Trivium: Shield of the Trinity, source: Wikipedia
Indoctrination + regurgitation + graduation ≠ education.
– Brett Veinotte
What if I told you that most modern methods of teaching are deeply flawed? That the way most schools teach is misguided at best, and dangerously innefficient at worst?
Government schooling as we know it today didn’t really exist until the mid 19th century. The chief aims of conformity, nationalism, moral relativism, and acceptance of authority were the guiding principles of a system designed to create obedient workers that were so important to the industrial revolution. This system that began in Prussia would eventually spread around the globe, coming to America in 1852 and France and Great Britain by the 1880’s.
Having undergone innumerable changes and “improvements” for well over a century, we find ourselves today with a system of public schooling riddled with problems that seem too big and too complicated to fix. We are graduating kids who cannot read cursive writing, who do not possess basic skills in so many crucial areas including money management, negotiation, intellectual and physical self-defense, communication and rhetoric, social skills with people who are NOT their own age, sales, time management, and perhaps most importantly, skepticism of authority and the capacity for critical thought. We have been trained to hold up graduation as the lofty goal, without really considering what it is and just what the value of it may be.
Now lets look at classical education as it existed for centuries before government-run compulsory school. Classical education was based on interrelated concepts as opposed to the discretely divided “subjects” that we know of in our current educational paradigm. It was divided into 3 main areas of learning, what we refer to as the Trivium. The word Trivium in Latin means “where 3 roads meet.” The Trivium was the basis of all knowledge, it was not learning per se, but a preparation for learning. It consisted of 3 themes – Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric, also referred to as Knowledge, Wisdom, and Understanding. The Trivium forms the basis for all learning and critical thought, and it is this systematic thought process that has all but disappeared from education.
The concepts taught in the Trivium follow a logical 3 step learning process which, when mastered, form the basic structure of thought and analysis which can be applied by the student to any subject they wish to learn. This learning process consists of Input, Processing, and Output. The input is the Grammar, or the Knowledge. This is the underlying background knowledge and definitions as applied to a certain subject. The processing is the Logic, or Understanding. Logic is the science of non-contradictory identification. The output is the Rhetoric, or Wisdom. The rhetoric stage is the application of that knowledge in a useful form.
Grammar – Knowledge
When you hear the word grammar, you probably think about english class in school, where the word grammar referred to the basic rules of the language. But grammar in terms of the Trivium is much broader, encompassing all basic facts and figures of a subject – it is the ‘Who, What, Where, and When’ stage of learning. Grammar in this sense begins with definitions. In order to effectively communicate with another human being, we both must first agree on shared definitions of the terms in use. This, at first glance, seems too basic to even mention, and yet this problem arises constantly in everyday conversation.
I’ll give you an example: the word ‘rabbit’. If I had been brought up to believe that the word ‘rabbit’ referred to a small, flightlesss bird that laid eggs and perched on a roost at night, and I came to you complaining that my rabbits had stopped laying eggs and were molting and losing all their feathers, you would think I was nuts. Now, here’s a more subtle example: there are about as many different informal definitions for ‘capitalism’ vs ‘socialism’ vs ‘fascism’ as there are broke college students waiting to vote for the first politician who will promise them “free” tuition. Ever witnessed a crazy, ranting argument on Facebook? Lack of shared definitions for words almost certainly contributed to the misunderstandings.
Grammar also extends to the basic facts and figures of a subject. For example, when learning to climb, you will see ‘kN’ ratings on carabiners. Without getting into Isaac Newton’s 2nd Law of Motion, you need to know that 1 kN is approximately equal to 225 lb. You also need to know that the Working Load Limit is 10:1 for climbing gear, or, 1/10 of the tensile strength.
Logic – Understanding
Logic takes the knowledge of the Grammar and seeks to arrange and order it, pulling out the relationships and figuring out the rules. This is the ‘Why’ stage of learning. The goal of Logic is the outcome of being able to think without contradiction, striving to arrive at ‘logical consistency’. Through the application of inductive and deductive thought processes, we derive order and meaning from the basic facts and figures, seeking the deeper truths not necessarily evident on the surface.
Knowledge without Understanding is what is referred to as ‘rote learning’. Children in school are forced to memorize all kinds of things without knowing why they need to know them. Likewise, whenever you copy something that you see someone else doing, without knowing why they are doing it, you are engaging in rote learning. Rote learning by itself might come in handy the next time you are in the exact same situation, but change some of the variables and you will see exactly why the understanding or Logic of a subject is so necessary.
(Interesting side note, if you type ‘logic’ into Google, the first 6 links that come up are for a rapper from Maryland who’s stage name is ‘Logic’. Likewise, if you type in ‘trivium’, the entire first page of search results is for a heavy metal band. Has anyone watched ‘Idiocracy’ lately?)
Rhetoric – Wisdom
Again, like grammar, when you hear the word rhetoric you probably think of school, where the word refers to persuasive speaking, or english class, with a ‘rhetorical question’. But Rhetoric in the broader sense of the Trivium simply refers to the output that one is capable of, after absorbing the knowledge in the Grammar stage, and then analyzing that knowledge in the Logic stage. If the basic facts and figures of our Grammar are true, and the rules, relationships, and premises of our Logic have removed all contradictions, then, at least in theory, we should be capable of proper and useful output. And that is why Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric (the Trivium) form the basis of the Classical “Liberal Arts”, along with Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy (the Quadrivium). Because, when we are well versed in the true and proper basics, we are ‘liberated’ from our teachers, capable finally of independent and autonomous thought and action.
This is not to suggest that proper output does not require practice and take years to master. According to the now ubiquitous so-called 10,000 hour rule, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell and later shown to be a gross over-simplification, it absolutely takes an enormous amount of practice to become highly competent at any complex and challenging task. But “practice” is insufficient to obtain mastery. The correct approach is “deliberate practice”, or focusing very deliberately on the sub-skills that make up an overall skill. And yet, before we can even begin this deliberate practice, or Rhetoric, we must first be firmly grounded in the Grammar and Logic of the subject area. Then, and only then, can we engage in proper deliberate practice.
Now, one effective way to explain something is to contrast it with its opposite. The opposite of the Trivium is something called “outcome-based education”. For anyone familiar with the public school system, you will recognize the techniques of this approach even if you are unfamiliar with the name. For a practical example of outcome-based education, lets say you were new to this trade and I wanted to teach you how to fell a tree. Let’s say the tree in question is a fairly small, dead Maple on the edge of a bush. It has very little lower branching and a slight lean in the direction that we want to drop it. I’ll show you how to size up the lean, check the wind, cut a face, and how to make a backcut and set up a hinge to drop the tree under control, which is much sooner than if I had bothered to teach you by the Trivium method. But what if you wanted to drop another tree? This is where the difference in these two methods becomes noticeable.
Under outcome-based education if you want to fell another tree under different circumstances, you’re going to have to come to me and I’m going to have to teach you. You will be dependent upon me for everything that you learn. Now of course there’s going to be a few students who will learn by watching, and catch onto some of the techniques after a few trees, just as there are a few students who figure out some of the English phonetic code and some of the spelling and grammar rules on their own. But most students are not going to figure this out all on their own.
That is outcome-based education. You get good looking results. You get them faster, but they are shallow, they don’t last long, and what’s most important of all, outcome-based education creates students who are dependent upon the teacher for everything that they learn. Now why is that? Because they never master the basics. They only master the outcomes. Creativity is stifled because the student is never given the tools with which to create anything on his own.
Even though you had a successful outcome in that first scenario, you wouldn’t know just how many variables are involved in tree felling. Tree size, species, form, health, lean, terrain, wind: these and many more are all factors that come into play in felling, all of which you would be unable to account for.
Now let’s compare this to the Trivium method of teaching. First, I’m going to teach you about wood fibre and grain, and tension and compression forces in wood. We might look at some basic biology of trees to see how they grow and the different layers that you will encounter in trunk wood. We will look at saw chain and how it works to cut wood. We will explore all of the different hardware and tools of the trade including different types of rope and their uses. We will learn all of our knots and look at all of the terminology, including tensile strength, working load limits, shock loading, barber chair, etc. All of this, and countless other elements, make up the Knowledge, or, Grammar Level.
Next, we are going to explore the concept of a hinge and why it works. We can then explore the basic types of face cuts and back cuts and when to use each. We will look at leverage and mechanical advantage systems, theory of using pull lines, pulling angles and tensions, wedging, etc, etc. We need to understand the ‘why’ of what we do, this is the Understanding or Logic level.
Finally, we can go out into the field and begin sizing up and evaluating trees and drop zones. We will learn how to set pull lines using throwballs and how to design mechanical advantage systems. We will learn how to handle a saw, how to aim a face, the techniques of cutting, how to prevent hang-ups, how to work on steep slopes, deal with strong winds, handle dead and decayed trees, etc. These physical abilities, the proper technique and expression of all that we have learned in the first two stages, this is the Wisdom or Rhetoric level. At this point, I could present to you that same, small dead Maple on the edge of a bush and you would know how to handle it.
Now as you can plainly see, using this Trivium method is going to take you much longer to master than if I had taught you by outcome-based education. But the long-term benefits are signifcantly different. Lets say that you want to fell a different tree. Well, you don’t need me anymore because you understand the basics. In fact, you can begin to work on your own, because you have mastered the fundamentals of tree felling, which liberate you from your teachers and allow you to adapt to a myriad of conditions and circumstances that you might face in the field. Ever wondered why Jerry Beranek’s classic book ‘The Fundamentals of General Tree Work’ is so thick? Or why it took Jeff Jepson over 150 pages to teach us how ‘To Fell A Tree’? It’s because these guys focused on a true, deeper form of education, not just an outcome-based form.
Climb high, Work smart, Read more.
Continue Reading: Fiscal 36
I am indebted to Harvey Bluedorn for his 1994 essay Outcome-based Education vs. Trivium-based Education
Further Reading on the Trivium:
The Lost Tools of Learning – Dorothy Sayers, 1947
The Trivium – Wikipedia
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