Trivium: the answer to the purpose of education?

Unknown“Enthusiasm is the search for essence… of intensity and work that is essential for high achievement. This is the idea of mastery: discipline, focus, work, beauty even in ugliness, truth, and the pursuit of in-depth knowledge. This is, perhaps, what Plato thought of as ‘being awake’”

The Purpose of Education

When thinking about the purpose of education it is easy to see how the wider aspirations of the state can clash with the more human concerns of students and their families. While government ministers focus on ‘measureable’ outcomes, league tables, and their latest position in the OECD rankings, parents are more focused on how well their child is doing at school: socially, academically, and emotionally.

As a teacher and a parent I am interested in how the demands of the state impact on my children’s experiences of school, both the students I teach and my own three young children. While recognising the wider purposes of education – forming national identity, developing social cohesion, and ensuring economic prosperity – are important and worthwhile, I am also disturbed by how the mechanisms of state privilege government priorities above all others.

Over the summer I read two excellent books on this subject. One, Stephen Ball’s ‘Education Debate’, dealt with this topic at the macro level, with chapter headings such as ‘Education policy, economic necessity and public service reform’. The other, Martin Robinson’s ‘Trivium 21c’, was a much more personal journey, focusing instead on a father’s search to provide a good education for his young daughter.

While I enjoyed both books enormously, and recommend each of them without hesitation, it was Robinson’s book that had more resonance and direct application to me as a classroom teacher and concerned dad.

Philosopher Kids

“I would advocate that every stage of schooling should prepare students for becoming wise, knowledgeable, and virtuous.”

Robinson’s book is about the history of curriculum and pedagogy. It is a fascinating explanation of how our education system has developed an ideological schism at its heart and how the purpose of education and the way children are taught has become a battleground for competing sides of the debate. It is also an attempt at a resolution for this division, a recommendation of a way forward to a middle-ground where perhaps teachers can develop a new approach to education.

In contrast to his own education, which he says was awful; Robinson is determined that his daughter’s experience of school will be entirely different. He has high aspirations and wants her to do well, not just academically but also morally and spiritually. He wants her to have an education that will prepare her for the future, teaches her the important lessons of the past, and helps her to become an active and considerate citizen. He describes these qualities as the qualities of a ‘philosopher kid’ – a kid who can think for themselves, ask questions, and has a sense of civic responsibility. These aspirations, he argues, should be the aim of all schools, for all their students.

To develop this point he borrows a metaphor from Plato: “The cave is the journey from prisoner kids to philosopher kids… [When] they [learn to] admire wisdom and love pursuing it… the child is ready to assume the mantle of the philosopher.” This he explains is an active process, not one where the students passively acquire information and skills: “students need authentic experiences – doing, making, creating, and being: Alongside the more abstract curriculum.” Philosopher kids are not docile pupils, sat silently receiving wisdom from better-informed adults; they are active citizens in the process of developing their own “authority”.

To further illustrate this, Robinson refers to the ideas of the 16th century essayist, Montaigne, who argued, “schooling should not be about whether someone has learned a great deal but about who has ‘understood best’. Teachers should not just ‘spew’ out their learning, they should pursue understanding… we should not just take on the ideas of others; we need to make them our own, obtain wisdom and, importantly, enjoy it.”

Robinson expands this point about enjoyment with a further quote: “There is nothing like tempting the boy to want to study and to love it: otherwise you simply produce donkeys laden with books. They are flogged into retaining a pannier of learning; but if it is to do any good, learning must not only lodge with us: we must marry her.”

For Robinson it is not enough that his daughter will leave school ‘cleverer’ than when she went in, this is a minimum, what he wants is for her to love learning, to have opinions of her own, to stand up for things that matter to her, to be considerate and caring, to be wise and discerning, to appreciate beauty, and to be a responsible and active citizen.

These are not ‘achievements’ that appear in charts or league tables, but for us human beings they are what we want for our children above all else.


However, at the centre of the curriculum/pedagogy debate is a “large and almost unbridgeable divide” that has been there from the beginning. On one side are the advocates of tradition and continuity, on the other, those that promote discourse and critique. In modern terms these are called Traditionalists and Progressives. Both sides, Robinson argues, “wish to treat schooling as a simple ideological battle.” They are entrenched; convinced they have the better argument and are “unwilling to embrace the complexity” that would emerge if the two sides were brought together.

The trivium, an ancient idea, he hopes might be the answer. Both curriculum and pedagogy, the trivium is “three ways of doing things” – grammar, dialectic and rhetoric. Put simply:

Grammar is about knowing:

  • Learning about the ways things were or are
  • Passing on knowledge from one generation to the next

Dialectic is about questioning:

  • Challenging the ways things are
  • The idea that this educational process can help in the birth of new ideas

Rhetoric is about communicating:

  • Showing how things could be
  • Including the belief in ethics, sound argument and appreciation of the beauty of language
  • It is the process of reflection, evaluation, and communication.

Although each element of the Trivium is essential to a ‘liberal education’, there is an inherent contradiction between grammar and dialectic. Grammar, in the sense of a body of knowledge and agreed systems, places value on certainty and expertise. Dialectics, in the sense of inquiry and critical debate, places value on questioning and open-mindedness. When the two come together these values cause tension and complexity. This is the ideological difference between traditionalists and progressives that Robinson describes as the ‘unbridgeable divide’. As a teacher, I’ve sensed this tension throughout my career, without being able to give it a name.

For those that sit at either end of the ideological divide there is no compulsion to embrace the views of those on the other extreme. The idealogues are keen to call the divide a dichotomy, to tell us we have to take sides, they use words such as battle and struggle, and call each other rude names, like denialists and dinosaurs. They tell us our choices are either/or. Either we use this strategy or teach in this way; the other ways are wrong and ineffective. Even to the point of saying, if our experiences are otherwise we are delusional or enemies of children.

I’m cautious of certainty in education and have always been of the opinion that teaching is essentially a practical pursuit and ideological dogma of any kind is unhelpful. For me, the dichotomy is rhetorical rather than logical: It does not have to be either/or, it can be both/and. In fact, in the real world of school life, this is the messy complexity of mixed methods that we embrace every day. Tomorrow I’m working with a class of Year 2 children, the first session of the day is writing (in the trivium this session would be categorised as grammar and rhetoric), the second session is reading (again grammar), the third session is maths (grammar), the fourth session is phonics (grammar), the fifth session is drama, art and history (grammar, dialectics and rhetoric). I don’t think this would constitute a particularly unusual day for a primary school. At different times there is an emphasis on acquiring knowledge, at other times the emphasis shifts to applying that knowledge, and at others the emphasis is on communicating and investigating to develop understanding. This is a curriculum of both/and. As Robinson argues, the trivium is not an approach that says children must wait until they are ready; it is an approach that has to be used at every stage of education.

This process of education brings together the three elements of the trivium, embracing all the inherent complexity and contradictions, and forming something new: “Separately the arts are unable to deal with the complexity of our world; together they can begin to educate our children properly through their contradictions.  We need to put our disagreements into the centre of the curriculum…Together the three arts of the Trivium are more than a sum of their parts.  Developing a further art – whether this is called wisdom, virtue or a good life.”

The strength of Robinson’s idea is that it makes explicit the discreet elements of a complete education and explains why there exists a tension between them. The trivium only works if each element is developed concurrently, not necessarily in the same lesson, but over a similar time period. The teacher’s role is to plan a balanced and coherent curriculum that uses and develops all three. This is not straight-forward and will mean a further argument about how much time we should spend on each element, however, I see it is a way forward; bridging the divide between the two dichotomies of tradition and progression.

The Authentic Curriculum

Towards the end of his book, Robinson makes a list of criteria for teaching in our schools. I think it is a terrific combination of the different elements of the trivium that constitute a far more ambitious objective for education than ‘driving up standards’. He incorporates in his list the notion of logos, which is something above and beyond the accumulation of facts and the development of skills. Logos is about reaching up and developing values and dispositions that transcend simple schooling: “the teacher can begin with didacticism: there are certain simple things that can be taught, because the world is, and always has been, complex, there are ideas beyond the simple and these are dealt with through dialectic. We start with the simple that can be known, move on to the complex that can be discussed and investigated, until we reach another, more metaphysical understanding. This I take to be logos – faith or universal essence – which is known or felt.”

While I said earlier, it was not unusual in a primary school day to incorporate all three elements of the trivium, how often can we honestly say we aim so high as to develop this notion of transcendence in our students? This is the challenge that Martin Robinson’s wonderful book makes of us; this (in my view) is the true purpose of education, above and beyond the machinations of politicians and ideologues.


The Trivium Criteria

Because it is so great, here is Robinson’s list in full.

“The way to do this, to make the kind of school I would like to send my daughter to, is to listen to both the conservative and liberal impulses. So, here is my list of criteria for teaching in our schools:

  • Cultural capital should come from the teaching of knowledge and reflect the best that has been thought and said. This should involve complexity and difficulty, so there should be space for students to criticize, to think, and to develop their own character, as well as develop their own enthusiasm.
  • Schools should develop a curriculum that responds to change, as well as being rooted in a sensitive awareness of our traditions and how they are evolving. It should seek out academic, cultural, social, artistic, and physical challenges that are authentic, that stretch each child, and give them experiences they would not otherwise get.
  • Schools should teach the importance of a sceptical approach to both tradition and modernity. Children should be encouraged to be curious, to question and debate, but alongside the idea that the institution in which the debate takes place deserves its place in our civic society because it provides space for that debate.”


Submitted to Sept. 2013 Blogsync

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