Thinking through the Trivium

Published on 14 June 2015

In the last few posts on this blog, I’ve mentioned Martin Robinson’s book, Trivium 21st C a number of times. The title of the book 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. In the remainder of this post, I’ll outline some of the implications which these three ways of approaching teaching and learning have for us and some of the questions we have been asking of ourselves over the past couple of months.


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.

The key implications here are:

Our faculties need to continue 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 we need to consider whether we are exposing our 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." This process would link to both our mastery curriculum and our teaching and learning model in terms of providing appropriate challenge.

We need to enable staff to further develop their subject knowledge so that they can further support and stretch even more children to learn to a level of excellence.

In line with our Teaching and Learning model, we need to hone our great teaching techniques to pass on new knowledge, explain new concepts clearly and precisely and model new procedures to our students.

We need to continue tightening up on consistency and providing bespoke training for staff, focusing on the core aspects of the Teaching & Learning model: Challenge, Explanations, Modelling, Questioning and Feedback and linked to Teach Like a Champion.

We need to ensure that our students have, to their fingertips, effective strategies to memorise new material and retain and recall old material. 

We need to provide students with great opportunities to deliberately practice important procedures so that they become automatic. 


We need to make even better use of assessment, formatively in class and formally in exams, to check that students have retained knowledge and take action where they have not.


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.

The key implications here are that:

We need to define when, in each subject/in each unit/in each key stage across the Academy, we want our students to be ready for debate, questioning and philosophising. In order to do this effectively, students need the domain related knowledge as well as knowledge of the processes and conventions used in philosophical/logical debate.

We need to more clearly define the practices which enable this stage of the learning process to occur effectively in our classrooms and learning environments.


In the book, rhetoric is defined as communicating and expressing learning. This can be in written or spoken form or in the form of a performance - 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. 

The key implications here are that:

We need to ensure that tasks here are stretching of all students and prepare students for the next stage in their lives. 

We need to ensure that this expression of learning is the student's own - that there are enough opportunities provided to our students to work entirely independently.

We need to ensure that homework tasks at this stage open ended enough.

Dependence to independence:

Towards the end of the book, Robinson explains how the trivium can also be used as a model of teaching students from dependence to independence.

He suggests that we move through:

Directive (directed phase). This is where we focus on the grammar, or what David Didau calls the field in his teaching sequence for developing independence. We also set the context and provide the big picture. At this stage there is likely to be plenty of teacher explanation and modelling. Doug Lemov calls this the “I” stage.

Guided discovery (guided practice). This stage is shared by the teacher and student. It is likely to feature 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. Lemov calls this stage, “We”. 

Receptive-exploratory. 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 which Didau calls independent construction and Lemov calls “You.”

Within the book, Robinson outlines a set of teaching styles, learning methods and assessment frameworks which fit in with each aspect of the trivium. I’ve adapted these below and added some strategies - in particular from Teach Like a Champion.


In terms of planning, in line with the teaching backwards model which Rob Carpenter is advocating in the primary phase, David Didau’s model which the English Faculty are trialling, Lemov’s Begin with the End and  the ideas contained in Ethic of Excellence, Robinson argues that we have in mind our end point when we begin planning. He advises that we:

  • Start with the end in mind and plan units first rather than individual lessons or activities.
  • Stretch and challenge all students.
  • Build towards mastery.

In future posts, I'll outline in more detail how we are tweaking our Teaching and Learning Model to tie in with this thinking.

Categories: Blog, Mastery, Teaching and Learning Model, Teach Like A Champion

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