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Paideia Program

Implementing the Paideia Program

In 1982 a group of scholars and educators headed by philosopher Mortimer Adler published The Paideia Proposal, and it is difficult to name a leading educational reform program since that has not been directly or indirectly influenced by Paideia principles. Paideia is the Greek word for the nurturing of children, and the Paideia Group was dedicated to providing a powerful public education for all. In the years immediately following the proposal, Adler and the original Paideia Group published two more books–Paideia Problems and Possibilities (1983) and The Paideia Program (1984)–intended in part to answer practical questions about program implementation. The National Paideia Center was established at the University of North Carolina in 1988, and in 1992 began working in close, classroom-based partnership with schools. By the year 2000 the center was working with well over a hundred schools in over a dozen states, and the list was growing continually. Paideia has grown steadily since the early 1990s for several reasons.

The first reason is that the original Paideia principles have appealed to many as a powerful condensation of the best thinking about public education. Adler focused on the profound connection between school reform and the United States as a functional democracy. The Paideia philosophy stated a litany of principles that in 1982 seemed radical but by 1995 had became accepted wisdom. Such principles as "all children can learn" and "therefore they deserve the same quality, not just quantity, of education," anticipated many of the later American reform movements, and documented Paideia's origin in a philosophy of human development.

The second reason why interest in Paideia has continued to grow rapidly is that the program marries a fundamentally conservative idea, the beneficial rigors of a classical education, and a fundamentally liberal one, inclusive teaching and learning practices. These seemingly contradictory ideas–intellectual rigor and equal access to a quality education–are the bedrock upon which successful Paideia schools have been built.

Perhaps the most important reason for Paideia's steady growth is that the program includes all subjects and embraces important curriculum from diverse cultures. Increasingly, the National Paideia Center has provided schools with curricular information on how to use Paideia instructional techniques in mathematics, science, music, literature, writing, and physical education–all the subjects in a strong core curriculum. In addition, the center has broadened the use of the term classical to include the study of texts by African Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and representatives of other cultures.

Implementing the Paideia Program

The recent work of the National Paideia Center is based on a mix of teaching strategies called the "three columns" of teaching. They are made up of the didactic instruction of curricular information, intellectual coaching of the skills necessary to manipulate and apply information, and seminar discussion of the ideas and values inherent to that information. Paideia does not require a specific curriculum, but rather provides a system for fostering student engagement with the standard curriculum of a state or district. In contrast to the heavy use of teacher-centered, didactic instruction characterizing traditional American schools, the Paideia program focuses on limiting didactic instruction to less that 15 percent of classroom time and devoting the remaining 85 to 90 percent to increased student learning activity.

Typically, in the first year of partnership with the center, a school focuses on implementing the Paideia seminar schoolwide. The Paideia seminar is a formal discussion of a text in which the leader of the seminar (the teacher) simply asks open-ended questions, leaving it up to the students to generate a dialogue about the ideas and values inherent to the text. (The text may be a map or historical document, a chart or skeleton, a math problem or a poem, a photograph or painting.) In this way, students are brought into active engagement with the conceptual framework behind the curriculum.

In the second year of implementation, Paideia schools focus on implementing the Paideia-coached project, revising traditional units of study in each classroom to make them much more product–oriented, resulting both in more authentic assessment and active student learning. "Product–oriented" means that most or all student work is produced for an authentic audience (parents or other community members) and will be assessed by that audience. Typically, this phase of Paideia implementation takes several years as teachers move from teaching a few units each year as coached projects to developing an entire curriculum based on the production of real work for authentic audiences. In the third year of partnership with the center, most Paideia schools implement more student-centered assessment practices in the classroom, and the entire school community develops a cyclical plan for continuous improvement.

Detailed program evaluations, notably one comprehensive study by the Center for Research and Evaluation at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, have shown that Paideia schools consistently produce a greater increase in standardized test scores for all students than do non-Paideia schools. In addition, Paideia schools consistently show an improved school climate, including a more inviting environment for minority students.

The eventual goal of the Paideia program is schools that offer every student access to a rigorous education. To accomplish this goal, the Paideia program prescribes schools that are themselves communities of thought, where adults and students alike focus on the skills and attitudes of lifelong learning and continuous improvement.


ALDER, MORTIMER J. 1982. The Paideia Proposal. New York: Macmillan.

ADLER, MORTIMER J. 1983. Paideia Problems and Possibilities. New York: Macmillan.

ADLER, MORTIMER J. 1984. The Paideia Program. New York: Macmillan.

ROBERTS, TERRY, and BILLINGS, LAURA. 1999. The Paideia Classroom: Teaching for Understanding. Larchmont, NY: Eye of Education.

ROBERTS, TERRY, and the STAFF OF THE NATIONAL PAIDEIA CENTER. 1998. The Power of Paideia Schools: Defining Lives Through Learning. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.


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