Trivium 21C – A Book Review

[by Phil Heath]trivium


Most poignantly I was beginning to see the results of the changes in education: kids were more focused on exams, grade and learning how to pass and as a result were becoming less independent and less creative. My methods were going against the tide. This new breed of students were customers demanding a service, and the school was delivering the service to them. These customers sat at the table getting fat on the courses they were being fed, some of them force fed. No longer were the students expected to enter the kitchen; rather they chose from a menu and expected it to be served up ready cooked. This is the problem with spoon feeding: the whole process devalues the making and concentrates on the service.


Trivium 21c Martin Robinson




Another book review but this time quite a different book. In my previous post I wrote about Visible Learning, a book that concentrates on what research can tell us about teaching and learning. This post is about a book called Trivium 21c which is very different; more of a manifesto than a how to guide. It is quite complex and I am a simple man so what follows is, of necessity, a very basic summary.


The book is written by a drama teacher/AST/Head of Department/Senior Manager and it is about the type of education that he would like for his young daughter. The author is an unusual teacher in that he was unsuccessful at school himself and only entered the profession in his late twenties. He points out somewhat amusingly that teaching is like history, it is usually written by the winners (people who did well in the education system themselves). Upon becoming a teacher, his rise is spectacular and the novel approach that he brings to drama teaching soon sees him attract the attention of the great and good.


The quote at the top summarises (in my opinion) the problem that the author sees in the education system. He believes it is too utilitarian, too focussed on exams and future employment and not concerned enough with developing individuals to live what he calls the good life (which he defines in the philosophical sense, engaging with the world, questioning it, living life to the intellectual full).


Now for the good bit. The author’s research leads him to realise that it was not ever thus. This is where the concept of the trivium comes in. In Shakespeare’s time (the author is fond of Shakespeare) the mainstay of a grammar school education were the liberal arts. These were divided into the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy) and the trivium of grammar, dialectic (or logic) and rhetoric. The quadrivium was “more about number and content” and the trivium “more about language and ways of doing things [author’s italics].

His research leads him to the conclusion that the trivium is based on ancient Greek ideas. In fact he believes that the whole concept of a western liberal arts education comes from “the Greek idea that the world is a question to be answered”.


The three components of the trivium can be summarised as follows:


Grammar – this is the transfer of knowledge and culture. Being taught information and rules, broadly the traditionalist approach to education in modern schools

Dialectic – these are the thinking skills. Analysis, discussion, challenge, debate. Learning to question everything (and when questioning everything can be counterproductive and lead to cynicism) broadly equating to the progressive approach in modern education.

Rhetoric – this is communication. Learning to communicate oneself, to listen to others, to take in and process information. The author sees this in some ways as the link between grammar and dialectic. It allows us to reflect, summarise, evaluate and ultimately become better citizens.

There is a dichotomy within the trivium between grammar which corresponds with tradition, “putting things in” and trying to impart a body of knowledge and dialectic which corresponds to the “notion that education can help in the birth of new ideas”. The author compares this to the age old question of whether education is about drawing out or putting in. He sets about investigating this dichotomy and ultimately, he concludes that “The three ways of the trivium – knowing, questioning and communicating – had come together as the basis of a great education. This [authors italics] is what I want for my daughter”.

There follows quite a lot of philosophising the saddest bit of which from my point of view is that scientific rationalism basically killed off the trivium. Partially “because the modern era (sic) rejected many of the ways of thinking and communicating based on traditional classical or religious knowledge” and partly because the economic need for society to educate more citizens changed education itself and made it more utilitarian.

At the end of the book the author looks at what the trivium might look like in the modern school. He is very keen on what he calls a mantra, a technique of learning which students can acquire and become more independent of the teacher. He outlines a “spine” from which this mantra will emerge and calls it Progressive Traditionalism.

The author argues that the goal of education should be life not work. “It should be a journey towards wisdom and the need for knowledge via wonder and curiosity”. So teachers should be looking to produce students with curiosity and the ability to communicate as well as trying to impart knowledge. The spine of Progressive Traditionalism is complicated. There are many suggestions and ideas in this chapter and a blog is too brief a form to comment on them all but some of the ones that struck me were:

  • The desired outcome is what the author calls a “philosopher kid”. Someone with a good knowledge base who has been taught to live an examined life (in the Socratic sense) and who is a good citizen. Education is a way of becoming a better person and a better thinker, not just a tool for getting a job.
  • Ethics and virtue are a key part of the scheme.
  • Traditional and progressive views both have their place as does rhetoric (communication). Both knowledge (for its own sake) and skills are taught explicitly.
  • Education consists of “a journey towards mastery and wisdom”. It can be seen as a sequence from dependence to independence which loosely mirrors a development from traditionalism (being taught things) to progressive ideas of being able to teach oneself.
  • Grammar, dialectic and rhetoric all have a part to play. The grammar is the knowledge base and is taught alongside the skills of dialectic and rhetoric. Students should be taught to express themselves and listen to opinions and to question and critique. There is a culture of expecting criticism and valuing it rather than aiming for perfection. The dialectics part of the trivium is to be taught outside of the classroom as well as inside and some suggestions (debating societies, philosophers in residence) are made as to how to do this.
  • Assessment is done in many ways and exams serve rather than lead.
  • Around 40% of school curriculum time should be devoted to “the authentic curriculum” which is never fully defined but seems to consist of students following their own interests. It is very cross curricular and not necessarily wholly composed of academic subjects. This is also part of the out of the classroom provision


There are parts of Trivium 21c that get a bit bogged down in my opinion, but that is a personal view. I did find the writing style engaging throughout and there are some complex ideas in the book that are explained very clearly. The idea behind it all is fascinating and I was very impressed with the author’s vision of how the trivium could be implemented in a modern school. This is unlike any other teaching book that I have read and I certainly recommend it as worth a look.










One response to “Trivium 21C – A Book Review

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s