Tag Archives: trivium

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.


Teaching The Trivium. Rhetoric A-Z: A


My lesson plan for the teaching of Rhetoric continues to be used by many teachers and schools yet it is not the end of the story by any means. Once a student orator has got a handle on the basic outline of speech making you can begin to teach him or her about little tricks they can use to enhance their effectiveness as great communicators. In this occasional A-Z of rhetoric series I will look at some techniques that teachers can teach to their pupils that will make a great difference to the quality of their speech writing and delivery, quickly and simply. The caveat being… do not overuse these techniques!


Great communicators might use anadiplosis (doubling), this is where you take the last word or words from the preceding clause and repeat them at, or near, the start of the next. For example in Shakespeare’s Richard III: My conscience hath a thousand several tongues, And every tongue brings in a several tale, And every tale condemns me for a villain.

Antistrophe: continues the theme of repetition where the use of a word or words is repeated at the end of a clause or a sentence. For example: “When I was a child, I spake as a child; I understood as a child; I thought as a child…” In the case where the repetition occurs at the beginning of a clause or sentence it is called Anaphora, this occurs most notably in Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech.

Amplificatio is the means by which a simple statement is enlarged or ‘amplified’ thereby strengthening, emphasising or even exaggerating the point. By embellishing a simple point a speaker or writer may enable the audience or reader to realise its importance. If used for a great number of points the impact is lost entirely.

Auxesis is a technique that can be used to amplify something, either by using a word or phrase that exaggerates someone’s position… José Mourinho used this to describe himself: ‘The Special One’, Government advisors are sometimes called ‘Tsars’, but most notably it is used as a series of words that build to a climax by increasing the importance or force as you go, in Henry V: ‘Follow your spirit, and upon this charge Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’ Harry being the mere individual, then the country, then the metaphysical Saint… This technique can stir the emotions.

Assonance and alliteration are well known examples of the orator’s art. Alliteration is used a lot in education circles to illustrate such ideas as 21st Century skills where pupils are told they will need to learn collaboration, creativity and curiosity. The three ‘Rs’ are famous and alliterate somewhat tortuously: Reading, Writing and ‘Rithmetic the reason being it is a good technique to use to lodge something in the memory. Alliteration was originally associated only with consonants, whereas assonance takes a vowel sound and repeats it exactly or similarly, in Macbeth for example: ‘Is this a dagger I see before me?’

Aposiopesis is when a speaker suddenly stops speaking in mid sentence, this can be for effect or maybe even due to memory loss but if the latter is the case make it seem like it is for effect! Important to note this paradox: a lot can be said by not saying something. And for no better reason this draws this blog to

Voices Joined, Not Silenced.


Remember that you are a human being with a soul and the divine gift of articulate speech: that your native language is the language of Shakespeare and Milton and the Bible; and don’t sit there crooning like a bilious pigeon.  Henry Higgins to Eliza Doolittle. Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw.

It is also the language of Germaine Greer and the, sadly missed, Lisa Jardine.

In order to bring different voices together we need to be able to ensure language is understood. Our culture of conversation should not be about silencing voices it should be about listening to and enabling all to congregate in a place we share in common: voices joined, arguing, discussing, agreeing and disagreeing. At its heart is our agreement to have the conversation, a sign of a mature democracy rather than a petty piteous regime in which there are the chosen ones who know what is right and the ignorant, ‘evil others’ who should have their tongues ripped from their throats. Too many people are trying these days to silence voices because they disagree with them. Rather, we need to listen to a range of voices, this should be at the heart of our culture as understood by Michael Oakeshott:

…culture itself is these voices joined as such voices could only be joined, in a conversation – an endless unrehearsed intellectual adventure in which, in imagination, we enter into a variety of modes of understanding the world and ourselves and are not disconcerted by the differences or dismayed by the inconclusiveness of it all. And perhaps we may recognize liberal learning as, above all else, an education in imagination, an initiation into the art of this conversation in which we learn to recognize the voices; to distinguish their different modes of utterance, to acquire the intellectual and moral habits appropriate to this conversational relationship and thus to make our debut dans la vie humaine.

Our society has ‘jumped the shark’ when people try to silence Germaine Greer due to her ‘misogyny’.

If a school has a culture of silencing debate by not giving children the opportunity to speak or, when they do, by silencing them if they’re not saying the right ‘politically correct’ things then we have a culture that encourages young people to see thought and speech as a potential crime. If debate is reduced to being only the concern of politicians on telly with their Etonian wiles and a pastime for those dining at the dinner tables of Hampstead then something is wrong. If articulate talk is for the posh, then the rest of us are like dogs chewing over the inarticulate scraps left at the feet of the privileged few.

In today’s Times Clare Foges, speechwriter to David Cameron from 2009-15 argues that: “Children should leave school not just with a clutch of GCSEs but the gift of clear and proper speech.” She is right but this does not mean teaching children elocution, it means children need to learn to listen, think, argue, debate, and speak in formal ways, in the spaces that they share in common, which means mostly in the classroom.

Schools need to give children the opportunity to express their thoughts, though not their unthought through prejudices. No-one needs to hear, in a formal space, a child mumbling incoherently about something of which she knows very little. Pupils need to learn how there is often more than one side to an argument, they need to understand the complexity and subtleties involved in different points of view. They need to be taught how an argument is constructed and why, they need to understand logic and also the philosophical underpinning to different discourses. Pupils need to  begin to discover what they believe and begin to articulate their thoughts in dialogue with others. They shouldn’t be looking to close down other people’s differing views, rather they should relish the opportunity to learn by listening to the voices from the past and the present in order that they might be articulate in the future.

Debate involves articulacy. Not only should students begin to understand why there are a range of views, they should also begin to be able to communicate in a way that means they can be understood. At the heart of this a school should have a policy for speaking and listening that covers all opportunities where pupils have to communicate with each other as well as encouraging more. Good communication includes the arts of grammar, dialectic and rhetoric; through the trivium children learn about the thoughts and ideas of the past and discover what matters. They are then given an opportunity to think about and challenge these thoughts and ideas and, in the process, develop the abilty to add to the thoughts and ideas that might matter in the future. Knowing, questioning and communicating; instead of shutting Germaine Greer up,  they should understand why she is a colossus among men, they should challenge and debate with her, but shut her up? No!

Imagine if we had shut up all the other great thinkers of the past because they were not ‘politically correct,’ imagine the paucity of our culture if we allowed our half formed, ill informed, badly educated, prejudices to always hold sway. As Lisa Jardine put it: “We are going to have to learn how to participate in debates which are not about certainties.” Students should be curious about the world, not certain that they are its moral guardians, they should be open to the possibilities inherent in debate, not frightened due to its ability to offend. Schooling has a hugely important role to play. If our young people are frightened to debate then we have denied them the gift of clear and articulate speech.

If you are interested in the ideas expressed here, I’m leading a course on whole school speaking and listening, looking at debate, dialogue and rhetoric, click here.

Education Festival Line Up

wellington_collegeWell, it’s finally available, the programme for this year’s Sunday Times Education Festival at Wellington College on 18th and 19th June has been released. Apparently this is the first draft and liable to change but like an early look at next year’s school timetable it brings a certain frisson of excitement with it. You can access the programme here, it’s quite a stellar line up!

I am due to speak twice:

On Friday at 9.10am I am in conversation with Tom Sherrington, Headteacher at Highbury Grove School about the work we are doing together on Trivium Schools and how it is starting to bear fruit in North London and in other schools I am working with.

On Thursday at 11.30am I am on a panel with Laura McInerney, Lucy Heller and Ty Godard discussing the topic of ‘What do Schools Need From This Government?’ The answer could be lots of money and no interference… but how likely is that?

It would be good to meet up with many old faces and new, it promises to be a lot of fun!

What Do Posh Schools Teach Their Kids?


There is a perennial debate that goes on in education circles about what education is for, is it about education for its own sake or is it about creating a workforce? Is it about teaching the best that has been thought and said or is this impossible to ascertain because certain knowledge has been privileged by class, gender, sexuality and colonial discourses in the past and therefore it has distorted our ability to see quality beyond its relationship to power? I think that this is a debate worth having. In a piece in the Times this week Dominic Maxwell suggested that a boy at Eton would see over thirty plays a year performed by his peers. Was old Etonian Eddie Redmaye a product of an elite education that enabled him to be one of the best actors in his generation?

  • What is the elite, do we have an elite, should we have an elite?
  • Does the elite use knowledge, skills and practices which can exclude others allowing it to retain an aura of cultural superiority?
  • Is some knowledge elitist or intrinsically middle/upper class or is it just given that tag by being valued by the elite?
  • Are the elite educated in a way that contributes to them and their families continuing to be the elite?
  • If they are, is the ‘elite’ method of education worth teaching to everyone?
  • If we teach it to everyone what effect would that have on the elite and on everyone else, in other words ‘will we all be members of ‘the elite” (sic)?
  • All of which needs to be framed by another question: does education reflect or shape society?

Cultural and social capital are interesting ideas and in societies, where class divisions are marked, differences can be seen easily. Do these differences have value, are some practices and products inherently superior to others or are they given the kudos of ‘high culture’ because they have been co-opted by a certain class? In Culture and Anarchy Matthew Arnold awarded the aristocratic class the nomenclature: ‘barbarians’, the middle class he called: ‘philistines’ and the working class: ‘populace’. All three classes, Arnold suggested, were marked by their bathos, an inability to respond to judgement, facts and taste. Culture, if you will. This then becomes the reason to teach the best that has been thought and said, and to introduce sweetness and light allowing people to become their ‘best selves’. An idea of all of us trying to become our ‘best selves’ is an interesting one and perhaps education has a role to play in this? Becoming our best self is different to ‘social mobility’, to be mobile socially we might have to adopt the cultural practices of the class we wish to become. Being our best self might mean celebrating the class from which we are a part at its very best, or might it mean valuing culture beyond its class baggage and seeing it and enjoying it on its own terms, the beautiful, the difficult and the sublime. This baggage is not just about cultural product, it also encompasses behaviour, an idea of what a life well lived might encompass, and an intrinsic knowledge about what is valuable.

What is the most valuable education we can give our kids and is this the education they get in the ‘poshest’ schools? In order to explore this I would like to take an American perspective:

After teaching for thirty years in New York state schools John Taylor Gatto resigned and has since dedicated his time to writing about and talking about education. His bestselling book ‘Dumbing us Down‘ is an excoriating attack on public (i.e. state) schools. In the book he writes that these schools confuse children, make them accept their ‘class’, make them indifferent, encourage emotional and intellectual dependency, have a need for constant affirmation by experts, and accept they can never hide from surveillance. Politically Gatto is a libertarian and appeals to people of right and left in varying degrees, his work is interesting, challenging, maddening, bonkers and thoughtful in equal measure. One piece of work of his I particularly like is his survey of the elite boarding schools in America. What is in their DNA, what is it that they do that is not done in American public schools? Gatto says there are fourteen themes that are “universal” in these schools and whether he is right or wrong about this I do not know. However, this might be an interesting conversation to have in the context of our ‘elite’ schools either private or state, but I doubt it. More interesting would be a conversation about whether we should be teaching these things or some of these things and what else could we add to the list. Gatto’s fourteen themes are:

  1. A theory of human nature (as embodied in history, philosophy, theology, literature and law). He believes these schools teach a wealth of information on humanity, now and in the past in order to inform the future.
  2. Skill in the active literacies (writing, public speaking). Write and speak well. Rhetoric. He says this communicating well is not a God given gift and can be easily taught through regular opportunities to speak in front of strangers and constant practice by writing every day. He thinks these skills will be picked up by doing and that expert intervention can come at some point later.
  3. Insight into the major institutional forms (courts, corporations, military, education). The ideas that drive them, with the crucial insight that argument is the way to truth and dissent is central to our way of life.
  4. Repeated exercises in the forms of good manners and politeness; based on the truth that politeness and civility are the foundation of all future relationships, all future alliances, and access to places that you might want to go. Not just common sense, as he has been in many ‘public’ schools where coarseness is an everyday part of the experience.
  5. Independent work: Child does more on their own than directed by the teacher. Gatto puts a, probably random, ratio to this: 80%-20% independent work vs teacher directed work. I think we need to be aware that this ‘independent’ work is carried out within the institution of a boarding school.
  6. Energetic physical sports are not a luxury, or a way to “blow off steam,” but they are absolutely the only way to confer grace on the human presence.
  7. A complete theory of access to any place and any person. Get your kids to do this, he says, get them to think they can and work out how to access people and places they need to or want to.
  8. Responsibility as an utterly essential part of the curriculum; always to grab responsibility when it is offered and always to deliver more than is asked for. Washing dishes, care for a horse, do community service, leadership in clubs,
  9. Check regularly: Arrival at a personal code of standards (in production, behaviour and morality).
  10. To have a familiarity with, and to be at ease with, the fine arts. (cultural capital) High culture, the best that has been thought and said and done. Transcending the animal materiality of our lives.
  11. The power of accurate observation and recording. For example, sharpen the perception by being able to draw accurately. The British upper classes used to think if you couldn’t draw something accurately you didn’t perceive it properly
  12. His favourite: The ability to deal with challenges of all sorts. Are we natural cowards until we have challenges, get knocked down and stand up again.
  13. A habit of caution in reasoning to conclusions. Scepticism.
  14. Constant development and testing of judgements, with follow ups so that you can discriminate value and keep an eye on your predictions to see how far skewed, or how consistent, your predictions were.

Is there any element of truth in this I wonder? If there is, does it equate to the education context in the UK? What should we do about it? Or if class is purely a function of economics do we allow the philistines and barbarians to dominate the cultural landscape, giving value to art purely in financial terms and allow them to feed the populace cheaper ‘mass’ entertainment whilst all bypass taste because either it doesn’t exist or because we are all so badly educated that we have no idea what it is?

I’m just throwing out the questions…

The Socratic Method, Teaching the Trivium: Dialectic


Not many teachers would want to wander into the staff room after a particularly robust seminar and be presented with a coffee cup full of steaming hot hemlock, ‘drink this you corruptor of youth!’ No, best to keep quiet in the classroom and not ask too many questions…

But how wise are you?

Admit it, you know nothing and in knowing this, you know you are wiser than anyone who thinks they know everything. This is the starting point for the Socratic method, do not start with a lofty appreciation of your own knowledge but with an appreciation of your own ignorance. It is through the admittance of ignorance that you can then begin to seek out how best to live. Know thyself! Rather than worrying about convention or worrying about what others might think, you have to find it in your own soul how to live the good life. For Socrates this is a moral and rational process that involves hard questions. These hard questions are a constant intellectual process through which we might uncover the truth and reality about our lives as lived. Make no mistake, this method is looking for truth.

Socrates used dialectic as a teaching method: ask questions, get answers, then question the answers. There weren’t easy answers to his questions, no wonder he pissed people off, as soon as something was settled up pops Socrates to undermine the consensus. Socrates saw himself as a kind of intellectual midwife bringing truths to birth; does this method do that?

Socratic method is a form of argument called elenchus – refutation and cross examination; it is great fun for those involved if all are happy to participate, it is however quite threatening to those who are not, they can see it as upsetting and quite aggressive. What the questioner tries to do is look for contradictions and inconsistencies in answers and by the time the session is finished most often participants find themselves in a state of Aporia or doubt about quite fundamental things. This is the heart of the Socratic dialectical form of questioning, with many people often ending up none the wiser.

Socratic questioning examines statements of fact, it questions something that might seem at first to be quite simple, say: ‘what is courage?’ and exposes it to analysis, resulting in a realisation that these ideas are really quite complex. Each statement is treated as conjecture, you then think about the consequences of such a thought. To give a contemporary example, someone might say that pupils need grit and determination, the Socratic questioner might ask: “what if your pupils are metaphorically banging their heads against a brick wall, is determination and grit a good thing, would not giving up be a better option?” The answer to this would be, yes, in this case giving up would be a better option. Therefore grit and determination are not what pupils need more of. This assumption, in turn, opens itself to another question and so on…

It has no doctrines to pull out of the bag, you don’t want to use it in a discussion where you want students to respond in one way. It would be dishonest to use it in a citizenship class to discuss in race or gender if you are wanting a certain outcome. Therefore use carefully in the classroom! Don’t open pupils minds to all sorts of thoughts only to castigate them for those thoughts. In fact it’s not a good method for lots of teaching, if you want children to know that 9 x 11 = 99 you might not want to question their answer if they get it right because the answer is ‘true’.

It is a good way to get students to realise the enormity of their own ignorance, and also yours! Therefore in order to pull it off the relationship between a pupil and teacher is important as well as the relationship between the pupils in the rooms: can the pupils take the rigorous questioning that is bound to come their way? Are they robust enough at a tender age to realise it is not them being questioned but our assumptions and that some unpalatable truths might be exposed on the way?

So why use it?

Where it works really well is examining a core belief in your subject that is open to doubt. In Art this might be the perennial question ‘What is Art?’ For me, as a teacher of theatre, I would return regularly to the question ‘What is truth’? It was a question that allowed us to look at the different theories of many theatre practitioners: Stanislavski, Brecht and Artaud… We questioned ‘truth’ through realism and naturalism, surrealism, expressionism, dialectical materialism etc. Therefore, instead of questioning the ‘facts’ I wanted students to know, we had the purpose of bringing our knowledge of different theories to our Socratic dialogue. The students had to know lots of stuff to enrich the argument; my aim was always to disrupt the central question but not to disrupt the knowledge that was brought to bear in the argument, this I would always check for accuracy.

Eventually students would try to persuade people as to the efficacy of certain ideas more than others, I would expose that to questioning, we’d come up with a new understanding, expose that to questioning and so on, in other words the process of the trivium, through grammar to dialectic to rhetoric and round again. At the end of the theatre course students had explored fully the question of what is truth in theatre, and would be able to express their own strong opinions as to what it was to them; this helped each of them to know thyself as a maker of theatre.

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…

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!

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.