To know God and to make Him known.

Help! We’re Starting Challenge Without Foundations!

Are you considering joining a Challenge community—even though your child has not been through a Foundations program? You probably have loads of questions, a great deal of excitement, and maybe a few concerns. The lure of integrated subjects, the offer of organized, weekly wrestling with big ideas, and the enticement of another mentor for our students appeal to us as parents who want the best for our children, even if we have prayerfully chosen another path until this point. You may be asking, How do we jump in? Will someone help us “catch up?” Is Challenge too challenging without Foundations?

Or maybe the benefits of Challenge—even for families without Foundations or Essentials experience—called to you like a siren song and, confident in the value of the quest and determined to give it your all, you enthusiastically started Challenge with your student this fall. But now, a few weeks in, your optimism is faltering and your excitement is giving way to nagging questions. As you observe other students in your child’s community, you are beginning to ponder what Foundations was all about—all the memory pegs those little learners internalized over the years. You are taking stock of all the “basic” information your own student has not committed to memory. You realize that you and your student cannot draw a map of the world without looking! What were you thinking?!

Sound familiar? All over the country, parents weigh those same second thoughts. You are not alone in wondering if you missed the opportunity to get the most out of Classical Conversations when you missed out on the Foundations and Essentials programs. While many families hesitate to take on Challenge without building a foundation first, Classical Conversations programs are not an all or nothing proposition! Consider these three central truths.

First, it is never too late to redeem our educations! What does redeem mean? Simply put, we redeem something when we exchange it for something else—something we find more valuable. Just as you would redeem a coupon for a favored product, you can—at any point—choose to exchange one educational model for another. Perhaps you are new to homeschooling; maybe you only recently discovered the beauty of the classical model; or maybe you just now found a nearby Classical Conversations community. Sometimes family situations dictate waiting until the Challenge years to join a local program. Whatever the reason, families all over find themselves ready to dive in at the Challenge level, and that is exciting. As parents, we are eager to redeem our educations because realize we never got a good foundation, or never knew how subjects integrated, or never discovered how to learn. Yet, here we are as parent-teachers, ready to jump in with little doubt that we can redeem those dusty facts for a stimulating understanding of history and science and literature. Our students can certainly do the same! We can help them build a foundation of knowledge as we gather those building blocks for ourselves, and nothing quite satisfies like learning as a family.

Second, you have not missed out on part of the trivium just because you are beginning classical education with an older student. Families eager to recover the lost tools of learning can still acquire all those tools, even if Foundations has not been part of their path. Parents who understand that the arts of grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric roughly match up developmentally with the Poll Parrot, Pert, and Poetic stages[i] sometimes worry that the important grammar has been lost if they “start late.” While it is true that our littlest learners, those in the Poll Parrot stage of development, are most eager to embrace the art of grammar, we practice all the arts at every stage of development. Older students (even parents!) will continue to work on naming, memorizing, and categorizing—acquiring and sharpening the art of grammar—as new material is approached and conquered. While repetition in pursuit of memorization may not resonate as deeply with your adolescent, he will gain those learning skills that strengthen the art of grammar. Also, the natural curiosity of your student will drive him to ask questions about his new studies, and pursue the answers that Foundations memory work may have provided for other students; it is never too late to build or add to a foundation! In fact, families searching for a baseline of foundational knowledge often elect to memorize the Foundations timeline together, even if the student is entering the Challenge program. That timeline provides a significant context for the knowledge acquired in literature, science, philosophy, Latin, and math as well as history, and will be a tool your student will add to throughout the Challenge program.

Finally, as the primary teacher of your child, you determine the pace of learning in your home school. If a missing skill has your student feeling overwhelmed, take time to gain or shore up that skill. Have you realized that your student needs some context for history discussions in seminar? Do some reading together, create a brief timeline of your own, or borrow a set of Classical Acts and Facts timeline cards from a Classical Conversations community family! Are you seeing that your student struggles to write the papers assigned each week? Realize that Challenge students receive weekly writing instruction using Lost Tools of Writing through the Challenge I level. Even upper Challenge students can gain valuable insights from looking over this program’s materials, and you can pursue this on your own, adjusting the assignments to reflect what your student needs most at the moment. Challenge parents, remember that we are in pursuit of skills not subjects with our students! If our students are gaining and honing the skills of learning, we as parents should not hesitate to slow the pace in a certain subject if necessary.

While building a “Foundation” first might be preferable, the lack of Foundations experience should not discourage families from pursing the “Challenge.” The blessings of a classical, Christian education pursued within community are too many and too rich to allow yourself to be dissuaded by a late start. Join families across the globe as we redeem the lost tools of learning together, realizing that it is never too late to make a good beginning!



[i] You can read more about these stages in Dorothy Sayers’ essay “The Lost Tools of Learning” reprinted in Classical Christian Education Made Approachable.

CATEGORIES: Articles, Big Ideas: Truth, Beauty, Goodness and more!, Classical Christian Education, Dialectic Stage (ages 12 to 14), Homeschooling Life, Rhetoric Stage (ages 14 to 18)

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