Principles of Teaching: A 5th Century Approach For The 21st Century

I stumbled upon some interesting information describing Saint Augustine’s principles of teaching that were applied, and popular around the time of his life in 5th century AD. Saint Augustine was very influential in early classical education as well as early Christianity. He had many contributions to education that have become ‘principles of teaching.’ I’ve listed a few of these and as you’ll quickly see, these principles hold great value for today’s children/students. Especially given parents who have been suddenly tossed into a world of having to educate their children at home.

The primary advice Saint Augustine gives centers around one main idea first and foremost:

The relationship between the student and the teacher.

Principle #1

The first principal discussed pertains to teachers experiencing frustration with the student’s level of understanding and learning. Saint Augustine says “a teacher must know his students and adapt his teaching to their level of learning and maturity.” In other words, we must be cognizant that what we are asking of our children/students is within their available abilities. This includes age-appropriate reading and text and not pushing them to levels of learning before they are cognitively prepared. The instruction of reading & phonics at or before age 5 applies here, but is an entirely different discussion in itself. Much of this pertains to children possessing the necessary visual skills & visual processing abilities to be equipped for success in the classroom.

Principle #2

The second principal that Saint Augustine provides is one that has to do with boredom and the requirement to teach concepts repetitively for the development of understanding. For this Saint Augustine says, “we often feel it very wearisome to go over repeatedly matters which are thoroughly familiar, and adapted to children.” He goes on to say “find joy in making the old things new again.” Often it is a matter of adjusting the learning environment or changing conditions for the child to learn.

Principle #3

Finally, his third principal has amazing application for the children of today. It pertains to the student that struggles maintaining attention during learning. Yes, there were students with attention issues back in 5th century AD. Saint Augustine’s response to this is “the teacher must refocus the attention of the distractive child.” His advice in doing this is firstly to use an “honest cheerfulness” and illustrations that invoke emotion within the listener. By invoking particular emotions, the student’s attention may shift from one of being distracted by fatigue, etc to one of listening.

Much of this remains so true for students and education today. I would encourage all to heed the wise advice given by Saint Augustine so many years ago, especially family members now responsible for educating their children in this unprecedented time.