Notes on Trivium 21c

Martin Robinson’s Trivium 21c was an absolute delight to read. Thought provoking and enlightening it presents an eloquently articulated history of the educational ideas and, through this radical history, a persuasive argument for the great synthesis of traditional and progressive teaching methods, united via the ancient arts of the trivium.

The trivium in teaching

The trivium of grammar, dialectic and rhetoric, originally used as the basis of the school curriculum in the middle ages are explored from a variety of different paradigms and meanings for Robinson to final expound his view of how this mantra could be utilised in modern schooling.

Grammar, Robinson argues, is not only the teaching of the rules of the language arts but is equivalent to the transmission of all of the basic facts and building blocks of knowledge that make up a particular discipline or subject. Grammar is also the transmission of the structure and rules of culture, which, of course, encompasses all the academic disciplines as well as other elements. To Robinson, modern grammarians are those of us on the traditionalist side of the great education debate on methods. Grammarians value knowledge and the methods best shown to help students gain this knowledge.

Dialectic, to Robinson, is the art of critiscm, skeptiscim and questioning of grammar. It is an art that needs to be taught in order to enable future adults to be able to think clearly about and with knowledge, in order to not simply be absorbers of knowledge but users and producers of it. Dialectic is important as it allows students to manipulate and use the knowledge acquired through grammar, by questioning it, reflecting on it and potentially rejecting or changing it. If grammar represents tradition, then dialectic represents progression; the dialecticians are those of us in education who aspire to the more progressive methods in the great educational debate.

The third art of the trivium, rhetoric, is the art of communication. Not only should learners be taught to acquire knowledge through grammar, taught to question it through dialectics but they should also be taught to communicate their thoughts through the arts of rhetoric.

Should the purpose of education serve the common good or enable someone to live a good life?

As someone who has moved from being deeply religious to being so no longer, I found myself agreeing with Robinson’s sentiments that curiosity is not best served by prejudice and that teachers must not model the closed mind of someone who thinks there is only one path that leads to meaning or, I guess, truth. In this vein he asks us to attempt to live, as teachers, with the uncertain position of holding the traditional and the progressive together, investigating ideas from across the range of opinion.

Robinson asks if all teachers in any given school understand the narrative of a the curriculum? He argues that only by seeing how their part fits into the wider curriculum can teachers deliver an education to students that allows them to be knowledgable, critical and reflective. He claims that students must learn the unifying concepts, the concepts that come up again and again, of each discipline again and again. This put me in mind of Thomas Khun who claimed that expertise as a scientist only arrives through exposure to many examples. Scientists are experts because they have been able to generalise from the many specific examples and they apply this knowledge in new scenarios.

Robinson also claims that teachers must move away from omniscience, which reminded me of an early career conversation a chemistry teacher who claimed that not knowing in a teacher is a sign of weakness, and that students don’t like it. I agree with Robinson that all teachers need to honest about what society doesn’t know, they need to embrace the uncertainty in their discipline.

A good teacher has mastered the core knowledge and more of their discipline as well as holding an appreciation of what society doesn’t yet know in their field.

We need to understand that teachers should have the authority to teach but recognise that all knowledge is probable and uncertain.

Teachers should use language in such a way that ensures uncertainty has its place.

Robinson’s book draws on many sources and aside from his main argument is highly informative of the history of educational ideas. His arguments are compelling and interesting but the book is worth reading not only for this but also for your education in the history of educational ideas that it draws upon. This book has helped me begin to see the synthesis of the progressive and traditional narratives and has got me wondering about how I can go about making argumentation an important part of my biology classroom in the second stage of the trivium. How can I use debate to really challenge kids to think and learn all sides of an argument? How can I introduce students to the, Dissoi Logoi in science, the art of seeing both sides of an argument as true within their contexts. Instead of dialectic argument as being right vs wrong we can make both as right. Dual thinking explores the possibility that both sides can be right.

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