24 July 2018


Ten reasons why Quintilian's thoughts on education are still relevant today

Even by my standards, this is a long blog, but bear with me:  Quintilian’s astoundingly modern thoughts on education are worth it!  Having recently re-read his Institutio Oratoria, I was blown away by his advanced way of thinking about education at various stages of child development.


In my previous blog I have announced that I would pay homage, over the next few weeks or so, to some of the ancient authors and their thoughts on education.  I will start today with Quintilian, a teacher of rhetoric in ancient Rome in the first century AD.  Not much is known about his life, but when we read his big tome on teaching the art of rhetoric to young boys, we learn some essential facts:  that Quintilian was a passionate teacher, that many of his thoughts on education are as relevant in the 21st century as they were two millennia ago, and that he was a man of deep humanity.  He was ultimately convinced that the purpose of education was to help young people become good people, and that therefore the teacher had to be a good person, too, with strong moral values and an ethical conscience.  Only a good person, according to Quintilian, could be a good orator, as he saw eloquence and morality as deeply entwined. 

Here are some of his thoughts, and I will link them to some of the modern theories in education.

I. The relationship between teacher and student

I have written about this lovely passage before, in one of my school newsletters.  Quintilian advocated for a very personal relationship between teacher and student:  one that was based on mutual love and respect.  Like those who look after boarding students today and who are usually referred to as being in loco parentis, Quintilian wants the teacher to “adopt a parental attitude to his pupils and regard himself as the representative of those who have committed their children to his charge. Let him be free from vice himself and refuse to tolerate it in others. Let him be strict but not austere, genial but not too familiar: for austerity will make him unpopular, while familiarity breeds contempt (…).  He must be ready to answer questions and to put them unasked to those who sit silent. In praising the recitations of his pupils he must be neither grudging nor over-generous: the former quality will give them a distaste for work, while the latter will produce a complacent self-satisfaction.  In correcting faults he must avoid sarcasm and above all abuse: for teachers whose rebukes seem to imply positive dislike discourage industry.”

Isn’t that a beautiful summary?  Being strict, but not austere; actively eliciting answers from those pupils who are naturally shy and quiet; avoiding the extremes of encouraging a dislike for learning as well as smug complacency; and above all: avoiding sarcasm.

Non austeritas eius tristis, non dissoluta sit comitas, ne inde odium, hinc contemptus oriatur.

The teacher should neither be too stern, nor should he aim to be his pupils’ friend, to avoid the two pitfalls of dislike and over-familiarity.

II. Teachers as mere ‘learning designers’?

There is plenty of talk these days that teachers in the old-fashioned sense are an antiquated species:  that we 21st century teachers are merely, to use this ugly, recently coined concept, the ‘learning designers’ for our students.  Quintilian would have disapproved.  He very strongly believed in the concept of the teacher as the ‘sage on the stage’ and, although he acknowledged that sometimes we point students towards other models for imitation or guide them towards independent learning, nothing is more beneficial than the ‘living voice’ of the teacher.  In his ideal of pedagogy that is so strongly based on mutual affection between teacher and student, direct instruction is seen as the most beneficial form of teaching:  “It will still be found that fuller nourishment is provided by the living voice, as we call it, more especially when it proceeds from the teacher himself, who, if his pupils are rightly instructed, should be the object of their affection and respect. And it is scarcely possible to say how much more readily we imitate those whom we like.”

Viva vox alit plenius.

Can teachers be replaced by robots, books or the internet as the wondrous source of knowledge?  No, says Quintilian:  the living voice of the teacher provides much fuller nourishment.

III. Don’t curb enthusiasm in the young too early

Quintilian was an exacting schoolmaster who pursued high aims, but he saw the dangers of premature perfectionism:  let children be exuberant, so goes his credo, because exuberance is easier to cure than premature boringness.  Like Mary Poppins, who knew that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, he uses the image of the nurse to explain his reasoning:  “I have no objection to a little exuberance in the young learner. Nay, I would urge teachers too like nurses to be careful to provide softer food for still undeveloped minds and to suffer them to take their fill of the milk of the more attractive studies. For the time being the body may be somewhat plump, but maturer years will reduce it to a sparer habit. Such plumpness gives hope of strength; a child fully formed in every limb is likely to grow up a puny weakling. The young should be more daring and inventive and should rejoice in their inventions, even though correctness and severity are still to be acquired. Exuberance is easily remedied, but barrenness is incurable, be your efforts what they may.  To my mind the boy who gives least promise is one in whom the critical faculty develops in advance of the imagination. I like to see the first fruits of the mind copious to excess and almost extravagant in their profusion. The years as they pass will skim off much of the froth, reason will file away many excrescences, and something too will be removed by what I may perhaps call the wear and tear of life, so long as there is sufficient material to admit of cutting and chiselling away.” 


It is another beautifully phrased and astute observation:  that the student who gives least promise is one in whom the critical faculty develops in advance of the imagination.  Those perfectionists (and their teachers!) who aim at a high ATAR/A-Level/Abitur/Matura/IB result by adhering anxiously to mark schemes, should take note! “Exuberance is easily remedied, but barrenness is incurable” – priceless!  And Quintilian continues with an even stronger image:  “We must, therefore, take especial care, above all where boys are concerned, to avoid a dry teacher, even as we avoid a dry and arid soil for plants that are still young and tender. For with such a teacher their growth is stunted and their eyes are turned earthwards, and they are afraid to rise above the level of daily speech. Their leanness is regarded as a sign of health and their weakness as a sign of sound judgment, and while they are content that their work should be devoid of faults they fall into the fault of being devoid of merit. So let not the ripeness of vintage come too soon nor the must turn harsh while yet in the vat; thus it will last for years and mellow with age.” 

Dum satis putant uitio carere, in id ipsum incidunt uitium, quod uirtutibus carent.

Should pupils play it safe, e.g. by adhering slavishly to mark schemes early on and anxiously avoiding errors?  No, says Quintilian:  they may believe it to be enough that their work is free of mistakes, but in doing so make the mistake that their work is devoid of merit.

IV. Age-appropriate learning: let children be children

The following words need little commentary.  They are an advocacy for age-appropriate teaching and learning and a combination of study with a healthy dose of amusement mixed in:  “I am not however so blind to differences of age as to think that the very young should be forced on prematurely or given real work to do. Above all things we must take care that the child, who is not yet old enough to love his studies, does not come to hate them and dread the bitterness which he has once tasted, even when the years of infancy are left behind. His studies must be made an amusement: he must be questioned and praised and taught to rejoice when he has done well; sometimes too, when he refuses instruction, it should be given to some other to excite his envy, at times also he must be engaged in competition and should be allowed to believe himself successful more often than not, while he should be encouraged to do his best by such rewards as may appeal to his tender years.” 


Modern pedagogy owes much to Quintilian, or in other words:  it has often reinvented the wheel.

Nam id in primis cavere oportebit, ne studia qui amare nondum potest oderit et amaritudinem semel perceptam etiam ultra rudes annos reformidet.

Should serious study begin at a young age?  No, says Quintilian:  we need to beware above all that children who are not yet able to love their studies don’t come to hate them, once they have tasted their bitterness.

V. Growth mindset, scaffolding and formative assessment

The big guru of the growth mindset theory is Carol Dweck.  Her work has influenced educators all over the world in recent years, and one way of enabling a growth mindset in students is giving them not just summative assessment at the end of a unit that judges their achievement, but also formative and ongoing assessment intended to praise their strengths as well as point out their weaknesses or areas for improvement.  Supportive feedback in the spirit of ‘stars and stairs’, praise and scaffolding support, is intended to avoid, in particular in gifted students, the risk of disengagement, complacency, stagnation or under-achievement. 


Quintilian did not have the jargon, but he had the idea.  His thoughts on assessment were that “some portions of the work must be praised, others tolerated and others altered: the reason for the alterations should however be given.”  He continues:  “But if a boy's composition is so careless as not to admit of correction, I have found it useful to give a fresh exposition of the theme and to tell him to write it again, pointing out that he was capable of doing better: for there is nothing like hope for making study a pleasure. Different ages however demand different methods: the task set and the standard of correction must be proportioned to the pupil's strength. When boys ventured on something that was too daring or exuberant, I used to say to them that I approved of it for the moment, but that the time would come when I should no longer tolerate such a style. The result was that the consciousness of ability filled them with pleasure, without blinding their judgment.”  The purpose of formative assessment, the ‘stars and stairs’-model and the appeal to a student’s growth mindset have rarely been expressed more clearly.

Namque incipientibus danda erit uelut praeformata materia secundum cuiusque uires. At cum satis composuisse se ad exemplum uidebuntur, breuia quaedam demonstranda uestigia, quae persecuti iam suis uiribus sine adminiculo progredi possint.

Beginners need to be given scaffolding for their learning, but as they advance, they can gradually start to work on their own steam and without such scaffolding structures.

VI. Skill instead of knowledge – and helicopter parents!

In the modern educational debate, this has become a popular topic:  should we teach skills rather than knowledge in the age of Google?  I have recently attended a university course where all the educators in the room (except for me) seemed to agree that we teach too much content in our classrooms and that we do not emphasise skills enough.  As a teacher of philosophy and Theory of Knowledge within the IB program, I truly enjoy teaching critical thinking skills, and I would feel like a failure if I did not enhance my students’ skills for independent analysis, synthesis and evaluation, but none of these higher-order thinking skills are valuable without the foundation that subject knowledge and the proper mastery of a discipline provides for them.  Just as an example:  when I was at university, it was a prerequisite for a student of Latin to master ancient Greek, and those who (like me) had not learned it at school had to acquire the fluency to read Homer, Plato and the tragedians in their original version in an intensive Greek course in our first year, before we were admitted to our first Latin seminars.  I believe that, regrettably, this requirement has since been removed. 


Quintilian strongly believed in a robust foundation before allowing his students to gain public glory by improvising blindingly brilliant speeches that were lacking in substance.  “Extempore effusions”, so he argues, “improvised without waiting for thought to supply the matter (…) must not be permitted.”  It becomes clear from his words that proud helicopter parents were a phenomenon in ancient Rome already: “Such proceedings fill ignorant parents with senseless pride, while the boys themselves lose all respect for their work, adopt a conceited bearing, and acquire the habit of speaking in the worst style and actually practising their faults, while they develop an arrogant conviction of their own talents which often proves fatal even to the most genuine proficiency.”

In parentibus vero quam plurimum esse eruditionis optaverim. Nec de patribus tantum loquor.

Quintilian feels that the role models at home cannot be underestimated.  While his book obviously mainly talks about the education of boys (female orators did not exist in his era), he had enlightened views on gender equality.  In his book he emphatically praises the value of parental education and stresses that he does not restrict this to fathers, before giving some examples of educated women in history.

VII. On critical thinking, independence and self-regulated learning

Despite the above, it would be wrong to assume that Quintilian emphasised content at the expense of critical thinking, or that he was a conservative advocate of stale rote-learning.  To the contrary.  “It will, however, be the duty of the rhetorician not merely to teach these things, but to ask frequent questions as well, and test the critical powers of his class. This will prevent his audience from becoming inattentive and will secure that his words do not fall on deaf ears. At the same time the class will be led to find out things for themselves and to use their intelligence, which is after all the chief aim of this method of training. For what else is our object in teaching, save that our pupils should not always require to be taught?” 


These words could easily have been written in our modern age:  gradually moving from direct instruction to the encouragement of independent learning and critical thinking.  And the following sentence should be compulsory reading for those educators who tend to rely on the latest educational theories rather than their own common sense, practical experience and lateral thinking:  “For the present I will only say that I do not want young men to think their education complete when they have mastered one of the small text-books of which so many are in circulation, or to ascribe a talismanic value to the arbitrary decrees of theorists.”  Quintilian was an ardent advocate for ongoing learning, divergent thinking, constant experimentation and trying new avenues.

Nam quid aliud agimus docendo eos quam ne semper docendi sint?

What is the main task of a teacher?  For Quintilian the answer is clear:  enabling independent learning, as the teacher’s job is to ensure that our pupils do not need to be taught forever.

VIII. On differentiation

This is Quintilian at his most modern.  Differentiation in education has become a huge research focus over the last 30 years or so, influenced by seminal works of Carol Tomlinson and many others since.  The theories, models and matrices that are used to differentiate the curriculum for learners at all stages of the spectrum have become more and more refined and complex, but many of the basic concepts are already formulated by Quintilian:  that students need to be taught according to their stage, strengths and abilities; that their learning needs to be scaffolded; that various forms of assessment are needed to support a growth mindset in even the most talented students; that teaching methods need to be varied; that the ultimate aim of education is autonomy and self-regulation.

  • On the need for differentiation

“It is generally and not unreasonably regarded as the sign of a good teacher that he should be able to differentiate between the abilities of his respective pupils and to know their natural bent. The gifts of nature are infinite in their variety, and mind differs from mind almost as much as body from body. (…) It is undoubtedly necessary to note the individual gifts of each boy, and no one would ever convince me that it is not desirable to differentiate courses of study with this in view.”  Nonetheless, so Quintilian argues, even though we must be guided by our pupils’ natural strengths, we need to encourage them to leave their comfort zone and focus on areas they might not be naturally inclined towards (growth mindset!): “For if natural talent alone were sufficient, education might be dispensed with.”


  • On scaffolding and the move to increased student autonomy

“Beginners must be given a subject sketched out ready for treatment and suitable to their respective powers. But when they show that they have formed themselves sufficiently closely on the models placed before them, it will be sufficient to give them a few brief hints for their guidance and to allow them to advance trusting in their own strength and without external support.  Sometimes they should be left entirely to their own devices, that they may not be spoilt by the bad habit of always relying on another's efforts, and so prove incapable of effort and originality. But as soon as they seem to have acquired a sound conception of what they ought to say, the teacher's work will be near completion."


  • On gifted and talented education

“A proof of what I say is to be found in the fact that boys commonly show promise of many accomplishments, and when such promise dies away as they grow up, this is plainly due not to the failure of natural gifts, but to lack of the requisite care.”  This statement has been corroborated by modern research into the educational needs of gifted and talented students, who without appropriate scaffolding and support are at risk of under-achievement.

Virtus praeceptoris haberi solet, nec inmerito, diligenter in iis quos erudiendos susceperit notare discrimina ingeniorum, et quo quemque natura maxime ferat scire.

A very modern concept, nowadays called ‘differentiation’:  Quintilian calls it the main duty of a teacher to know the differences of his pupils’ talents, and to be aware of their respective strengths.

IX. Home schooling or public education?


In Quintilian’s era, home schooling was quite normal practice for rich Roman families who usually employed a highly educated Greek slave as their child’s pedagogue. Quintilian’s advocacy for public schooling and the merits of the social skills that pupils in public schools acquire sounds very modern.  He is very clear that he prefers “the broad daylight of a respectable school to the solitude and obscurity of a private education”. 


His first argument is that the best teachers are found in schools where they enjoy and deserve the bigger audience, whereas it is often the failed teachers who attach themselves to a single pupil.  But even if a family were to acquire the best teacher for home schooling, he still has reservations and strongly emphasises the merits of public schooling.  As always, he uses strong imagery: “It is above all things necessary that our future orator, who will have to live in the utmost publicity and in the broad daylight of public life, should become accustomed from his childhood to move in society without fear and habituated to a life far removed from that of the pale student, the solitary and recluse. His mind requires constant stimulus and excitement, whereas retirement such as has just been mentioned induces languor and the mind becomes mildewed like things that are left in the dark, or else flies to the opposite extreme and becomes puffed up with empty conceit; for he who has no standard of comparison by which to judge his own powers will necessarily rate them too high.” 


Quintilian also praises the competition thus ignited: “Further, at home he can only learn what is taught to himself, while at school he will learn what is taught to others as well. He will hear many merits praised and many faults corrected every day: he will derive equal profit from hearing the indolence of a comrade rebuked or his industry commended. Such praise will incite him to emulation, he will think it a disgrace to be outdone by his contemporaries and a distinction to surpass his seniors. All such incentives provide a valuable stimulus, and though ambition may be a fault in itself, it is often the mother of virtues."

Necesse est enim nimium tribuat sibi qui se nemini comparat.

This is an advocacy for public schooling rather than private tutoring.  One of Quintilian’s reasons, apart from the acquisition of social skills, is that we tend to have inflated ideas of ourselves and our abilities if we have no standard of comparison with others.

X. The value of holidays


Well, who would not agree with Quintilian?  He emphasises the need for rest, “because study depends on the good will of the student, a quality that cannot be secured by compulsion. Consequently if restored and refreshed by a holiday they will bring greater energy to their learning and approach their work with greater spirit of a kind that will not submit to being driven.  I approve of play in the young; it is a sign of a lively disposition; nor will you ever lead me to believe that a boy who is gloomy and in a continual state of depression is ever likely to show alertness of mind in his work, lacking as he does the impulse most natural to boys of his age.”

And finally …

I have started with Quintilian’s emphasis on a strong teacher-student-relationship.  This is a sign of his humanity, as is his outspoken aversion to any form of corporal punishment, which makes his thinking far more advanced than that of many educators in the 20th century, including those in Christian institutions:  “Moreover when children are beaten, pain or fear frequently have results of which it is not pleasant to speak and which are likely subsequently to be a source of shame, a shame which unnerves and depresses the mind and leads the child to shun and loathe the light.”  


What an enlightened view.  And yet, already in ancient times there was often only a small threshold from corporal punishment to other forms of child abuse, which was often transgressed by immoral teachers.  It is sad that the following warning words of Quintilian have still not lost their relevance:  “Further if inadequate care is taken in the choices of respectable governors and instructors, I blush to mention the shameful abuse which scoundrels sometimes make of their right to administer corporal punishment or the opportunity not infrequently offered to others by the fear thus caused in the victims. I will not linger on this subject; it is more than enough if I have made my meaning clear. I will content myself with saying that children are helpless and easily victimised, and that therefore no one should be given unlimited power over them.”

Quare hoc dixisse satis est: in aetatem infirmam et iniuriae obnoxiam nemini debet nimium licere.

This is nothing less than an early statement of child protection and safeguarding.  Having hinted at the possibility of child abuse by unscrupulous teachers, Quintilian issues a stern warning that nobody should be given unlimited powers over young and vulnerable children.

Based on Quintilian’s thoughts on education alone, I would defy anyone who says that classical civilisation is not worth studying any longer, or that it has lost its relevance.  We are, and I say it again, but dwarves on the shoulders of giants, and as educators we owe a great debt to those who have reflected about teaching and learning with such refreshing clarity and such compassionate humanity two thousand years ago and ever since.

Quintilian has been quoted from the Loeb Classical Library edition (1920), and the English translation is by Harold Edgeworth Butler.

© 2013 by Astrid Seele