To know God and to make Him known.

Transforming the “Cram”—“Test”—“Dump” Model

When you set out to learn something new, it can be encouraging to realize that it is akin to something you have already mastered. There is something comforting about, say, beginning a new, complex recipe for éclair cake with chocolate ganache and finding at its core the same old milk, eggs, and flour you have used in pancakes, except that they have been transformed into something rich and beautiful.

Or, in an example that may resonate with parents of high school students, remember hearing for the first time about non-decimal numbering systems? When I began to study that topic, I was immensely relieved to discover that I already knew an alternative numbering system with the impressive name of sexagesimal. So do you! Whenever you read a clock or tell time, you are using a system other than base ten. Our system of time comes from an ancient Sumerian and Babylonian way of dividing numbers that uses sixty as the basis for seconds, minutes, and hours. That is why, when referring to time, “1:10” means 70 minutes, rather than 110 minutes.

In both cases, the recipe and the mathematics, seeing how the unknown (non-decimal systems) had something of the known (telling time) embedded in it gave me confidence to proceed with my new pursuit.

This same principle is true when you approach classical education. For most of us, classical education begins as a big fat unknown with many scary new words, big ideas, and long-term implications. Today, I want to encourage you that even if your primary method of learning when you were a student was the age-old study method of “Cram”—“Test”—“Dump,” there were seeds of wisdom, seeds of the classical model just waiting for you to discover them. When you embark on the adventure that is classical education, you are not starting from scratch: you are simply taking the old ingredients (flour, milk, and eggs), and transforming them into something rich and beautiful.

I find charts helpful when I want to make a comparison between multiple elements. Take a minute to consider this one:

The need

The old model

The new model

What changes?

To get information



 different method of absorption

To assess information



 different means of assessment

To move forward



 different reason for outpouring


I realized this week that the old model (Cram—Test—Dump) and the new model of classical education (Grammar—Dialectic—Rhetoric) are both responding to the same set of needs. Students applying both models are trying to figure out how to get information into their brains, how to assess that information and find out if they picked the right pieces, and then how to move forward having acquired that knowledge.

Unfortunately, the emphasis on efficiency and quantitative, objective measurements of education has resulted in a distortion of those basic desires. Students have been left without the ability to acquire information in a way that is natural and lasting, therefore, they resort to cramming.

Students have been told that the textbook and the teacher are the ultimate authorities and that their worth (and the worth of their teacher) and their future potential are based on a quantitative score on a high-stakes, multiple-choice test, so they stifle questions and simply learn the material likely to be on the test.

Because subjects are taught in isolation rather than as parts of an integrated whole, students have learned that the only way to move forward is to dump information to make room for more. After all, when you cram half-empty boxes of papers into a closet rather than filing the papers neatly where they belong, you run out of space much more quickly. As a result, our basic needs become twisted, turning inquisitive students into efficient testing machines.

What classical education offers is not a new set of needs and desires, but a new way to meet them while at the same time honoring the nature of the student and the purpose of education.

Instead of cramming, students are taught the art of grammar (how to absorb information in ways that are natural and lasting) by starting early when memorization comes easily, by practicing the keys of memory (intensity, repetition, and duration), and by building into the process fun, games, songs, and opportunities for wonder and joy.

Instead of high-stakes testing, students are taught the art of dialectic (how to assess information for themselves) with the guidance of a living, breathing human mentor rather than a textbook that already has all the answers. They learn to ask questions and, through discussion and debate, to sift information to find the nuggets of truth it contains. Truth, not a test, is the goal.

Instead of dumping, students are taught the art of rhetoric: how to integrate new information with what they have already learned, how to find the unity in every subject they study, and, most importantly, what to do with the wisdom they acquire. They learn to be leaders who can act virtuously as they apply their knowledge and teach others in their community to discover beauty and truth.

When I think about students “dumping” a set of knowledge after a test, I picture a dessert chef dumping a bowl of delicious cake batter into the trash rather than sliding it carefully into the oven. I picture Michelangelo tearing up his sketches for the Sistine Chapel rather than transferring them to the ceiling. I picture Gregor Mendel ripping up his pea plants by the roots after two weeks and saying, “Next!” It saddens me to think about the distortion of our very human desires to know, to judge, and to progress.

On the other hand, the fundamental similarities between the old school method of learning and the classical model also give me hope. If we can recognize the common needs and desires that lie at the root of education, we can begin to filter out the negative messages that have corrupted modern education. Seeing the known elements embedded in the as-yet unknown classical model may give us confidence to proceed, to be transformed, and to be redeemed.


CATEGORIES: Articles, Big Ideas: Truth, Beauty, Goodness and more!, Classical Christian Education, Dialectic Stage (ages 12 to 14), Grammar Stage (ages 4 to 11), Rhetoric Stage (ages 14 to 18)

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