Where Gradgrind Got It Right; Teaching the Trivium: On Grammar

Although I don’t like to talk about it I’ve got a soft spot for Gradgrind. Not exactly a sympathetic character, I know, but let’s look beyond his, er, how shall we say… foibles… for a minute and look at his emphasis on Facts.

“Fact, fact, fact!” repeated Thomas Gradgrind.”

THOMAS GRADGRIND, sir. A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over. 

The passage about him that is most often quoted follows… (I have crossed through the bits I disagree with to leave us with a rather kinder Grammarian Gradgrind.)

“Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.”

This Gradgrind is of interest, he opens up a world of possibilities, where we teach facts and know they are important. That some facts change or become more or less important with time, that some are deemed to be important by some but are challenged as to their importance by others, does not mean they shouldn’t be taught. Quite the opposite, facts become even more important because of this, without knowing facts we can’t enter into a dialogue about their relative importance.

In English the word fact originally meant an action or a deed, particularly an evil one, a crime. It wasn’t until the 17th century that the word began to mean the sense of something being true or to have happened. This, through time became problematised as philosophers and others exposed the difficulties around knowing whether something was true or not, so much so that some people seem to think that the teaching of any fact is some sort of thought crime against which children must be saved. This, maybe, returns us to the original meaning of the word… but, I would say it is an ‘evil’ deed not to teach children facts.

What facts to teach? Some seem to be obvious, the classic times tables and alphabet come to mind but what others?

As a parent, teaching my daughter to ride her bike, I needed to break down the skill of bike riding into its component parts: balancing, pedalling, using the brakes, the facts of the road as well as when things are relatively safe or potentially dangerous. This extends the idea of facts somewhat. I call this the grammar of cycling. Every subject has its grammar, in the Oxford English dictionary it gives this definition Grammar: The basic elements of an area of knowledge or skill: the grammar of wine. As teachers we need to teach this grammar: the knowledge and skills that enable someone to understand the subject. For my ‘Grammarian Gradgrind’ facts become the grammar of a subject.

The national curriculum takes the selection of grammar away from teachers, I think, this is a great error. Teachers should be involved in the breaking down of their subject into its essential grammar, by doing this and in discussion with others, teachers can select knowledge and skills to teach what they believe gives children a fundamental understanding of the subject. This process will be easier for some subjects than others but fundamental nonetheless. It also helps teachers to think about the order in which things should be taught, what needs most emphasis, what can be mentioned in passing and what can be ignored, for now…

‘Grammar, the ‘facts’ of a subject, can be learnt, and can be tested. If the teacher tests for knowledge in a low stakes way over a period of time then it would make sense to teach grammar in a way that satisfies these tests. Testing can help students absorb the ‘facts’ and enable them to be able to draw on their knowledge subsequently in an automatic way. I wrote about this previously here.  By teaching it well, and ensuring it is learnt well, we open the grammar of our subjects up to the more open ended nature of dialectic and rhetoric both of which offer far more difficult challenges to assessors.

There are three terms that can help teachers when deciding what grammar to teach: foundational knowledge, threshold concepts and powerful knowledge. Foundational knowledge is the principles, ideas, skills and facts that keep coming up and without this you cannot ‘do’ the subject. Threshold concepts are central to the mastery of a subject. Powerful knowledge is different to the knowledge that we are likely to come across in our everyday lives and opens up so much more to us. These three areas of ‘grammar’ need to be discussed in subject areas, by teachers. By reflecting on these ideas when constructing our curriculum we can begin to see how we can prioritise certain ‘knowledges’ over others. It is through the continual review of these three strands that a vibrant and thoughtful grammar can be constructed in such a way that Gradgrind might find objectionable but it might actually make his central idea palatable: ‘facts’ are wanted in life…

it’s just a bit more complicated than that…

8 thoughts on “Where Gradgrind Got It Right; Teaching the Trivium: On Grammar

  1. I believe we should test to the teaching.

    I believe that grammar is nothing to do with the facts, other than the fact that the facts are connected to the concepts.

    Grammar is surely the language of concepts. Concepts are imaginary.

    What a fascinating post, I hope it develops with some debatable comments.

    Teaching to the test is only to be defended when assessment is criterion referenced.

    Seasons greetings.


    1. Definitions? Do you not like my definition of grammar? The teaching to the test I’m talking about is when a teacher uses tests to ensure the ‘grammar’ has been learnt… Child rides bike… Child answers times table questions etc. Helping the ‘grammar’ to become automatic…

      Happy new year! 😉


  2. I have to admit that my way of teaching my kids to ride a bike was more along the lines of giving them a good shove and saying: ‘Don’t fall into that patch of nettles’. ‘See, I told you it would hurt.’ 😉


  3. In fact, language has two grammars: Grammar 1 the grammar that exists prior to the terminology we give the processes that enable words to stick together in meaningful forms; Grammar 2 the thing we call ‘grammar’ but is in fact a set of terms which supposedly name the parts and some of the processes. The core problem with Grammar 2 is that it mostly treats Grammar 1 as if it were some kind of sealed system devoted purely in order to be a system with its own internal rules and purposes. An alternative way to view Grammar 1 is that it is a form of human behaviour and has no more ‘rules’ than any other forms of human behaviour. What’s more, explanations and descriptions for what this or that word or phrase is doing are ultimately not be found in ‘rules’ within the sealed system but lie in their social purpose. Take the term ‘determiner’. This is a classic ‘sealed system’ term. It treats whatever word we are calling a ‘determiner’ as if its purpose is to determine what follows it and that’s it. In fact, using or not using one of these determiners depends on a variety of psycho-social needs and purposes, one of which, say, will be my need to indicate that I’ve mentioned something before as in a determiner’s ‘back-referencing’ function. Or, take another example, the vexed question of what to call ‘my’ in the phrase ‘my hat’. You only have to say that it ‘is’ [given term] and angry terminologists will get on your back and tell you it can’t be, mustn’t be, shouldn’t be – the disputed terms being, variously, ‘possessive adjectives’, ‘possessive pronouns’ or indeed, ‘determiners’. Each of these bits of terminology require the user of the term to think that a total or final statement is given by one of these ‘sealed system’ terms. In fact, ‘my’ in ‘my hat’ not only does the psycho-social job of indicating ‘possession’, it also back-refers to either or both who ‘I’ is in the text or in life. This is the reason why the word was invented and why we use it. This job of back-referring is ‘invisible’ if all we do is refer to it as either determining or possessing or getting het up over whether it’s an ‘adjective’ or a ‘pronoun’. In short it misses the point.

    All this is a long way of saying that simply talking about ‘grammar’ as if it were ‘knowledge’ is such an oversimplification as to be misleading – or worse: that it’s an excuse to come up with examinable chunks of stuff for no other purpose than to find some way or another to grade and segregate young people according to what is supposedly their ‘ability’. This has nothing to do with linguistics, though.


    1. Hi Michael, thanks for your reply, before I answer your point may I ask if you have read my book Trivium 21c as it contains a fuller explanation of grammar and, indeed, dialectic and rhetoric…


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