The Trivium

Written by Henry Deane

“It appears to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most sceptical scrutiny of all hypothesis that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas. If you are only sceptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. On the other hand, if you are open to the point of gullibility, then you cannot distinguish the useful ideas from the worthless ones.” (Carl Sagan, quoted in Robinson, 2017)



Socrates wanted his students to train in scrutiny extremis: questioning until they had pulled apart the state (or State) of what they accepted as reality or their ‘normal’ and bared it to complete scrutiny (Socrates, 2009).

The State wants us to produce learners who can pass ‘closed learning’ assessments so we the teachers, the bean counters can calculate whether we have enough pin makers to continue building Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations.

The Slow Education movement wants us to let learners flourish where the learning becomes organic and rich with nuances of classical educational disciplines in a ‘if you build learners the grades will come’ Fields of Dreams type of utopia.

In post Brexit, post Carillion, present (almost) Corbynist Britain how should we approach the purpose and mechanism of learning? Can we achieve the results to satisfy the government’s dogma for productivity? What does that result look like? A stack of GCSEs, A-Levels and IBs or a set of unproven learning skills?

Can we achieve both, can we improve a learner’s attainment and also produce a learner who can learn without us, as an independent questioner, debater, philosopher?
What follows is a product of my wrestling with some very uncomfortable experiences during my teacher training and a realising of my ‘teaching style’.


During my teacher training five years ago I was told by a mentor, in no uncertain terms, that the only way I was going to pass my training was to teach as they did: employ PowerPoints and teacher toolkits. But I was sceptical – I wanted to know why do PowerPoints work, why do the tools in the toolkits work, how do we know they work? As David Didau puts it: How do we *know* we experience a ‘gain’ [sic] (Didau, 2016a).
These teacher toolkits quote Piaget, Vygotsky, Dewey etc. to back up their pseudoscientific reasons why moving all the chairs into a circle in a class room will make for fantastic progress (I paraphrase). “Education is riddled with pseudoscientific claims about learning, for example: claims that children have visual, auditory or kinaesthetic learning styles, or that pressing lightly on each side of your sternum and you naval improves academic skills, or that we only remember 10% of what we read but 75% of what we do.” (Didau, 2016b). Citing Piaget, Vygotsky, Dewey etc. is part of the problem, little of what’s passed on in the name of either of these three adds much positive to teaching (Didau, 2016a). Even more so when “Piaget’s stage theory of development … has been acknowledged as wrong in several important points for some decades now…” Didau again.

My point is I want to know how I can *know* I will experience a ‘gain’. I think as teachers we have to work a little bit harder than pulling a book off a shelf looking through a menu of tools and inserting one into our classrooms and expecting that tool to somehow engineer a change of progress in all the pupils.

The Trivium

Martin Robinson in Trivium 21C refers to the ideal of every school producing philosopher kids – those who have mastery in a desire for learning and the ability to achieve (Robinson, 2013). Could these kids have the right balance of scepticism that Carl Sagan called for?

The Trivium is the synthesis of grammar, dialectic and rhetoric or knowledge, expression and debate in a school learning environment.


Neil Postman believes that every teacher needs to be a semantics teacher since it is not possible to remove language from knowledge (Postman, 1992). This for me is the ‘grammar’ in the Trivium: knowledge but wrapped in the correct language for that particular subject.


The ancient Greeks believed there was more to education than just ‘knowledge’. Socrates taught his pupils to question. Plato writes about the symposiums where discussions fuelled with libation allowed the learners to produce more challenging questions more imaginatively. In Europe in the Middle Ages dialogue with teachers was a central tenant of a classical education. However during this period dialogue was understood as a one-way tool for transmitting the ‘truth’ (Robinson, 2013). The meaning of dialectic in the Trivium is more in the way of encouraging questioning in order to take up a position and prepare for argument. I believe dialectic releases the semantic teacher from pedantism and can create a controlled and dynamic environment where learners question what they have learned and form considered opinions they are confident to express, prompting the learner to form their own ‘world view’ through a logical approach.


A study by Barry Shaw in 1974 (quoted in Didau, 2016b) assessed students’ perceptions of success in an analytical group setting. When a group was told they were right in their analysis (the task was rigged and the data that the analysis was based on was nonsensical) the students attributed this success to things like skilful communication, group cohesion, lack of conflict etc. However if a group were told their analysis was wrong their opinion of their ability was reversed: lack of communication, closed-mindedness, dysfunctional groups etc. Success gave the students a biased view of their rhetorical ability. I believe that a lack of confidence can form a biased opinion of our ability to communicate which is self-fulfilling. Allowing learners to practice rhetoric in a controlled and planned environment can develop their understanding of good communication e.g. producing group cohesion through listening and avoiding conflict is as effective as presenting persuasive argument. It is argued that rhetoric in the Trivium accurately increases learners’ confidence in their learning and their ability to learn.

The Trivium in my classroom

Here at Oakham parents and pupils have the benefit of progress reports twice in each term; we have department assessment points and end of year exams; in the Upper School we have SCAs which give solid evidence of where a pupil is in their progress. However do any of these give evidence of the ‘gain’ that our teaching is giving? We could just be passing pupils through our classes like sausages moulding them but not adding any gain.

‘Teacher estimates of achievement’ is rated as highest in John Hattie’s latest 2009-2015 ranking of effect size (Hattie in Waack, 2016). However as Shaun Killian points out this is not as a result of “teacher expectations” but reflects the accuracy of teachers’ knowledge of students in their classes (Killian, 2017). But I come back to the same question: How do I know – this time how do I *know* my students? Is it through assessments or a hunch?
In Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point he asserts that in order for a trend, behaviour or product to become main stream there needs to be mavens within the target group (Gladwell, 2000). Gladwell describes mavens as people who are naturally up to date and expert in the latest knowledge and are able to communicate this. This might sound like a tired and clichéd description of a teacher but it is something I will come back to.
So as a newly qualified teacher with very little experience I felt under pressure to *know* if my teaching added ‘gain’ and to *know* my pupils. As a consequence I started to search for answers. My ‘Liberation Day’ came just before I joined Oakham in David Didau’s book ’What If Everything You Knew about Education was Wrong?’ (Didau, 2015), in this book he suggests we should ignore toolkits and teach from a deeper understanding of how learning works, not trusting our gut nor trusting fashionable pseudoscience unless we can take a critical viewpoint based on an informed understanding of how learning works. (As a cautionary note Didau also states “…often we just don’t know. The truth is inconveniently messy.”)

I believe the Trivium is an excellent way to critically view practice and understand how certain practices work. I believe it has also aided in my *knowing* my pupils and identifying the ‘gains’, thirdly I think it gives fertile ground for me to become a maven with up to date knowledge of my learners and able to communicate their progress to them. Below is an outline of how and why I approach one part of my practice: group work.

Group Work

How do we know that group work adds a ‘gain’? How many pupils does it add a ‘gain’ to? The problem with group work is that in too many situations students see it as an opportunity to chat about other issues, or to let stronger students lead, or even to contribute nothing at all (Robinson, 2017). Using the three arms of the trivium: grammar, dialectic and rhetoric I build my group discussions from grammar up, through dialectic and rhetoric (It should be stated that some of the ground is prepared by arranging my groups into ‘learning families’ for each half a term: each team competes for points – effort, attainment and behavioural, each family is assigned a leader).

Step 1: Pupils express what they already know on personal whiteboards encouraged by discussion within their learning families. I observe who is off topic, who is dominating and who is disengaged. Assertive questioning is used to hook those not engaged or off topic and to insert an uncomfortable sense of dissonance (Didau, 2015) that there is perhaps knowledge the pupils do not have.
Step 2: The grammar is then taught, noted down into exercise books.
Step 3: I then pose a question or statement this can be to the whole close or different for each family. At this stage the family groups separate out for a specified limit of time and express their opinions and understanding on large plastic ‘whiteboard’ sheets that can be unrolled and temporarily stuck onto walls or desks. Only the learning leaders are given a marker pen. I am able to observe who is off topic, who is dominating and who is disengaged. Within each family I can praise, intervene, pose leading or rhetorical questions to move learners forward in either their engagement and/or understanding.
Step 4: With the pupils remaining by their whiteboard I can ask the pupils who were least engaged or most off topic to communicate what the group had expressed on their whiteboards. I ask the group if this is what they had expressed on their boards. Here a pupil may be called upon to be publicly accountable (Robinson, 2017) not for their personal opinions and understanding but that of the group.
Step 5: I ask the pupils to express which family gave the best opinions and answers to the original statement or question, I am able to assess whether there continue to be misconceptions and whether the correct knowledge has been accepted and hopefully learned. I then give my feedback, this also gives me the opportunity to correct any misconceptions. At this stage pupils express what they have learned, building their metacognition.

At each of these 5 stages I am able to observe individuals’ interaction with the Trivium: their skill at assimilating new knowledge (grammar), their ability to express themselves in writing and orally (dialectic) and their ability to defend opinions and discuss opposing views (rhetoric). At the end of each lesson I am able to build a picture of each pupils skill levels in each of these areas. At a different juncture I can assess their closed learning achievement but in the here and now I am able to get to *know* the learners.


Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian, teacher, philosopher and literary critic had interesting things to say about ‘meaning-making’. Quoted in Robinson (2017) he had the notion of the ‘interconnectedness’ of things, the idea of promoting the blending of many voices, but not unity. It is this dialogism that I am aiming for in my classes where there are many voices expressing themselves and debating in respectful manner. Some learners find this hard to accept, perhaps needing the security of one voice: the teacher as the sage on the stage or their own voice as the dominant factor reinforcing their child centric ‘world view’. I believe it is my job to mediate this dialogism, guide the learning so that the ‘gain’ is not just PR assessment grades, GCSEs, A’Levels or IBs but also learning skills for life and a consideration for other views and an adaptability of their own ‘world view’.



Didau, D. (2015). What If Everything You Knew about Education was Wrong? Carmarthen: Crown House Publishing Limited.
Didau, D. (2016a, My 30). The limits of growth mindset. Retrieved from The Learning Spy:
Didau, D. (2016b). What every teacher needs to know about psychology. Woodbridge: John Catt Educational Ltd.
Gladwell, M. (2000). The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. New York: Little, Brown & Co.
Killian, S. (2017, 01 30). Teacher Credibility: Why It Matters & How To Build It. Retrieved from
Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly. New York: Random House Inc.
Robinson, M. (2013). Trivium 21c: Preparing Young People for the Future with Lessons from the Past. Carmarthen: Independent Thinking Press.
Robinson, M. (2017). Trivium in Practice. Carmarthen: Independent Thinking Press.
Socrates. (2009). in Phaedo. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Waack, S. (2018). Hattie Ranking: 195 Influences And Effect Sizes Related To Student Achievement. Retrieved from Visible Learning:

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