Lessons from Trivium 21st c

The title of Martin Robinson’s book, Trivium 21st c, stems from the three paths (trivium) to a classical education: grammar, dialectic and rhetoric. In the course of writing, Robinson characterises three types of thinker and educator: grammarians, dialecticians and rhetoricians. The book initially acts as a chronicle of the way in which the views of these three groups have intertwined and gone in and out of fashion, before going on to establish some of the ways in which the Trivium could be utilised in schools today. Through carrying out his research for the book, Robinson seeks to define the kind of school he would want for his daughters.



In the book, Robinson traces the history of grammar from its beginnings as the study of Greek and then Latin and Hebrew, on to its evolution into a deep study of literature and ending up with its later meaning of the study of the foundational aspects of a culture. However, in his 21st Century Trivium, Robinson takes it to mean the knowledge relevant to a specific subject domain. He argues that, “In order to be critical and creative, kids need to know stuff, to have a good grasp of the basics, the grammar of a topic.”

Robinson states that “Grammarians tell it like it is, either by agreed practice or imposed rules.” They are focused on facts and the way things are supposed to be done.

Implications of a grammar based approach:

The faculties in a school need to clearly define the factual and procedural knowledge which they need/ought to teach and which they want students to retain in order to be successful. There is a finite amount of time in a school day, so it’s important to consider whether your school is exposing students to “the best that has been thought or said” (Matthew Arnold) by looking at “those aspects that are proven by time to be enduring rather than ephemeral.” A couple of key questions to consider are:

  • How have you defined the knowledge which you want students to retain from Year 7 and how you will assess this in Year 8?
  • Have enough opportunities been built in for students to apply the knowledge they have gained in speech, writing, through problem solving, performance or developing products?

A second implication of this section of the book is that teachers’s subject knowledge needs to be such so that they can fully support and stretch children to learn knowledge to a level of excellence. They need the techniques to pass on new knowledge, explain new concepts clearly and precisely, model new procedures to their students, check they are grasping the new knowledge and return to this knowledge in their ongoing teaching so that it is both retained and built on.

Students, meanwhile, need to develop effective strategies to memorise new material and retain and recall old material. They also need opportunities to deliberately practice different steps and whole procedures which they have learnt.


Robinson defines dialectic as a questioning of principles and abstract ideas using reasoning, logic and debate. To aid understanding, he characterises three types of dialectician.

  • Socratic dialecticians argue for arguments sake. They “will ask about it until it is no longer.”
  • Platonic dialecticians “will discuss it until the ultimate truth is revealed.”
  • Aristotelian dialecticians will seek to uncover all of the possible “truths” and can accept that more than one position or “truth” is possible.

Implications of a dialectic based approach:

Here, it is important to define when, in each subject, in each unit and in each key stage across a school, you would want your students to be ready for debate, questioning and philosophising.

In order to do this effectively, teachers and subsequently students need the domain related knowledge as well as knowledge of the processes and conventions used in philosophical/logical debate.

However, it also seems important here to clearly define the practices which enable this stage of the learning process to occur effectively in classrooms and learning environments.


Rhetoric is defined by Robinson as communicating and expressing learning. This can be in written or spoken form or in the form of a performance or product – the form will suit the subject the student is focusing on. Rhetoricians seek to communicate knowledge, choosing and arranging words well, understanding and manipulating other’s emotions, with great culture, sensitivity, humour and memory.

Implications of a rhetoric based approach:

Here, schools need to ensure that tasks are stretching of all students and prepare them for the next stage in their lives.

Teachers need to demonstrate to their students that they are expected to aim for and be able to achieve excellence. Likewise, in homework, it’s worth considering the balance between recalling knowledge and applying it.

The movement from dependence to independence:

Towards the end of the book, Robinson explains how the trivium can also be used as a model of teaching students to move from dependence to independence. He suggests that we move from the directive phase, through the guided phase and onto a phase he calls receptive-exploratory. In the directed phase we focus on the grammar. We also set the context and provide the big picture. At this stage there is likely to be plenty of teacher explanation and modelling. During guided discovery, leadership is shared by the teacher and student. It is likely to feature modelling, shared construction or deconstruction of new models as well as deliberate, possibly supported, practice. This is where students will do much of their questioning (dialectic) of both the grammar and the models. During the receptive-exploratory phase, ownership moves away from the teacher and increasingly to the student. Students apply their knowledge of content and the models they have seen in creation or performance. This is the rhetoric stage of the process.


One comment

  1. teachingbattleground · February 4, 2018

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.


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