Great Teaching = The Trivium

Please excuse this trumpet blowing. My scepticism about research and education is sorely tested every time a new report on what makes great teaching comes out. Why? Because when I read something talking about the structure of highly effective pedagogy it seems to have the trivium at its core. This might be a result of my cognitive biases or it might be because the ancient art of the trivium basically got it right by chance and since then we have either been refining the model or ignoring the model, with the latter resulting in poor teaching and the former in great teaching. You decide.

Today the Sutton Trust has published a review of the research into ‘What Makes Great Teaching?’ by Professor Coe from the Durham University School of Education and others. It is a very interesting and useful report and, guess what, the trivium is sitting pretty right in the middle as an effective framework for great teaching.

If we take the three arts of the trivium – grammar, dialectic, rhetoric, in that order, as our starting point we can see how this model frames the collection of ‘effective’ techniques that sit at the centre of the report:

There is an emphasis on subject knowledge, what I call the ‘grammar’ of a subject and this needs to be taught effectively, the teacher needs to ‘know their stuff’ and be able to gauge how well a pupil is picking up and learning this stuff over the long term. The learning is then supported by effective practice time, the teacher needs to structure this well and allow pupils to embed their knowledge and skills. This involves discussion, questioning and problem solving, and is captured in the trivium by ‘dialectic’. It is interesting that what I refer to as ‘logos’ is also important. In Trivium 21c I interpret Logos partly as resilience, enthusiasm and a pupil being in harmony with the learning (there is a lot more to this but to capture the nuance you’ll need to read the book). This is then framed by some way of ‘showing’ the application of the knowledge and skills, whether this be in the form of ‘tests’, feedback and the teacher checking for wider understanding. This also includes the setting and monitoring of independent practice, and regular reviewing of the pupils’ learning, as I put it in the trivium 21c model: ‘rhetoric’. Added to this the continual interleaving of the trivium, the circularity of moving from grammar to dialectic to rhetoric, from knowledge to questioning to communicating, more often than not, you have the basis of great teaching. The trivium model does other things too, it questions the basis of knowledge and develops creativity, self-expression, independence as a learner, a thinker and a maker, and meta-cognition and it is possible to access the trivium from dialectic or rhetoric but a very basic pedagogical shape is set out here . I would like to see someone take on the model and evaluate it in all its glory, if you are interested in helping with this then contact me here. If you are interested in your school becoming a trivium school please contact me here.

It is a lot more complex than I have laid it out above but, in essence, Great Teaching = The Trivium!

4 thoughts on “Great Teaching = The Trivium

  1. I acquiesce with your exasperation! Have you thought about writing a Trivium handbook? Or a 1-page curriculum plan of what a trivium school might look like? Would be helpful for me, certainly, to envisage how it might look in a contemporary school…


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