How the Education Trivium Helps Us Understand Learning and Teaching

The goal of liberal education was not to train for a skill. That was the education of a slave. No, the goal was to make one free, by learning how to learn and think. This has practical implications today. The modern adult changes careers five to seven times. Knowing how to think and learn by acquiring new knowledge, developing new skills, increasing understanding, and expressing oneself is vital in today’s world, even liberating.

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Classical liberal education was based on the seven liberal arts, the education trivium and quadrivium. The education trivium, that is, the three ways or three roads, comprised of three arts: grammar, logic, and rhetoric, and the quadrivium, four arts: arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. These arts lead to higher subjects such as philosophy and theology.

The foundation of classical education was the trivium with each art taught in a certain order: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise, in their book, “The Well Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home”, write that this order corresponds to the development of how children learn:

• The grammar stage, roughly from kindergarten through fourth grade, is the acquisition of knowledge.

• The logic stage, from fifth grade to eighth grade, focuses on the development of critical thinking.

• The rhetoric stage, from ninth grade to twelfth grade, develops the student’s ability of self expression.

Mortimer J. Adler has similar views in “The Paideia Proposal: An Educational Manifesto”. He writes about three ways of learning:

• Acquisition of knowledge, facts, and rules through didactic instruction, that is through lectures, textbooks, videos, and other teaching aids.

• Development of intellectual skills, such as reading, writing, speaking, and listening through coaching, exercises, and supervised practice.

• Understanding ideas and values through Socratic questioning and active participation in the discussion of books and ideas.

It has become popular in the educational establishment to emphasize critical thinking and creativity. The problem is that the foundation for these skills, the acquisition of knowledge through such basic means as memorization is dismissed as unimportant, even rejected.

But without facts, how can children reason? Without the ability to reason, how can students express themselves?

There is a certain order to learning, no matter what the level or age. While a tutor for primary school students will focus on the grammar stage of learning and appropriate ways of teaching that level, a tutor for students in the logic stage will have to focus on both ways, the continuation of the acquisition of knowledge in the grammar stage and the critical thinking of the logic stage. The tutor for the student in the rhetoric stages will therefore deal with all three ways: acquiring more knowledge, strengthening critical thinking skills, and developing self expression in the student, through teaching, coaching and discussion.

Certain subjects are best taught or learned in certain ways. Others, however, are best taught in a variety of ways. Memorization of vocabulary, spelling, and math tables are appropriate in the beginning stages. Reading books, listening to lectures, watching videos, and internet research are appropriate for acquiring knowledge in science, literature, social studies, geography, mathematics, language arts, and the fine arts. Coaching develops skills in reading, writing, speaking, listening, calculating, problem-solving, observing, measuring, and critical thinking. Finally, writing and discussion of books and ideas develops self-expression, understanding, and wisdom.

Teaching used to be considered an art, like the agricultural and medical arts. The teacher, like the farmer and doctor, provides the right conditions for nature to take its course. To educate, from the Latin 'educare,' means to draw out. Somewhere along the line, however, education became a science, and children became objects to manipulate, indoctrinate, or even experiment on. This is a crime. Children are by nature curious, but their sense of wonder is frequently stifled.

If your child is rebelling against school, they may have very good reasons to. In many cases, they have not been given a firm foundation to build on and then are expected to perform without the proper tools and skills. They know something is wrong but don't know why. Without any consistent success, learning becomes a burden and hopeless task. It is not too late to change that course by keeping the education trivium in mind.

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