No Trivial Pursuit

triviumWhen Martin Robinson set off in mental pursuit of the kind of education he wanted for his young daughter, he was using a benchmark effective teachers should always have at the forefront of their thoughts – would this be what I would want for my own child? As a successful AHT and Advanced Skills Teacher in London, the former drama teacher’s own formal education had been an uneasy affair, leading to frustration and an early departure from a school system which could not always accommodate his naturally rebellious and challenging nature, an experience which would ultimately shape his own approach to teaching what he describes as ‘that most subversive of subjects’.

Given the subject-matter, Trivium 21C: Preparing Young People for the Future with Lessons from the Past could so easily have turned into a dry treatise on the history of education in the western world, but in fact it could hardly be further removed. Through a combination of wit, humour, diligence and erudition, Robinson travels back to the Greco-Roman concept of the ‘trivium’ – grammar, dialectic and rhetoric – traces its history through the ages by way of the major philosophers, and examines in detail his own supposition that the same principles could apply equally well today, in the context of the technologically-enhanced classroom of the internet age. In order to do so, he reckons that he must first address the question, ‘What is the purpose of education?’ His answer is a complex one, reaching far beyond the accumulation of grades, paper qualifications and the currently popular utilitarian concept of readiness for work, yet he is able to summarise it in deceptively simple terms.

“For my daughter, independence – an ability to understand and find solutions – would seem to be a good thing, and I would like her to love learning for its own sake. We are lucky to live in a culture that recognises the rights of women to be educated as free citizens. I would like her to be educated to spend her time in worthwhile activities, including a pursuit of the pure forms of higher culture. However, I would also like her to have experience and skills in the so-called inferior arts, such as an engagement with a craft in which the authentic experience of doing is as important as thinking…….

The three ways of the trivium – knowing, questioning and communicating – had come together as the basis of a great education. This is what I want for my daughter. I want her to know about things and how to do things. I want her to be able to question, both to find out more and to realise that some things aren’t known, can’t be known, or aren’t fully understood. I want her to communicate about things she has discovered, surmised, or created in the way of an open hand to the world . Finally, I want all this to have a purpose, which can be summed up by the phrase ‘a good life’ (because I certainly don’t want her to have a bad one). When I look at the three arts of the trivium, I wonder why it was beyond the wit of my school to give me this grounding, and why it shouldn’t be the grounding for a great education now. Surely there is nothing that could stop the trivium from being the foundation of schooling for my daughter in the 21st century?”

More astute readers will have noticed that the three original elements of the trivium – grammar, dialectic and rhetoric – have become ‘knowing’, ‘questioning’ and ‘communicating’ respectively, though the writer himself arrives at these modern definitions only after a thorough examination of each of the concepts. Adopting the modern-day trivium, he reasons, would enable us to put an end to the sterile ‘debate’ which has so-called traditionalists and progressives arguing over the ‘skills’ versus ‘knowledge’ curriculum, as if the two were mutually exclusive, and instead recognise that all three elements, including the much-neglected art of rhetoric, are of equal importance when providing an all-round education. As a teacher of drama, and a highly successful one at that, Robinson is deeply persuasive about the importance of rhetoric, which he variously describes as communicating, producing, sharing, expressing, arguing, teaching or performing. There can be no critical analysis without knowledge, while knowledge, understanding and creativity are of little value without the demonstration of it to others, an idea which chimes with Seth Godin‘s notion that what matters is the production of art (see previous post).

“The art of dialectic therefore covers a very wide range of important activities in teaching and learning. In the context of whatever they are studying, students are taught the specific grammar that gives them structure and knowledge. This is taught in a way that also opens up the possibility of criticism, which in turn opens up the possibility for dialectic. Therefore, students should become well versed in being able to analyse and challenge, whether it be through logic, scientific method, or debate and discussion. Controversies should be welcomed and addressed. In classrooms, we should see the skills of deduction, induction, abduction, analysis, criticism, debate, argument, challenge, and dialogue. Added to this is the opportunity offered through logos: students should have quality time to develop their own enthusiasms and whether, like Sherlock Holmes, they like to play the violin, or whatever they decide to pursue, ways need to be found to ensure activities like these are recognised as being more than mere hobbies at the fringes of the curriculum.”

I think Martin Robinson has produced a manifesto for education – or more precisely for schooling – which is of huge significance and well worthy of consideration, regardless of one’s own education, politics, class, culture or belief system calvinwhy(he himself is an atheist). At times he paints quite a gloomy picture of the way schools are in Britain at the moment – ‘The current education and assessment system does not like doubt; it has its targets and assessment objectives. Teachers teach children what to think, what to write, and how to write it down for endless tests, which are intended to prove that they know what to think. Doubt is treated as an imposter; despite the language of opening minds, many are in fact being closed down.’ – yet he is optimistic that things can be turned around without adopting a new paradigm – ‘We do not need a new model; our system already has the capability to improve our existing educational landscape. This is truly radical: it is from the root and also progressive.’

Mmmm. Despite the reminder that radical means ‘fundamental’ as well as ‘progressive’, I don’t know that I necessarily share his optimism, and I wonder whether the educational system we have is truly capable of producing young people (and I mean all of them, not just a few) who are truly independent thinkers, capable of joining up the often disparate experiences they encounter while following a secondary school timetable. If you have ever had the opportunity to shadow such a student over the course of a school day or a indeed a school week, where he or she will encounter anything up to fifteen discrete subjects, you will realise what a tall order that is. The ways in which a young person makes sense of his or her schooling, and the question of responsibility for ensuring a smooth and progressive journey, could be the subject of many more books and blogposts. Martin Robinson’s daughter is fortunate to have such a father, teacher and mentor  to call her own. Would that every child could say the same.

“Schools should ensure that opportunities to perform and communicate are at the heart of what they do. Performance means making theatre, speech making, poetry readings, dance, sports events, community spectacles, art, and so on. Some schools run their own theatres, concerts, radio and TV stations, film companies, multimedia platforms, publishing houses, school newspapers, web pages, Twitter communities, blogs, computer programmes, art galleries, and workshops, with the philosopher kids (the term Robinson has coined for young people in the lifelong pursuit of knowledge and wisdom) developing their communicative skills through performance. This should be about creating content, not capital. In order to do this, schools should use their partnerships with local communities, businesses and individuals, as well as their heritage, history and cultural institutions.”

This review has also been posted on the Amazon website.

8 thoughts on “No Trivial Pursuit

    • Thanks Kathleen. One of the most enjoyable and thought-provoking books on edu that I’ve read in a long time. It’s real ‘big picture’ stuff which is often forgotten when people gather to talk about the way forward.

  1. Great review and recommendation, Bill. I wonder if you can put a date to when independent thinking became a primary objective in schools.? It certainly wasn’t in evidence when I was in school….but then I am a good bit older than Kathleen!

    • Hi Ian,
      It really is a very worthwhile read. As for the emergence of the idea of ‘independent thinkers’ I guess it’s been around for at least the past couple of decades, but stating it as an objective and actually delivering it are two different things! One of the problems – as Martin identifies in Trivium – is that so many exam systems encourage students NOT to be independent thinkers.

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