Measuring Progress With The Trivium

The trivium is an excellent way to ensure progress in learning. We can see progress through the trivium in three stages: new knowledge followed by critique, ending in communication. In teaching terms this means firstly ensuring a body of knowledge is taught to students and that they understand the knowledge. Secondly the students build on that knowledge through practise, they test it out and see if it can bear scrutiny; this is in classic trivium terms the movement from grammar to dialectic. The students are then able to express their learning in an appropriate medium to the subject they are studying: ‘rhetoric’. For the teacher these three arts involve different ways of teaching and for the learner three different ways of engaging with knowledge. If only it was this simple! When I say ‘three’ I actually mean far more, the collective ‘mantra’ of grammar – dialectic – rhetoric covers a variety of different approaches, it has a richness and depth far beyond three words, it is, however, a useful ‘tool’ by which to organise complexity. From its simplicity grows complexity.

In these days when everyone in the education bubble is obsessed with progress and looking for systemised methods to understand and measure it from Solo taxonomy and Blooms to various systems of levels, the trivium is thankfully far more modest. Although it seems to have a hierarchy of progress from grammar to dialectic to rhetoric it is actually a continuous process of knowing, re-knowing, and showing. Each art of the trivium interleaves with the others. Someone who is able to communicate and be creative is not more sophisticated than the person who is struggling to remember a piece of information, the trivium recognises that all knowledge and skills work with and sometimes even against each other. It is my guess that this ancient method of learning, renamed by Francis Bacon as ‘the tradition’ will be found through the great random control test of time to have captured the essence of great learning in much the same way that the great ‘tradition’ that is the wheel seems to be essential in many methods of transporting something or someone from a to b.

Progress therefore in the trivium is not measurable in the way that Rhetoric sits at the top of a hierarchy of learning methods and once a child has ‘reached’ the rhetoric stage they are more sophisticated than a child ‘stuck’ at grammar. This hierarchy breaks down because once you begin to communicate knowledge and add to knowledge you begin to realise you need to ‘know’ more and therefore you need to find out more ‘facts’. Once you know more facts you might find they contradict your previous knowledge and you need to test this new knowing out, and often you find that there are arguments and disagreements in the domain you are studying that undermine your knowing exposing your mind to new ignorance. If learning is hierarchical this means you are becoming less sophisticated, because sometimes the more you study the less you know and understand. Learning is frustrating because it is not hierarchical, although within in it there is the possibility of mastery, mastery is just an opening into ever more areas of doubt and uncertainty. Here we can accept that there is a general move from novice to master in a domain but within that journey there is also a process of learning new stuff and once mastery has been obtained this process doesn’t stop.

The trivium is a process that takes one from a point of not knowing and stays with us through all our knowings and not knowings. It is our guide from novice through to master of arts and beyond. This process is continual from foundational ‘knowledges’ and through ‘elaborations’. It makes connections and exposes disputes. It looks for context and can find these in ever larger narratives yet can also unpick and extract ideas from one story to be fitted into new mental models. The trivium is both part of prior understandings and thoughts but is also a deeply personal way to remake understanding which is where it unlocks much creativity. To master a domain one reaches a level of competency that is measurable through the various methods of recognition of mastery that the domain has in place. The trivium doesn’t replace these ‘measures’. It does, however, enable a way of seeing progress in understandings throughout the process of learning whether you are generally a novice or a master.

The trivium has breadth at its core, it involves different ways of teaching and different ways of learning depending on the context and the subject of the inquiry. If we know how well a student is absorbing the arts of the trivium in order to learn we can teach them better. In order to gauge how well a pupil is engaging with each of the arts of the trivium we need to be able to see how the art is absorbed into their language and the approach that a pupil might be using to aid her understanding. If we accept the idea that learning is often ‘invisible’ is it possible to pick up on little clues that might make it slightly more visible?

The mantra of the trivium can be used to help measure progress with the understanding that the progress being displayed is a continuous process. Each pupil’s remembering, moments of insight and breakthroughs might be transformative or might not; they might be followed for some time by forgetting and fog. Therefore what is needed is a way to look at process that is sophisticated about knowledge and understanding but also of use both to teachers and pupils in the classroom, to a visitor to the classroom, a senior manager or even an inspector. Imagine an assessment method that shows progress but recognises the learning process as far from fixed or linear.

To this end I have produced a table that shows different ways a teacher might begin to recognise a pupil’s grasp of the different arts in a given topic and/or domain. This table and further thoughts about it is being shared with the trivium network of schools and might form the beginning of further, more sophisticated, ways of developing ways of measuring progress in all three arts of the trivium, different subjects and stages. The aim of this assessment method is to help the teacher to see how well a pupil is understanding something whilst the pupil is in a fog of not seeming to have grasped it at all. This tool can therefore aid the teacher in his or her teaching and also might give the pupil some solace as they grapple with difficulty. I think for many teachers this understanding of how a pupils is ‘progressing’ is part of their intuitive armoury, this table just gives them a way to unpick their understanding in a way that is then communicable to others and to aid communication between the pupil and the teacher.

I’ll keep you informed as to how we progress, if I can think of a way to measure that!

4 thoughts on “Measuring Progress With The Trivium

  1. I was with you and cheering you on until you mentioned the table. I was thinking about how traditional forms of assessment understood that you couldn’t pigeon hole progress. The essay in history is an an imperfect assessment tool but one that allows for the way learning happens, as you describe.
    I can’t pictue any generic, i.e. non content specific assessment table that can actually gauge progress. I’m curious to see what you’ve come up with though.


    1. Hi Heather,

      Thank you for your considered comment. Of course I agree and this is the nub of what I’m looking at. The process of essay wiring is indeed a superb example and it gives context to the method I am talking about. So, in this context, I am trying to unpick the process of writing the essay from the beginning to the end and not just at the end or even at the end of the first draft.

      The table will, I hope, help frame ways of seeing the ‘three arts’ in a number of domains so, in essay terms, the evidence of progress won’t be the same as the evidence in other domains but the process might have an underlying similarity. It is difficult to explain without showing you what I’m working on of course! Hopefully, you would approve.


  2. I’m really interested in this and am planning on making it a focal point of a project I am working on this year. I’d be very interested to see your table.


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