When a school starts to make the transition to a classical model, parents and teachers often want to know what new instructional practices to expect. What exactly makes a teaching strategy “classical”? 

Many things could be said in response. For now, consider that the classical approach takes seriously the question of how human minds are designed to learn. 

When it comes to skills such as declining nouns and finding the circumference of a circle, human minds learn best when instruction follows the model, coach, fade pattern: First, the teacher models a concept or skill, with several examples and explanations. Next, the teacher coaches and guides the students as she shapes the concept and notes common mistakes. For example, a Latin teacher might point out that the English infinitive to serve should be rendered ministrare rather than ad ministrare, even though the Latin ad can be translated to.

The final step is independent practice.

On the first day that a new math concept is introduced, most students have not been in the model and coach phases long enough to move on to the fade phase. Problems done independently at home ought to be well within the range of a student’s ability; otherwise, many students’ precious time is spent in inefficient ‘discovery learning’ or simply in fruitless struggle. Some students even entrench mistakes by repeating them for a whole problem set. Others lose their confidence and bring an “I-can’t-do-this” attitude with them the next day. Valuable class time then must be spent helping correct the homework – this activity is boring for students who made few or no mistakes, and not very helpful for those who have spent more time confused than was necessary for their learning. Proficient students believe that they have mastered the material, even though most skills require much more practice for true mastery. Then, ready or not, everyone moves on to the next lesson.

Teachers do not have to assign problem sets on newly introduced material. “Lagging Homework” is a classical instructional practice that honors the model, coach, fade pattern. The teacher assigns the same (or more) homework over the course of a unit, but the homework on a given night is not synched to the classwork. Here is how it might look in a pre-algebra class:

Monday Class: Introduce lesson 7.3

Monday Night Homework: #1-7 odds from 7.2, #18-22 from 7.1

Tuesday Class: Continue lesson 7.3

Tuesday Night Homework: #1-21 odds from 7.3, #8-9 from 7.2

Wednesday Class: Introduce lesson 7.4

Wednesday Night Homework: #2-22 evens from 7.3

It is true that some students are capable of moving on to independent practice on the first day of instruction. Such students are not harmed by the practice of lagging homework. Indeed, they reap a clear benefit: sufficient review. Math skills demand constant review and practice if students are to achieve automaticity. Indeed, the brain is designed to delete what it isn’t using, so we must use frequently even that material we believe we have mastered.

Teachers who find themselves resisting lagging homework might try articulating their answers to many questions about homework: What work is appropriate for independent practice at home? Are concepts abandoned or continually revisited? How are struggling students benefiting from your current pattern of assignments? How does the timing of homework support all learners? In short, how is your homework designed to match the way that human minds learn?

Lagging homework is a classical technique in that it accommodates the natural rhythm of learning without compromising rigor. All the same problems are worked by students independently, but at a slightly delayed pace, and important concepts are given more needed review. All students benefit, especially if they understand why this practice has become the norm for their classes. 


Kaitlyn Curtin holds both a Master of Theological Studies and a Master of Education. Having taught many subjects at many levels, including junior high religion and high school Latin, she now mentors and conducts professional development for teachers at Catholic schools. Her husband, Tommy Curtin, is headmaster at Our Lady of the Rosary in Greenville, South Carolina, a Partner Member of the CLSA.

Categories: Exordium

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