The Five Common Topics

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The Five Common Topics are the key to learning through conversation. It is a fantastic way to move your conversations with your kids past, “What did you learn today?” and getting an answer of “I don’t know” or “Something about coins” to a fully engaged conversation where you get to know your child better and learn together at the same time. It’s something I’ve been working whole heartedly on mastering this past year and I am getting better but still have a long way to go. It is a huge part of classical education but also seems to scare people off. But it’s not so scary at all! It’s about learning to have a conversation with your kids by knowing what types of questions to ask. It also helps you take all your random memory work and knowledge and tie it together–which is the absolute overall point of Classical Education.

What are they? Well, the concept comes to us a long way through history, all the way from Aristotle! Let’s start with the word topic. Do you know what it actually means? Topic is a Greek work that actually means PLACE. So a Topic is place we go to put together ideas or thoughts. And the Five Common Topics are five places we can go to generate information and ideas to create a cohesive thought. We ask questions that fall under each topic and can take an ordinary conversation and grow it into a full learning experience. The five common topics are: definition, comparison, circumstance, relationship, and authority.

We start with definition. If two people can’t agree on the definition of whatever they want to discuss, there’s no point in moving forward with the conversation.  So to begin a conversation, you must define your topic of discussion clearly. For example, I grew up in Rhode Island.  Rhode Island is one of the fifty states. It is actually the smallest state, it is in the northeast, and is east of Connecticut and south of Massachusetts. Massachusetts also wraps around the eastern edge of Rhode Island. That is my definition of the state. Now, it is not uncommon for someone to come to me and say, “Hey you are from New Hampshire, right?” And I say “No, Rhode Island.” The most common response I hear to that is, “Oh, same thing.” No, not the same thing. New Hampshire is a separate state. If we can’t agree on the fact that Rhode Island and New Hampshire are not the “same thing”, is there any point in carrying on with the conversation? Nope. The thing that has to happen at this point is that the person who recognizes that the other person is not adhering to the same definition as they are needs to simply end the conversation there. Otherwise, things can get ugly and fast–especially online. Agreeing on a definition is the first step to a quality conversation.

With my kids, we use this often on field trips and while traveling. Typically definition is where we gather facts. So if we are driving through Iowa, we might start out by listing facts we know about Iowa. Maybe we would look up things like the capital, the state bird, the state flower, etc. These things help give us a well defined understanding of Iowa.  (Usually I have them look these things up before we travel or sometimes I go to the library and check out a bunch of books about the states we will drive through to take with us on the road).

Once you are both on the same page, you can move on to comparison.  Now we can take Iowa and compare it to another state that we have traveled to recently. I can ask my kids, “which state do you think is bigger, Massachusetts or Iowa?” “They grow a lot of corn in Iowa! What other states grow a lot of corn?” And you can really go on and on in this topic for as long as possible. This is particularly fun to do at a museum with two paintings side by side. What is the same about them? What is different? Which do you prefer? Why?  Books are wonderful to compare–and books vs. their movie versions are a wonderful place to practice discussing comparison!

So now you and your child have agreed that Iowa is a state in the midwest and it is very different and much larger than Massachusetts. What comes next? The next place we go to learn more is the topic (place) of circumstance. This is when we weave what we know of history. Questions to ask are “When did this happen?” “What else as going on at the time?” “What has happening in other parts of the world at that time?” Carrying on our discussion of Iowa, we might try to find out what year it became a state. What number state was it? Were any other states formed at the same time? What was happening in Europe at that time? What was happening in any other part of the world? Who was president?  In a museum, you could ask about the time when a painting  was done. Who else from history was alive at that time? What was going on in the world? Which artistic period did the artist live in?  Again, these questions get easier and easier to answer the longer you are studying history but at first, it’s really OK to use google or have them look through books, etc. And this may be too hard for younger kids, but older kids can get the hang of it pretty quick.

Now that we’ve established how the topic is connected to the rest of the world, we talk about it’s relationship to the rest of the world. Classical Education teaches us that everything is connected. There is no separate box for history that never overlaps science or math. All knowledge is more like a tangled up plate of spaghetti than a nice neat shelf of organized storage boxes. Relationship answers the questions of cause and effect. What caused Iowa to become a state? What made that artist decide to paint that picture? Why did that person invent that machine? And then we can ask, how did these decisions affect the world? How did that invention improve life? What other artists were inspired by that  painting? Who was influenced by it?

These are harder questions and ones you may not want to get into with younger kids. Elementary kids can handle definition and comparison without a problem. Circumstance gets a little trickier. I would say relationship is not really necessary until junior high and high school. It’s helping them make all the connections between all the things they learned in elementary school.

Finally, we come to the topic of Authority. Why is this information true? Who said it was? If it’s common knowledge, it’s common knowledge. But if we look up a dictionary definition of something, the dictionary is our authority. If the painting in the museum has a plaque next to it naming the artist and the year it was painted, we rely on that as authority.  You can also ask if there is a law (such as  math or scientific law) that makes it true. If it is something that happened in history, who were the witnesses? What did they have to say? Authority is a tricky one and not something we often use during travel, to be honest. But right now my oldest daughter and I are reading two logic books– The Fallacy Detective and The Amazing Dr. Ransom’s Beastiary of Adorable Fallacies. Both are fantastic books. We are learning that there’s a lot more to authority than we first thought.  We have learned that there is a logical fallacy called Faulty Appeal to Authority. We must be careful who we trust as an authority on any given topic.

I know this was a lot of information but I refer to The Five Common Topics often and I wanted to put it all in one place that would be easy to refer to. I hope it is helpful!

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