19 Aug 2013

Not trivial: Martin Robinson’s Trivium 21c

This is a whopping piece of work. It’s brilliant, it’s hard work and it’s a piece of serious scholarship.

Martin Robinson has constructed an argument of elegance, depth and simplicity. He has set himself a big task: to integrate the ancient disciplines of grammar, dialectic and rhetoric to re-imagine thinking about education, teaching and learning. Today. The work is driven by a desire to draw the kind of education he would like for his young daughter. What he was after was ‘an attitude to learning that is based in knowledge, argument, engagement, belonging and the capacity to make a difference.’ In going back to the beginnings of learning, he found the Trivium.

I hope I’m not oversimplifying, but my reading of the book is that there are four elements. The first is the compelling story of his own practice. Then, an overview of the origins and developments of the trivium, a synthesis of current thinkers on the relevance of the trivium today, and finally how the trivium might work today.

This man walks the talk. He took his drama students through deep processes to achieve outstanding results. Consistently among the top in the country. This book and the man need to be taken seriously. He saw what was wrong with the course he was expected to teach. So he got rid of unnecessary homework, ‘writing about misery and colouring in pictures of misery’ and replaced it with a notebook in which students would be expected to collect fragments of writing, experiences, dreams, stories, poetry, lyrics, history, theory.  The material transformed from fragments to connections and became the ‘clothesline on which the lessons were hung’.  ‘I refused to take things students to see things they would normally see, so we never went to Blood Brothers; instead we went to see Beckett, Berkoff, Bausch and Brecht. We would take an unashamedly Socratic approach: questioning, arguing and prompting.’ The exam was a celebration of their exploration – not a jumping through the hoop to get the grades.

Now I found this really interesting. When I am analysing exam grades in different contexts, I want to know the story about high quality results. Have they been achieved though putting the fear of god into the students, the lure of high grades for their own sakes? Or have students been immersed, engaged and in the business for its own sake? With the latter, young people are more likely to have a life long love of their subjects. And in my own field, religious education, I want students to continue to enjoy asking difficult questions about morals, ethics, religion and philosophy beyond their time in school. Robinson’s way of working is a way of securing  this.

The second theme, where Robinson scopes the part which these three elements played in the ancient world. All the great protagonists are here: Plato, St Socrates, Aristotle and the contested place they held in the ancient world. Socrates, we are reminded, was put to death for corrupting the young. His line of enquiry goes through the neo-Platonists, Scholastics, Aquinas, Petrarch and Montaigne. I said it was tough. He also shows how the rise of philosophy, science and commerce led to its decline. And to do this, he calls on Descartes, Hume, Berkeley, Kant. There are summaries too, of the ideas of Arnold, Tawney, CP Snow, Freire, Hirsch, Willingham.

The third part tests the Trivium within some serious contemporary thinking. Baggini, Matthew Taylor, David Aaronovitch, Alain de Botton, Elizabeth Truss – a gallery of  individuals from across the traditional and progressive spectra. He teases out not only what they might have in common, but the extent to which their ideas might be aligned with the Trivium. This is cleverly done. In conversation with them, asks them questions about how they see the Trivium, and then responds to their answers. This section is particularly helpful because it takes us from the carefully considered prose of published works, to the more organic thoughts and responses both of Robinson and his interviewees.

And finally, he shows what the Trivium might hold for us today. This is no easy task. He recognises that any alteration to education is disruptive and can create all kinds of problems. However, he uses a neat gardening analogy. Until the romantic period, garden design in Britain imposed formal designs onto the landscape. Then Capability Brown revolutionised garden design, by looking at what was there and seeing what offered the ‘capability’ to be improved. This might be applied to education. A key part of the trivium is the passing on of the culture and traditions of the past. Robinson argues that we do not need a new model. Our system already has the capability to improve the existing education landscape. Truly radical.

And so, from philosopher kids (grandchildren of Plato’s philosopher kings?), to school mottos, assessment, culture, character development, ethics. It is all here. It made me think about my own practice. Where, in this revised and visionary canon does my own practice sit?

And this is what Robinson does in the Trivium. He takes the arguments beyond the intellectual bun fight of traditionalists and progressives, ‘canon good’ and ‘canon bad’ to make the case for an educational structure of content, pedagogy and assessment which is profoundly human centred. The really clever thing about Robinson’s argument is that he shows how the trivium retains the old debates at its core – the balance between what and how much to learn, how much time for thinking and criticizing, and how much for developing ways of communicating.

Read it: Per ardua ad astra.

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