.  For example, during the grammar phase, he learned facts about design/creation vs. evolution through the Finding the Fingerprints of God series and other activities and learning that we did.  Now we are pulling together all the facts he knows into a ‘case’ for design vs. evolution.  His ‘case’ are the fingerprints we learned one-by-one during the grammar phase, plus his own thoughts.  We are also beginning this phase by reading through Lee Strobel’s ‘Kids’ versions of the Case for Christ, Case for a Creator, Case for Faith and Get Off My Case books.  They are a great introduction to a slightly more advanced logic.

Grades 8/9 – 12: The Rhetoric phase

This phase occurs during the high school ages and the difficult teen years that begin with the onset of puberty.  This child can be more self-centered; yearns to express himself; specializes in being misunderstood; is restless; wants to achieve some independence; shows some signs of creativity; is trying to synthesize what he already knows; and has a deliberate eagerness to know and do something specific.

You want this child to begin to realize that there is a big world out there to explore, and that their knowledge and experience are puny in comparison.   You’re trying to kick start their imagination for what ‘could be’.  This is the time to throw open the doors to the storehouse of information and allow your teen to peruse and browse it at will.  If you have taught your child to think logically before this stage, he should be able to apply those skills to any subject to which he shows an interest and aptitude.

This is where the rewards of all your earlier effort come to life – hopefully!  Your child should be able to defend a position against another; understand opposing ideas to the cases they can make; and recognize connections between various areas of knowledge and study.

Our family is no where near this phase, so I have very little to say practically about how this could be accomplished.  But I will say that if you missed phase 2 (Dialectic) with your children, you’ll have to do both during this phase.  You may find that you will butt up against a worldview that you didn’t even know had been adopted by your child.  Find ways to explore ideas and knowledge together.  Discuss movies after you watch them.  Discuss advertisements, political campaigns, laws and their outcomes, visit places of worship for different faiths and discuss them together.  Learn about different beliefs or positions for hot topics like: hell, human rights, creation/evolution, sexuality, social justice…  Travel or learn about the world outside your country as much as you can.  Take a mission trip if you possibly can.

The purpose of all this is to enable your child to think well and logically, to apply these skills to any part of their life and to any subject, and to be able to think for him or herself and stand on his or her own two feet as an adult.  A worthy goal for any parent!

What do you think of this approach?  Is it daunting?  Will you try it?



Leave a Comment
  1. Andrew / Apr 3 2015 2:51 pm

    When my daughter was in 6th grade she read The Case For Christ. She is now a 10th grader and has one of the strongest faiths I have seen in a teenager. She told me recently that The Case For Christ helped her more than anything else because it brought up objections she had not thought about yet and answered them convincingly for her. This conversation was a reminder to me that it is so important to set the foundation well for our kids and introduce them to reason and logic and history and evidence for Jesus being exactly who the Bible says He is. The information is not difficult to teach, nor is it all that difficult to find. But over the past 100 years the church has basically ‘punted’ on apologetics to its detriment.

    • BTM / Apr 10 2015 2:24 pm

      Thanks so much for sharing this perspective. It’s very helpful for a parent who is still navigating those years.

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