Trivium 21c

Preparing young people for the future with lessons from the past

By: Martin Robinson


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Products specifications
Attribute name Attribute value
Size: 216 x 140mm
Pages : 288
ISBN : 9781781350546
Format: Paperback
Published: May 2013

From Ancient Greece to the present day, Trivium 21c explores whether a contemporary trivium (Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric) can unite progressive and traditionalist institutions, teachers, politicians and parents in the common pursuit of providing a great education for our children in the 21st century.

Education policy and practice is a battleground. Traditionalists argue for the teaching of a privileged type of hard knowledge and deride soft skills. Progressives deride learning about great works of the past preferring ‘21c skills’ (21st century skills) such as creativity and critical thinking.

Whilst looking for a school for his daughter, the author became frustrated by schools’ inability to value knowledge, as well as creativity, foster discipline alongside free-thinking, and value citizenship alongside independent learning. Drawing from his work as a creative teacher, Robinson finds inspiration in the Arts and the need to nurture learners with the ability to deal with the uncertainties of our age.

Named one of Book Authority’s best education books of all time.

Picture for author Martin Robinson

Martin Robinson

Martin Robinsonworked for 20 years in state schools in London as a teacher, a leader and an advanced skills teacher. Now an education consultant, he works with schools and other institutions on curriculum development and a wide range of other issues. He is a regular on the conference circuit both in the UK and internationally.

Click here to listen to the podcast Naylor's Natter where Phil Naylor talks to Martin about Curriculum-Athena versus the Machine.


  1. This book should have a wide appeal, especially to those who may place themselves at the progressive end of the educational spectrum, because you discover that Martin Robinson wants what we all want for our children. That is, schools where children can flourish without having their innate curiosity, creativity and love of life and learning crushed by the deadening effects of exams-driven curricula, policies and procedures. This isn't just a man in an ivory tower philosophizing from a detached stand point. This book is partly borne out of the frustrations of a father who wants the best for his daughter and so his cause is one which should have a wide appeal.

    Click here to read the full review.
  2. 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.
  3. n this erudite, engaging, and entertaining exploration of the history of teaching and learning, author and educator Martin Robinson sets out to describe the practical conceptualisation of his ideals for his daughter's education. Tired of the never-ending battle between traditionalist and progressive views on education and their effects on policy, practice and student learning, Robinson looks to the ancient past and the foreseeable future to chart a path that he hopes will inspire his daughter to be a knowledgeable and critical learner. He has succeeded in this volume to bridge the gap between the high-altitude philosophies of educational evangelists such as Sir Ken Robinson (no relation) and the chalkface realities of the practising teacher. He recognises that we all aim to develop students who are critical thinkers, but that this aim needs to be built upon the knowledge-rich foundation of a strong curriculum.

    The result of Robinson's explorations is a Trivium for the 21st century: Grammar, Dialectic and Rhetoric. The Grammar aligns most closely with a traditional, content-based curriculum. This is a curriculum that is relevant to our culture, meaningful to our students and expertly taught in our classrooms. The Grammar is the knowledge upon which all inquiry is founded, including literacy and numeracy as well as subject-area knowledge and cultural literacy. The Dialectic represents the application and evaluation of the learning of the Grammar. Perhaps more in line with progressive views on education, the Dialectic puts the students' -˜higher-order' skills to use in their analysis of the roles of logos (logic), pathos (emotion) and ethos (credibility) in their learning. As the Grammar and Dialectic operate in a cycle of positive feedback, the student develops a stronger foundation of knowledge and a more sophisticated set of skills to put that knowledge to work. The final element of the Trivium, the Rhetoric, represents “the great discussion” between the student's learning and the wider world. Rhetorical skills are constantly developed as the student communicates and evaluates his or her learning. Through the Rhetoric, the student learns to communicate, reflect, debate, write, present and participate with integrity and care in the global community.

    The product of Robinson's Trivium 21c education is the philosopher kid: a knowledgeable, reflective thinker who communicates with fluency and confidence and whose actions contribute to our wider society. International Baccalaureate educators will immediately recognise the philosopher kid as an embodiment of the IB Learner Profile, and as I read further into the text I became more convinced that Robinson was describing the foundations of a well-implemented continuum of an IB education. Robinson recognises this to some extent near the end of the text, with reference to the strengths of the IB Diploma's Theory of Knowledge component, the Middle Years Programme's assessment frameworks, and the whole continuum's focus on service learning.

    I enjoyed and was inspired by this book, though it was by no means a quick read. Robinson writes with wit and clarity, and you may find that you need to stop, think and even dig deeper into some of the ideas of his cast of characters, especially in the first half. As a critical-thinking drama teacher, Robinson's interests span the arts, the classics, the humanities and the sciences - and this gives his book an authority that might be missing from the views of a more single-minded educator. I would recommend Trivium 21c to anyone with an active interest in education reform and pedagogy: school leaders and those responsible for curriculum development would gain a lot from the messages here. It does help to have an understanding of progressive vs traditionalist views on learning, and though it may be a bit much for the newly- training teacher, this book would be an excellent read for those continuing their studies in education.

    Robinson is an active blogger and Twitter user (@SurrealAnarchy), frequently engaging in discussion of issues of education and learning. My own diagrammatic representation of his idea of the Trivium 21c can be accessed via
  4. A thought provoking and challenging read, transporting the reader from Ancient Greece to modern day education policy; a text which raises serious questions about the direction our education system is taking.

    This book has made me examine not only my own practice within the classroom, but also the part I play in the wider leadership of the school.
  5. A very interesting introduction detailing the author's personal experiences and difficulties in conforming within a chaos ridden school. His reflection on his “Hello Mrs Robinson” experience at the college of education certainly whet the reader's appetite for more, like a good sleazy novel for the summer holiday on the Gower ! However, the main theme of the book is to unravel “The Trivium”, the education content and delivery styles that will enable the author's daughter and other children to live a good life and attain the necessary wisdom to equip them for the challenge of the 21st century and beyond ..... an updated ”Emile”, with full respect to Rousseau. The “trivium” which the author outlines is both thought provoking and relevant in terms of the current debate and proposed changes in curriculum content, examination structures and models for assessment. He is critical of the inspection process, but his personal reflection / inspection of his school life in a chaotic and inadequate school underlines the improvements that the inspection process, both by Estyn and Ofsted, has brought about. The identification by inspection teams of inadequate management, unsatisfactory teaching and learning, poor behaviour for learning, lack of safeguarding of pupils, etc within a large number of primary, special and secondary schools and colleges highlights the inadequacies within our educational practice. If they go “unchecked” we replicate the institution where the author would not have chosen to educate his daughter. A thought provoking book which makes interesting reading and enables the reader to reflect upon the impact of the “education system” on their lives and practical ideas for change.
  6. If you want to know the difference between your “trivium” and your “quadrivium”, read this book. And even if you don't, read it anyway because it has something to say about how we can shape 21st century education for children and young people.

    In the current climate of debate about what the new curriculum should look like, this is a timely reminder of the importance of teaching and developing the skills and attributes young people need to be successful learners -” whatever the curriculum diet. As a self- acclaimed “school failure”, Robinson draws on his own practice as a teacher and as a parent himself and questions prevailing ideologies and the meta-language surrounding education with its shift towards examination driven teaching and statistical accountability. His mantra is based upon an approach to learning that is based in “knowledge, argument, engagement, belonging and the capacity to make a difference”.

    This book is far-reaching and wide-ranging; it moves from looking at classical approaches to education through to more contemporary debates and approaches, whilst always retaining that voice of someone who has made their own very personal journey in their own thinking and teaching. Robinson looks at the approaches of ancient Greek philosophers, through to the Middle Ages then towards the 1944 Education Act and the later comprehensive system and finally to the democratisation of knowledge through the Internet, managing to draw in Hegel, Kant and Descartes along the way. It is scholarly without being dry and it is ambitious in its scope.

    This would be an interesting read for anyone interested in the history of education which isn't just about key dates in government reform. The last chapter offers his own conclusions about how we can negotiate the tensions he has already addressed so thoroughly to arrive at an approach to education which uses lessons from the past to help meet the needs of the 21st century learner.

    Yes, it is already on my list of essential reading for the new trainees on my PGCE course in September.
  7. Martin Robinson embarks on a highly engaging personal quest to discover what matters in education. By drawing not just on lessons and frustrations from his extensive experience as an educator, but also on the hopes and anxieties which he feels as a new parent, he transcends the often stale trench lines of many arguments about education between 'traditionalists' and 'progressives', recognising that rival important insights about the foundations of learning and knowledge need not be polar opposites. Robinson's own synthesis offers an ambitious vision of how to pursue an educational ideal as a practical project. Anybody interested in education, citizenship or how we want our children to learn would find this a thought-provoking read.

  8. In schools today, a focus on contemporary relevance too often trumps educational depth. Martin Robinson makes a compelling case that turning instead to the tradition of the liberal arts can open the minds of a new generation.

  9. This is a charming book which is fun to read; it is contemplative and self-reflective and at the same time it is well-researched, informative and genuinely scholarly. What the book does very well is to unpick the tensions between educationalist progressives and traditionalists and it attempts to identify differences but also importantly to seek common ground. Indeed it is a historical tour de force examining the origins and development of the liberal arts from the early Greeks through Shakespearean times to the present day. 

    What makes the book so readable is that it is a journey of self-reflection on what it means to be educated from the point of view of the author as a schoolboy, a teacher and then a parent seeking an appropriate school for his daughter. 

    The early part of the book looks at his own schooling and frustrations that the author experiences. Learning appears to be chaotic and many pupils are apparently left to fail by not being equipped with the skills necessary to succeed at school. The book then traces his later employment and his experiences as a schoolteacher and how he changed the way he taught to make learning more meaningful and authentic for his pupils. His journey is one of becoming a teacher who adopts innovative approaches to teaching; teaching for meaning, values and deep learning.
    The argument of the book is for a Trivium of grammar, dialectic and rhetoric. The three elements of the trivium would be developed simultaneously, and once mastered it was expected that a student would have acquired the knowledge, the reasoning skills and the ability to communicate well that would stand them in good stead for a good life. 

    What Robinson is asking for is the building blocks for thriving at school, the underpinning principles of learning that many teachers assume that pupils already possess but which many do not. I am not convinced that this book will unite traditionalists and progressives in a mutual quest of school improvement, but for the open minded reader there is much to learn. I agree with Robinson that students acquiring a sound blend of knowledge, questioning expertise, and communication skills (i.e. the trivium) is the basis of a great education.
  10. Martin Robinson sets out on a quest to discover the kind of education he wishes for his daughter and we all learn a great deal in the process. I love his writing: wise, well informed, provocative, thinking-out-loud. Robinson engages his reader from first to last. A terrific feat.
  11. Part reflective autobiography, part educational manifesto, The Trivium in the 21st Century is both a richly erudite and engagingly relevant exploration of the purposes and philosophies underlying the enterprise of education. From Ancient Greece through to contemporary controversy, Robinson draws resonantly on his experience as a student and a teacher to demonstrate that the -˜trivium', the -˜triple way', of grammar, dialectic and rhetoric, still lies at the heart of a -˜good education', albeit in new forms. With refreshing realism, he recognises that teachers in their work in the classroom often transcend many of the political storms about education. Citing almost every contemporary protagonist from our own era, he advances an approach which he describes as -˜progressive traditionalism'. The Trivium in the 21st Century is essential reading for all educators and observers of the seemingly endless public debate about education who wish to go beyond simplistic polarities and find a way to integrate and relate in a historical context seemingly contradictory approaches.

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