Tag Archives: trivium 21c

The Importance of Debate in Schools


Creating a culture of speech in your classroom means having everyone doing it, not simply those that are willing – do not let students ‘hide’.

Andrew Fitch,  from the book: Trivium in Practice

In a piece for the TES, Jonathan Simons, head of Education for Policy Exchange, wrote about the importance of debating:

To debate, participants must analyse complex issues of ethics, law, politics, science… it teaches rhetoric, and the ability to stand up and speak in front of an audience. It demands confidence in one’s position. It requires teamwork between speakers. It instils general knowledge. It is transformative.

Simons also points out that debating has been a central feature of our best universities for centuries. As Petrus Ramus put it in his Dialectica of Invention:

What is Dialectica ? A. DIALECTICA IS THE (sic) art of disputing well…

It is the art of dialectic, that puts questioning, reasoning, critical thinking and logic at the heart of the trivium. These are all essential attributes of a great education and to be able to do them well can help ensure that young people perform well academically and, indeed, socially.

It is not enough for schools just to teach knowledge, knowledge is the base of great thinking, but without the practice of using knowledge to challenge and rise to the occasion when challenged, an academic education falters. Argument is key to thinking well.

Andrew Fitch, the director of spoken literacy at Highbury Grove School helped coach the England schools  debating team that won this year’s world debating championships held in Stuttgart. Highbury Grove school, under the leadership of Tom Sherrington, is undergoing the process of putting trivium principles at the heart of the educational offer to their pupils.

In the book, Trivium in Practice Andrew Fitch has contributed an excellent short guide for teachers called: “Spoken Literacy and Rhetoric in the Classroom…” In his introduction he writes:

…using the three part trivium structure, I have utilised debate, in a variety of forms, to ask students to intellectually engage with relevant material through being forced to attack and defend various aspects of the knowledge that they have been given… Through argument generation and speech creation, students dialectically engage with the material, developing a familiarity with it beyond the simple stating of facts.

Debating competitions and debating societies should be a feature of all good schools. However most young people will not engage with it until debate features as a part of the everyday curriculum. By having to think clearly and defend or attack an idea, a work, or a philosophy, children will be challenged and, in turn, will understand more about the content of the curriculum and what it means to them and the society of which they are a part. I would go so far as to say by grappling with the playfulness of ideas in this way they will, in turn, become more engaged with the issues they are debating and that can only be a good thing.


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!

Schooling via the Trivium? Jony Ive

An occasional look at how aspects of the trivium* may have contributed to the education of various people in various walks of life. What follows is highly selective, the material on which it is based will be open to a wide variety of interpretations and mine might be highly ‘trivial’.

*I am using the trivium 21c interpretation of the trivium

 I’ve (geddit?) been reading the book : ‘Jony Ive, The Genius Behind Apple’s Greatest Products‘ by Leander Kahney a book I’d recommend to anyone interested in design, apple or, indeed, education. In the first chapter Kahney writes about Ive’s school days and the influence of his background that I found to be very interesting.

Ive was born in Chingford, North East London in 1967. He spent his formative years there before moving, at the age of eleven, to Stafford in the West Midlands. His dad was a silversmith and his mum a psychotherapist. Straightaway I feel compelled to jump to conclusions about his Apple designs, how they are beautifully crafted and emotionally intelligent but I won’t as that would be too easy after all if we were all such simple chips off the old block then what would we all be like?

I think his father’s influence was crucial. From an early age little Jony would have been exposed to design knowledge or, as I would call it, ‘The grammar of design technology.’ Not only was his father a silversmith, he was also a teacher who rose to become a highly influential HMI specialising in the field of design and technology. It was Mike Ive who saw to it that D&T became part of the core curriculum and moved it from being a ‘low status’ subject to an ‘integrated course that mixed academic study with making things’. Through his dad Jony was able to connect to a world not just of design but also academe. Mike and Jony Ive would discuss design that they would come across in their day to day environment. Not only would they discuss what they saw but they were also thinking about how it could be made better. Here the ‘grammar’ of design would meet the challenge of ‘dialectic’ through gentle exploration, questioning and challenging what they came across.

Jony took part in a variety of activities, he was a drummer in a band, and had a state education typical of people of his age. As an annual Christmas treat his dad let him into his workshop one day every year in which he was allowed to do anything he wanted and his dad would be on hand to support him, helping him put his ideas into action. Mike Ive would insist on one constraint: everything had to be drawn by hand first. This constraint Jony Ive believed helped him develop a hatred of carelessness in a product. Mike Ive took Jony on trips to design schools and studios and by the time he was 13 Jony knew he wanted to ‘draw and make stuff’.

Mike’s influence on his son’s approach to design may have been crucial. As an HMI Mike Ive encouraged teachers to develop a creative process that used ‘drawing and sketching, talking and discussing’ as crucial elements. He also talked about how teachers and designers should not ‘know it all’ and should encourage risk taking in the creative process. In order to communicate to pupils he asked that teachers told ‘the design story’ or as I would call it ‘the rhetoric of design’.

At school Jony got 3 A’s at A level. In the D&T A level the first year was looking at the ‘character and capabilities’ of a range of materials, developing ideas and practical skills and the second year, more academic, centred on a project. From this description we have a ‘trivium’ approach: The grammar of design, knowledge and skills, dialectic of development, and the rhetoric expressed through a project.

Jony’s teachers talk about how good his work was, extolling the quality and sophistication of his drawing and also his exceptional ability to communicate his ideas. He left school clutching his qualifications and went on to study product design at Newcastle Polytechnic. At the Poly students were taught how to ‘think like a designer’, learning practical skills and attending academic classes with a focus on design psychology. The focus was on ‘detail, manufacture and craftsmanship.’ The tradition this approach draws on is one that is based on the German Bauhaus of the 1920s. Crucially this approach has a minimalist principle: ‘designers should only design what is needed.’ From this tradition came the company Braun a company that influenced Jony Ive’s designs for Apple.

At Newcastle the ‘T’ shape in their approach to teaching was important: the I of the T representing depth in one area and the _ representing breadth in a variety of arts and design students were encouraged to mix with others studying other disciplines. Instead of learning how to be an employee Ive’s would learn how to ‘pursue his passion’ and work within teams.

When he came across his first Apple product he felt a connection to it he felt the ‘humanity’ of the product saying: ‘There was a real sense of the people who made it’. After more research he found Apple more appealing as it was a ‘cheeky, almost rebellious company… it had a reason for being that wasn’t just about making money’.

Interestingly, whilst at Newcastle, Jony designed a phone, for a competition organised by the RSA, which he named ‘The Orator’. This seems wonderfully trivial. 😉

There are so many little insights into Ive’s design life in this book. To my mind, clearly with a big dollop of confirmation bias to the fore, it shows that an education focussing on the three ways of the trivium: grammar, dialectic and rhetoric can only be a good thing!

Engaging With a Humane Education

Here is the text of a talk I delivered at the ‘NTEN-ResearchED-York Conference’ on Saturday 4th May 2014.

The beginning of the talk draws heavily on the wonderful Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.


The Arts are subjective and difficult to measure accurately; do they belong in our data age? If you can’t measure it is it valuable? If you can’t agree about something’s value, is it worth teaching? Beyond data we have the world of half-truths, uncertainty and wonder, the things that are valued in a humane education and are not reducible to a meaningful number. Should our quest be for the ever unanswered ‘why’?

“We want you to tell us… the answer!”

DT: The answer to what?’

“Life, the universe and education!”


DT “Tricky” he said finally…

‘But you can do it?’


DT “Yes,” said Deep Thought, “I can do it.”

‘There is an answer?’ ‘A simple answer?’

DT “Yes, life, the universe and education. There is an answer. But, I’ll have to think about it.”

‘How long?’

DT “Seven and a half million years…”

And here we are nearing the end of our seven and a half million year wait… ‘The time of waiting is over! For today is the day of the answer!’

‘Never again,’ cried the teacher ‘ never again will we wake up in the morning and think ‘what is it all for?’ ‘never again will we worry about how will we get ‘the buggers’ to learn? Or how to get our nation a higher PISA ranking… For today we will finally learn once and for all the answer to those nagging problems of life, the universe and education!’

There was a moments expectant pause…

‘do you have…’

DT “An answer for you?… Yes I have…”

‘There really is one?’

DT “Yes”

‘And you’re going to give it to us?’


DT “Yes, now… though I don’t think you’re going to like it…”

The tension was unbearable…

DT ”All right… the answer to the great question of life, the universe and education is…


Forty Two!”


It was a long time before anyone spoke…

DT: “I think the problem is, to be quite honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is…”

‘Can you tell us?’

DT “The ultimate question?”


DT “Tricky”

‘But can you do it?’


DT “No”

DT: “But I’ll tell you who can…”

DT “The computer who shall come after me, and it shall be called: ‘The Earth’!

And here we are on Earth, and all we need to ask is ‘ what was the question to which 42 is the answer’?


Outstanding Ofsted is an answer, what was the question?

High score in PISA, what was the question?

89% 5 A stars to C including English & Maths… but what was the question?

What damn fool questions are they answering?

As Bryan Appleyard puts it in my book Trivium 21c:

“Whenever I see the scientific claim that everything is reducible to a single measurement, I know that it is wrong. Anything complex is not reducible to a single measurement… “ And education is complex…

So what?

Well, because, David Weston asked me to speak about teacher engagement with research/evidence I wanted to add this cautionary note. Some teachers might have a problem with the idea of ‘hermetically sealed evidence, many teachers are rightly skeptical and that is a strength of the profession. Is education a natural bedfellow of research and Science?

As Daniel T Willingham put it, also in Trivium:

[Most working scientists would say] “Anything we know can’t be regarded as absolute truth…

…scientists seek to describe the natural world, and it needs something that you can measure in some way. You can’t just execute scientific method in the absence of measurement, as that’s not going to tell you whether your model is correctly predicting the world. So, in terms of education, lots of things fall outside the view of science.

For a start, education is not a suitable matter for science…

in science you seek to describe the world as it is; in education and other applied fields you want to change the world… (architecture, engineering)… you’re trying to change children and you’ve got a goal of what you want them to be like. The definition of that goal is completely outside the purview of science. It’s a matter of values… once you’ve defined these goals science might be able to help you achieve the goal”

So let us take this all on board. We need to know what we are doing it for… we need to agree on our goals. This should be the first port of call for research in education, research what the question is before you decide to tell us what the answers are. And I don’t mean the little questions… I mean THE BIG QUESTIONS: Bronowski wrote in the ‘Common Sense of Science’ that …”it is not possible to get the right answers until we have the right notion of what it is we are doing” So what are we doing? And by deciding our goals can we just go all out and achieve them?

No because education works with humanity not in spite of it. As Roger Scruton says in his piece called ‘On Humane Education’: The scientific why looks for a cause, the humane why looks for a reason. The first is objective the second is subjective. Whether you call it humanity, beauty, empathy, sympathy it is real to the human understanding of ourselves and education that deals with this must be valued whether or not it can be accurately measured. There are ‘objective studies’ like Maths and Science trying to see the world as it is and then there is the world of how things seem and feel. It is this world that Scruton says is the ‘human world that “comes to us imbued with our way of knowing it’. He illustrates this in the following way: ‘architecture has a knowledge of engineering, materials, building skills but also is part of a tradition which is in the context of history and how it resonates with the human spirit.

Let us explore this analogy, in the sixties, seventies and eighties town planners and architects ensured old ‘slums’ (about which were huge issues) were replaced by high-rise, often poorly built, estates based on the idea of Le Corbusier’s ‘Machines for Living. This was the brave new world; here was the ‘precision’ of the ‘total environment’ where people would be enlarged by the planned and the precise. And what happened?

Well now all around me the machines for living are being torn down, but new housing stock is being built, more humane, less brutal, but also ‘felt’ to be better. Old slum houses now are desirable, with original features. It is when we move away from the humanity and go into the world of ‘objectivity’ when we break from the humanity we end up with inhuman ‘machines for living’. In living with buildings, with art, with each other, we reach some understanding of ourselves. This is not a scientific understanding, but a very real understanding all the same. This is the role of art. To give us constraints through which to understand ourselves and create and recreate our world and if you try to understand art objectively it is no longer the same, it is no longer art.

Isodore of Seville understood this difference through the differences of meaning behind the words discipline or art “When something is expounded with true arguments, it will be a discipline; when something merely resembling truth and based upon opinion is treated, it will have the name of an art.” “An art consists of matters that can turn out in different ways, while a discipline is concerned with things that have only one possible outcome.” (Etymologies, 615-630s)

We must hold onto the subjective side of education, the human side, the side that can turn out a variety of different results. For this engages with us and we engage with it because it is this doubt, these different results that makes us human. An experiment might measure the human reaction to a piece of music, might work out what sort of music we react to and a computer might then compose music that will ‘hit all the right notes, and unlike Eric Morecambe, play them all in the right order’, but there’s the fault because Eric knew something the computer wouldn’t, he knew what it is to be human and the warmth that there is in getting it wrong. The computer composed music I would say will always be lesser than a less perfect piece composed by a human being. Humans produce pieces of art that will be flawed and it is this that is most important. The measure will fail and the measured perfection will fail. Humanity is the understanding of the beauty inherent in imperfection. It is this understanding that is subjective; this is where we see beauty… As the Beautiful South put it:

Now you’re older and I look at your face,
 Every wrinkle is so easy to place,
 And I only write them down just in case, 
You should die

Let’s take a look at these crows feet, just look, 
Sitting on the prettiest eyes,
 Sixty twenty fifth of Decembers
 Fifty-nine fourth of Julys


The cracks on our faces, yes the grey hairs, these cracks in fine leather, tell stories and are warmer, more beautiful than the bizarre botox beauty of perfection imposed…

This is why I distrust the term ‘research led’ for education should never be research led… Always human led. I prefer the term research informed, for I am sure the parts of education where clear outcomes can be usefully measured there is a role for research but do not hope for a time when it is all encompassing, please hold out hope for the flawed, the subjective, and the uncertain.

So what is the question that we can ask, the question that inevitably brings humanity to the discussion and can our asking of it embrace the uncertainty that the future inevitably brings and do we have to wait a further 7 & a half million years to find it?

No, for we already know the question and it was asked in York by a teacher, a headteacher no less, 1,200 years ago… In fact Alcuin of York (for it was he) was the inventor of the question mark the: punctus interrogativus, as it was known…

Alcuin knew that teaching and learning is an important journey. In ‘On Grammar’, Alcuin wrote: It is easy indeed to point out to you the path to wisdom, if only ye love it for the sake of God, for knowledge, for purity of heart, for understanding the truth, yea, and for itself. Seek it not to gain the praise of men or the honours of this world, nor yet for the deceitful pleasures of riches, for the more these are loved, so much farther do they cause those that seek them to depart from the light of truth and knowledge.’ It is no accident that when Charlemagne wanted the wisest man in Europe to become ‘head of his schools’ he called on Alcuin, and when Alcuin went to France the Carolingian renaissance was not far behind and what was the core of Alcuin’s curriculum? The trivium.

Our goals of ever higher, attainment, social mobility, performance related pay, Our need to have bigger and better effect sizes all this takes us further away from the central questions… The Three central ways of Alcuin’s curriculum are the Arts of grammar, dialectic and rhetoric, and these are but questions… in themselves, interrogations of the world in which we live.

The answer to these questions will never be known.

Now we might quibble with ideas of truth, of God, and of ‘which knowledge’ but essentially it is the path to wisdom that should be our goal not the goal of wisdom. It is our essential reason for what we do, to point children on the path to wisdom, the path to, not wisdom itself. Where that path lies is the humane, our world and it is with this that we engage.

I do not want my daughter to be prepared in the skills for jobs that don’t yet exist. I do not want her to tick the good team worker box, I do not want her to have a target in writing for a whole year that says she should: ‘extend ideas logically and choose words for variety and interest’. I want something far more simple I want her to be educated in the pursuit of wisdom I want her to flourish in this pursuit, because it is the pursuit that is life… The answer lies not in the attainment but in the pursuit.

As GE Lessing in the 18th Century observed “If God held enclosed in his right hand all truth, and in his left hand the ever living, striving for truth, although with the qualification that I must forever err, and said to me “choose”, I should humbly choose the left hand and say “Father give! Pure truth is for thee alone…”

And this is what education is for…, the ever living and striving

Let us embrace this uncertainty. We should not be in the game of predicting outcomes to their nth degree. We should be modest enough to realize the possibility that we are erring. Certainty is the enemy of education.

In his book review of Michael Oakeshott’s Notebooks, in the New Statesman the Conservative MP Jesse Norman wrote: (To Oakeshott), “education is not a technocratic process of creating future workers, or even a simple transfer of knowledge. It is an adventure, an initiation into what he called “the conversation of mankind”. It is how we learn to be human.” And this is the essence of our real engagement. We are not engaged in a process that is intrinsically possible to measure. It is a messy engagement with the stuff of life. It is a humane project in that it is to give all of us a grounding in the idea and project of the human becoming.

Education is an engagement with humanity. That is it. A humane education is one that is engaged with our rich and varied culture horizontally and vertically and rooted in our experience of time. Horizontal in that it engages with others on the same plane with us in the here and now and vertical in that it looks along the vertical plane from the shit on the bottom of the shoe, through the introspective self to the engagement with the spiritual realm with Logos, with God. This is an ideology not of outcome but an ideology of process. And very often our schools now are places that are a triumph of the bureaucracy of outcomes over the common sense, the sense we make in common. This is not engagement, it is disengagement, and it is the cheapening of the role of teacher into that of a functionary for outcome that has caused so much harm.

A humane education cannot be achieved through an education for jobs that don’t yet exist nor even for jobs that do. It can’t be the result of the dubious lie that is behind social mobility, It can’t be through the tick box approach of cultural literacy by numbers or some bizarre troop through a curriculum based on the idea that all must study this piece of knowledge in order that this leads to this and this leads to knowing and this leads to the world of the successful citizen. Education is far more dirty and difficult than that. The idea that if everyone in a certain society learns certain knowledge in a certain hierarchical order then we all will be civilized is nonsense. I wish it wasn’t, but the Goethe reading, Beethoven listening, Concentration Camp Commanders et al should give us a certain pause for thought when we decide what people should learn in order to be to be civilized citizens.

Education should consist of engagement with the best that has been thought and said: engaging through questioning and arguing with and about the best that has been thought and said, and then as a free thinking human being able to decide, reject or accept and add to the best that has been thought and said. A true liberal arts education has no particular, measurable, end in mind. You do not teach people to limit their thinking; you teach to expand their thinking.

Education is a social contract with the dead, the living and the unborn; it brings together the past, the present and the future and should not represent the interests of one over the other. In my book Trivium 21c I write about this contract in terms of a Hegellian dialectic in which the past is the thesis, the present is the questioning of the thesis, the anti-thesis, and the future is a synthesis built by the strengthening of the community through the arts of making sense and and non-sense by communicating new doubts and new possibilities. This contract is reflected in the triadic formulation of the trivium where the art of grammar becomes the foundational knowledge of all things we value, the art of dialectic tests the ideas out in the present, and the art of rhetoric gives this a forward momentum and builds the future. It is beautifully summed up in the motto of St Saviour’s and St. Olave’s school in the London Borough of Southwark: ‘Heirs of the past, Children of the Present, Makers of the Future.’ I believe that any school worth its salt needs to have this contract at its heart. If you take one or two of the parts of the contract away you are left with an unsatisfactory education for our children. Take away the present and the future, then we just have the voices of the past with no reason, take away the past and the future and then we only have destructive critical voices shouting into the abyss, take away the past and the present and we are left with the guesswork of jobs that don’t yet exist and creativity with no foundation.

Here at the centre is the dichotomy: The past vs the present and the future…

The dichotomy that education has to deal with is:

The need to conserve the best and destroy the best to make things anew and it is this battle that engages us in education, or should….

For without it there is no engagement, because without it we are divorced from our common humanity and the difficulty at its heart, the handing of the baton of the care of the earth to the next generation. As old teachers die the children take over.

Education is the quest for the never answered why…? It is a question not an answer, an art not a science. Once we understand this, science can help us achieve it.

(The talk might have not stuck ‘exactly’ to the script + there is a Q&A afterwards that is available below):

Here is the video of me delivering the talk at the conference (and some other talks from the event):



Into The Agora With Trivium 21c

Last year I ventured into the Agora, clutching a newly minted book and some ideas to share. I was terrified that I would be laughed at, ridiculed, dismissed or ignored. Extraordinarily, this did not occur and for that I am extremely grateful as I don’t know how I would have coped with an avalanche of negativity. I have had some rather wonderful reviews, which have quite taken me aback.

Writing of any sort whether it be a tweet, blog, article or book involves that moment when you set your crafted piece free and there is that anxious wait before you watch your manuscript float or sink without trace. The wait in the case of Trivium 21c, was quite nerve wracking as it took some time before it began to ride the waves, but this Christmas it started to sell well even reaching number one in the Kindle education chart for a few days.

There are many people to thank who helped me through the writing stage and I have been able to acknowledge them in the book itself but something I want to do here is acknowledge the wonderful support I have had from people since the book was published especially as this support has come from people across the spectrum of opinion in education. This is important to me. For all of you who have bothered to buy, tweet, blog, review my book, you who have ventured into the agora by my side, may I give you my heartfelt thanks, you have made a middle aged man very happy.

Thus endeth this blog because for those who don’t like self promotion it might be time to look away and move on to another stall or soapbox because here is a collection of the reviews for Trivium 21c, or at least the ones of which I am aware. I am very grateful for the time and thought people have put into these reviews, some of which I think are extraordinarily astute and even though there are some that I could find points with which to disagree, no matter, all have joined with me in a debate about the trivium and what education could or should be like. If I have missed any I would be grateful to be made aware of them so please add a link, even to more negative ones, as I think my hide is slightly tougher now…


Here are some reviews from my publisher’s website, some of which appeared in the book itself:


A piece in the Independent by Tom Hodgkinson:


Here are some blogs:

Into the ‘Trojan Horse’ row with trivium 21c:


and a role for Muslims in bring back the Trivium (mentioning Trivium 21c):


Here is one on the importance of debate:


Here is one talking about Trivium 21c in the context of Bloom’s Taxonomy and Lesson Objectives:


And one here from a Primary teacher:


Mary Myatt:


Bill Boyd:


Tim Taylor:

http://www.imaginative-inquiry.co.uk/2013/09/trivium-the-answer-to-the-purpose-of-education/ Tim also wrote a review in the January 2014 edition of Teach Primary Magazine, unfortunately this does not appear online

Tom Sherrington:




Francis Gilbert:


A PDF from the Historical Association’s Teaching History Journal where Trivium featured in the regular ‘Mummy, Mummy’ piece on the back page:


From Teach Secondary Magazine:

http://www.teachsecondary.com/zipfiles/Book_reviews_2.6.pdf along side some ‘extracts’ from the book:




Louisa Anderson:




and some blogs/pieces that were triggered by reading the book or refer to the book:

From Piers Young:


David Weston:


Joe Kirby:


Marc Sidwell:


Tait Coles:


James Tweed:


Matt Bawden:




Referring to reviews of Trivium 21c:

Jo Facer:


Andy Warner:




Inverted doughnut!:


Matt Bawden:


quoted in a dissertation for an MA:

‘Don’t be Afraid of Intellectuals’ On learning Leaders:


In Reading Lists:

Mark Anderson:


David Didau:


Blessed Learners:


I like this online and also very real bookshop:


Teaching Creativity? There’s Nothing To It

Instead of ‘teaching’ students to be creative, teachers should look to the ultimate creative act for inspiration.

The film is my first foray into the video form and is thanks to Leon Cych and his online Teacher TV project L4LTV I hope to be a regular contributer.

Why Educate? To Expand The Self, Rather Than Narrow The Self.

I use the words you taught me. If they don’t mean anything any more, teach me others. Or let me be silent… Samuel Beckett, Endgame.

I like students to learn about things that are outside of their everyday experience. Once  I arranged a trip for my class to see Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. After this bleak, funny play a fifteen year old boy said: “That was shit, sir.”  “Yes!” I said, “You’ve got it! Life is shit and then you die, great interpretation of Endgame! Well done!” The boy scuttled off, dazed and confused. Three years later, he said to me: “My Nan died recently and Endgame helped me understand how she felt in hospital, thank you.” Not every student will experience such an epiphany but there is the possibility that something outside of the student’s immediate experience might matter one day.

I recently attended a thoughtful talk by Michael Rosen entitled: ‘Time to Become Literature Activists, Doing and Thinking.’  Rosen said: “A good deal of education implies that language belongs outside of yourself… It’s a nonsense. Language belongs to all of us because we’re the ones who use it and change it.” Rosen went on to say that the desire to teach ‘Chinese’ to our kids ignores the fact that there are “Mandarin or Cantonese speakers already in our classrooms, it’s constantly the idea that we need to pump some Mandarin in rather than draw it out.” Rosen attacked Michael Gove saying he is someone who believes in the ‘Jug and Mug’: children as empty mugs sit in a classroom waiting for the teacher to pour in knowledge from a jug, this Rosen said was ‘cultural deficit theory’. I don’t want to get into the nuances of that theory here but the kids who can’t speak Mandarin, do have a deficit, a knowledge deficit and it is one that I share: we can’t speak Mandarin. Often teachers have to take language, or knowledge that is ‘outside’ of the student and somehow implant it to ensure it ‘belongs’ to them.

On Start the Week Jeanette Winterson said: “It’s always over-educated people who want to make people have no education or have no access to it.” she says: “The idea that things are difficult only happens if we become cut off from language, it’s all about keeping continuity and not endlessly worrying that people won’t understand…” She asks that we: “Expand the self rather than narrow the self… Something that anchors you… If you want to think freely and also take risks in your imagination you need some sorts of boundaries… you need to recognise… these boundaries might be good for my life, at some point they may not, they may become prison bars instead of something that contains and holds me… when suddenly you have to smash up all that you have known and where you’ve been safe and you’re left naked and howling like a new babe, but that’s later on. To begin with having these shapes around you, structures, however arbitrary, does help your soul to grow.” Language and knowledge from outside ourselves should not be cut off from us just because it’s not readily accessible, we can internalise it, and incubate it, just as a parent’s hug does for a misunderstood and crying child.

The external boundaries and structures are missing from Rosen’s vision of education yet he talks about hearing the phrase “It’s all a matter of doing and thinking,”often repeated by his mother but he says he didn’t know what she meant by it at the time. This phrase originally belonged outside of him yet it festered away in his subconscious and later it helped him make sense of something. Matthew Taylor, director of the RSA made this point to Rosen: “You learn something and for thirty years you forget all about it then suddenly, when you need it, it pops back again… we don’t know until the day we die what learning is going to be useful to us.” The knowledge that is handed down to us from all our yesterdays is a cornucopia of cultural riches and is not, in the main, drawn out of us.

The motto of ‘St Saviours and St Olaves school‘ is: ‘Heirs of the Past, Children of the Present, Makers of the Future’. Let us take Rosen’s mother’s phrase and place it alongside this motto. The children of the present are thinking, the makers of the future are doing but what of the heirs of the past? They are knowing. Knowing, Thinking and Doing, is a way of thinking about education that fits with the trivium. We should not constantly draw stuff out of kids and pander to what they already know, this approach only narrows the self. We should teach children to know, think and do, and this is the basis of my argument in Trivium 21c.

We should educate to expand the self.

Teacher Talk: Sounding Into Ears

In the early middle agesinstruction came from didactic grammarians who taught in repetitive and boring ways… the one way catechism (literally ‘to sound into ears’) by which the master instructed his pupil.” Trivium 21c p45.

When I was at school (not quite back as far as the middle ages) we had a history teacher who would ‘sound into our ears’. He told us to open our textbooks to a certain page, instructed us to copy either from our books or from the board on which he had chalked up what was written in the textbook. He would then speak the words monotonously from the text and we were expected to write at the pace by which he ‘sounded into our ears’. Unfortunately we got bored, started to misbehave, threw things at each other, threw things out of the window, including, on one occasion, a fellow pupil who, when he went flying past the window of the class below caused a bit of commotion though no lasting damage to himself. Our teacher blamed us, shouting that we were wasting our lives.

As a poacher turned gamekeeper, I am not proud of my behaviour, but I am interested as to why we didn’t present passive ears waiting to be sounded into. I could pay attention, for example I would sit and listen to the historian AJP Taylor on television as he, without the visual gimmicks of today’s TV historians, stood and delivered lectures to camera. The great AJP was a master storyteller and he gave me a lifelong interest in history. It is not the ‘sounding into ears’ that is boring, it is how a teacher goes about it.

In ‘Why Don’t Students Like School‘ Daniel T Willingham writes: “The human mind seems exquisitely tuned to understand and remember stories.” (p51). Willingham suggests structuring lessons from stories based on the four Cs: causality, conflict, complications and character. This is a good place to start but I think it is also worth looking at the book: ‘The Seven Basic Plots‘. The author, Christopher Booker, spent years researching the idea that there are only seven stories: ‘Overcoming the Monster’, ‘Rags to Riches’, ‘The Quest’, ‘Voyage and Return’, ‘Rebirth’ and the classical narratives of ‘Tragedy’ and ‘Comedy’. I believe even a short 5 minute presentation following one of these structures could enthrall the most despondent of classes.

For those who do not feel comfortable with ‘storytelling’ structuring their talk and yet agree with Willingham that lessons based around conflict work particularly well, the art of rhetoric is the perfect option. In Trivium 21c I explore rhetoric in more detail but the following should give a flavour and a great way to structure and think about teacher talk. What follows is a glimpse at ‘the five parts of rhetoric’ as used in Ancient Greek education:

1. Invention Firstly you think about the content which you intend to teach and you draw together your ‘evidence’.  Then you establish your Ethos, your credibility, not your street cred but why you are a suitable person to teach this particular content (this is probably part of an ongoing dialogue where you communicate about why the subject you teach is important). Next you think about how to create the right mood, the shared emotion or Pathos between you and the class. You should pay particular attention to creating the right emotional charge at certain points in the lesson. Finally Logos, which is your use of reasoning and logic, and models critical thinking.

2. Arrangement: The order in which you present your talk. For this the basic six parts of oratory are useful: 1. The Exordium or ‘hook’: something that catches the class’s attention but is also central to your narrative. 2. Prothesis: you present the history of what your are talking about. 3. Partitio or division: you make the points which are uncontroversial and then the points which are contested. 4. Confirmatio or proof: you state your thinking. 5. confutatio or refutation: you refute any opposing argument 6. Peroration You sum up the arguments and leave an impression with your class about why the content matters and should matter to them.

3. Style: Low, medium or grand? Low style is ‘down with the kids’, use sparingly. Medium is probably the best for day to day teaching, but every now and then it might be good to unleash the ‘grand style’ of great oratory to lift the class to a higher level.

4. Memory If your talk is drawn from your natural memory, rather than always reading from a textbook, your credibility is enhanced. If you use powerpoint it should be your tool rather than you being its slave. Anything on your whiteboard should illustrate and not lead your talk. N.B: Natural memory which is ‘knowing your stuff’, is better than artificial memory, which is more like an actor remembering a speech.

5. Delivery: voice, gesture, posture, use of space. Without these performance skills being used to the full, the most brilliantly thought through examples of teacher talk can fall flat.

Put all this together and teacher talk can be something that enthralls a class and helps them learn and remember what you want them to learn and remember. Sounding into ears can be a very effective way of teaching if you do it effectively.

The Battle of the Blob

Michael Gove has  deblobbed in Austria. Now, with evangelical  zeal, and the rhetoric of social justice, he wants to irrigate the flabby educational colon of its sticky blob. This blob values Marxism, fights excellence and tries to prevent the poorest children from getting the education they need. In the same way as the Athenian State, which came to see Socrates as a danger to its traditional values and institutions and accused him of being a “corruptor of the young”, Gove is offering the blob a cup of hemlock so that they might imbibe and die. Just as Gove’s health farm drink of ‘Epsom salts and magnesium citrate’ reduced his blob, so the ‘Enemies of Promise’ too will disappear. For their part some of the accused ‘blobbers’ wrote to the Times firing their vitriol towards Gove saying, that because of his policies ‘there will be devastating consequences for children’s mental health‘. They seem to forget that the same utilitarian tanks were parked on education’s lawns under the last ‘progressive’ Government. Centralised diktats about curriculum, assessment and accountability did not result in a letter to the Times from the concerned 200 about children’s mental health over the previous thirteen years. Gove, the blobbers argue, is taking the curriculum backwards, with his emphasis on facts, uniforms and discipline, whilst they want education to focus on: creativity, character, critical thinking and collaboration. Gove, though describing his mission as progressive, is certain that traditional, knowledge-centred education is right and the blob is equally certain that progressive, child-centred education is right. If both sides are so certain, can we be certain that one side is entirely wrong?

In his article in the Daily Telegraph James O’Shaughnessy writes that the: “education system has been riven by an acrimonious debate about what children are supposed to get out of their time in school.” He goes on to argue that we should overcome the false dichotomy between progressives and traditionalists: “by persuading schools to deliver rigorous academic study while also equipping pupils with traits they need to flourish as humans”. The reason this sounds so easy is because his analysis sounds right, and his solution is simple, but he’s wrong, the dichotomy is not false, it is real! It is an age old battle that goes beyond the confines of our schools and is rooted in how both sides understand the world. It is the expression of the complexity behind what it means to be human. This will not be solved by traditional lessons rubbing along in harmony with teachers paying attention to pupils’ well-being. A ‘liberal arts’ education holds the traditional and the progressive sides of the education debate together through a contradictory state of creative tension and not by teaching a bit of happiness alongside history.


In my book Trivium 21c I write about the awkward relationship between knowledge and critical thinking, cultural literacy and creativity. I use the trial of Socrates and the hemlock cup as a metaphor for the age old battle between culture and anarchy, truth and doubt, and beauty and nihilism. The book concludes that as educators we need to embrace the very real dichotomy between tradition and progress and in order to do this we need to be less certain of being right about things and entertain the difficult question: what do I know?

Roger Scruton in a piece entitled: ‘The Questions That Have No Answers‘ writes: “If we look around ourselves today, we see a mass of ready-made answers and very few attempts to define the questions that would justify them.” This is certainly true of education yet both sides of the dichotomy say they know the answers: one side knows what skills our kids need for the 21st Century, and the other knows what it is they need to know. But we don’t know either, we can only guess.  Scruton goes on to write: “What makes us human is that we ask questions.” Can traditionalists and progressives ask themselves this question: Is it possible that they might not have all the answers?

Our lives are fascinating ventures into the unknown and this needs to be reflected in our schools. As Scruton puts it: “In art it is always as though the question is what the work of art is really about.” The same is true of the liberal arts, an important part of education is our continuing to question what education is really about. Our need is not to fashion an easy answer but to hold the competing ideologies together in an awkward contradictory balance, as we do in liberal democracies. Education is intrinsically human and therefore it belongs to all; whether conservative or radical, and it is frail, flawed and fantastic because of it. I may be wrong but I think it would be healthier if, rather than forever trying to win the battle of the blob, both sides started to question what education is for at a very deep, human level, be open to doubt and to not seek easy answers. In every school and classroom we should clash along together, uncovering some answers and certainly more questions to be asked.

From the Me to the We: Making Group-Work Work!

In ‘The Importance of Teaching‘ Michael Gove says: “All too often, we’ve seen an over-emphasis on group work – in practice, children chatting to each other – in the belief that is a more productive way to acquire knowledge than attending to an expert.” Of course he is right, group-work done badly is bad.

I hate being told to ‘join in’. I recoil when I am told to get into groups with colleagues at staff meetings, in-service training days and those soul destroying ‘group bonding’ away days. My natural reaction is one of abject horror. On the unfortunate occasions when it occurs, I try to be funny and cynical, or skeptical and difficult. Sometimes my alpha-maleness tries to lead but inevitably fails as a real alpha male or female takes over, and I shrink to a point of detached cynicism. When it comes to the plenary I am skilled at holding a piece of sugar paper covered in post it notes on which are written heartfelt thoughts on pedagogy which I proceed to read out in a slightly sneering way.


I think group work can be important.

In my book Trivium21c, I argue that we need to develop a common space, where the idea of ‘us’ and ‘we’ takes precedent over the ‘I’ and the ‘me’. Children need to commune, to sing and play together, to argue and debate, to make and to explore. Yet children also need solitude, quiet, and time and space for individual study: in the library, at their desk or even under an oak tree , they need moments in which they can think, reflect, rest, and contemplate. Kids need the We and the Me! This does not need to occur in every subject or every class, and a classroom teacher who offers space for both should only do so if and when it suits their subject, and it is done in a way that means something is gained by their pupils. What follows is how I used to teach children to take part in group work something that is essential in my subject, drama.

How I made group work a focused experience rather than an excuse for kids to just ‘chat to each other’:

I started with groups of ‘one’, technically not a group, but bear with me. The individual, the ‘Me’, began each session still and quiet. From this contemplative moment I would introduce the content: in practical and academic lessons I would want to engage each and every pupil, they had to be subsumed by the ‘content’ of the lesson not by the ease and sociability of the experience. Only once the ‘content’ had engaged every student would I move to the next stage: ‘the pair’.  In pair-work they had to build on the content, either through physical means or focused dialogue. For the first term I would never move beyond solo-work and pair-work. If, during pair work, I ever saw that the children were not taking part I would go back to solo work and rebuild. It was only when kids were used to this ritual that I thought about how and when to introduce the group of four, and, depending on the class, this would usually occur in term two or three. In these lessons, I would also build from solo work, then to pair work, to group work and, again, if any group didn’t work I’d go back to solo and build from there.  By the end of year 10 all students could work in groups, at the level I demanded, if I built it in such a way.

In year 11, I used the looming prospect of the ‘exam’ to ensure the children stepped up a gear. Again we started with content rich solo work, then pair, then four, but then I would add: eight, sixteen, thirty two (or whatever the number of the whole class was). Each time, if any stage didn’t work, we’d go back to solo and rebuild. Finally, when the whole class could work successfully as one whole group, where all could ‘give and take’, ‘lead and follow’, they were ready to work properly in groups, under their own steam for ten weeks in preparation for their exam.

I took over a year with a class to build the skill of working in groups where all would give of something, where sharing content united their pursuit and the subject focused their need to work together. I did not start with group work as a default position.

My advice?

To make group-work work, make it content rich and only when children have something to ‘bring to the group’ should you consider inviting them to move from the ‘Me to the We’.