Trivium in Practice

By: Martin Robinson


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Size: 216 x 140mm
Pages : 192
ISBN : 9781781352434
Format: Paperback
Published: June 2016

Trivium in Practice brings together a series of case studies written by educators who were inspired by Martin Robinson’s first book, Trivium 21c. Taken together, these case studies reveal how, regardless of setting or sector, the trivium can deliver a truly great education for our children.

Great teaching has the three elements of the trivium at its centre. Grammar: foundational knowledge and skills. Dialectic: questioning, thinking and practising. Rhetoric: the ability to express oneself beautifully, persuasively and articulately in any form.

The trivium is a helpful way for a teacher to think about the art of teaching. Through the model of the trivium traditional values and progressive ideals can coexist; both knowledge and cultural capital matter and skills are interwoven with content. The trivium isn’t a gimmick to be imposed on to a curriculum; it is a tried and tested approach to education. It is the key to great teaching and learning, as this group of educators discovered.

Tom Sherrington and a group of teachers from Highbury Grove School share examples of how they have used the trivium in English, maths, sociology and history, and detail how the trivium has helped them develop a whole school framework for teaching and learning, including a whole school approach to improving spoken English. Sam Gorse explains how the trivium has influenced curriculum planning at Turton School, discussing how it helped departments with differing pedagogical approaches to find common ground. The trivium has influenced them to rethink how they plan the curriculum and use the school space, creating zones where subjects can interact and influence each other. Nick Wells explains how his school used the trivium as a prism through which to view their continuing improvement. By using it to inform a mastery curriculum, he saw how it might help students to fly even higher than they have done in the past – not just in terms of their exam results, but also in terms of their understanding of, and ability to contribute to, the world around them. David Hall, Nigel Matthias and Nick Barnsley used the trivium as a framework to question what they really wanted education to be about a Bay House school. They discuss their approaches to curriculum planning and assessment, using their challenging new sixth form course and their Year 7 Developing Learning Programme as examples. Mike Grenier makes connections between the key tenets of the Slow Education movement and the evolving nature of the trivium: at the heart of both is a respect for the student–teacher relationship and a strong belief in the need for a balanced, yet challenging, curriculum. Nick Rose takes as his starting point the idea that we might be able to apply some of the principles of evolution through natural selection to the realm of culturally transmitted ideas. He gives a brief ‘natural history’ of education and examines how grammar, dialectic and rhetoric might be understood in light of the processes of inheritance, selection and variation which operate at the heart of evolutionary systems. Carl Hendrick explores how Mikhail Bakhtin’s ideas of ‘dialogic’, ‘carnival’ and ‘inauthenticity’ can inform classroom practice and support the broader ambition of the trivium.

These educators have found that trivium education has brought a range of tangible benefits for their students. These include: greater confidence, enhanced development of rigorous analytical skills, improved oracy and confidence in speaking in front of audiences, an appreciation of the value of acquiring and applying knowledge, refined skills in questioning and debating, developed creativity, independence and critical thinking, the ability to form and express considered opinions and, importantly, the enjoyment of learning. Fundamentally, these educators have found that the trivium has helped them to define and deliver their ideas about the education they want for their students, helping them to become engaged, lifelong learners in the process.

There is no one ‘right’ way to ‘do’ the trivium: it is a tradition that can be adapted. It is the art of education and engages teachers in the art of being educators. Just as each great artist learns from a tradition and refashions it, adds to it, disrupts it, so do the teachers who have contributed to this book. On their canvas, in their school, each contributor is creating and re-creating trivium education in their own way. Discover the potential of the trivium and be inspired to do the same in your own classroom.

Suitable for teachers and leaders in any educational setting.

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. I was very enthusiastic about Martin Robinson's Trivium 21c when it was published in 2013 and I wrote a blog about it. The Trivium in Practice is the follow-up to the big ideas and here we have the experiences of schools and educators who have worked on the Trivium principles. It makes fascinating reading.

    What is so encouraging about the active engagement with the Trivium is the way it has energized conversations about the curriculum and the most productive way to make it both demanding and accessible for all students. While it relates experiences of colleagues working mostly in secondary schools, there are some interesting examples of primary schools following the slow education principles which are closely aligned to the Trivium.

    Two very good examples from Tom Sherrington at Highbury Grove and Sam Gorse at Turton School show how the principles of the Trivium are not for the quick fix seekers. They both acknowledge that this is a measured process, with careful reading, translating into a local context and bringing everyone on board. This kind of systematic shift does not happen overnight. Both are careful to make sure that colleagues have read the book - in Tom's school it was -˜compulsory' reading for all staff - they were given a ribbon bound copy for their own use. This was followed up by a carousel of workshops, each focusing on one of the three arts, one of these led by Tom himself. Sam set up a leadership reading group shortly after joining the school as head. Interestingly, she came across the Trivium through Tom's blog.

    For this to work, it's pretty clear that leaders need to take the ideas seriously and to figure out the implications with colleagues as they go along. What helps is if the school has really, really ambitious aspirations for its students. How about this from the HIghbury Grove School's Framework for Teaching and Learning: -˜We believe that children need to feel they are on an adventure in the pursuit of wisdom-¦we believe in the importance of knowing, exploring and communicating-¦we wish to enable our pupils to become philosopher kids-¦ we challenge all our pupils to become cultural polymaths-¦'

    The power of this book is that it examines the tension between the elements of grammar, dialectic and rhetoric. Robinson transposes these broadly as subject knowledge, critical analysis and communication. He has produced a series of short sketches for what each of these might mean.

    It seems that many of the schools engage quickly with the -˜grammar' element and it is good to see the efforts going in to develop the dialectic and rhetoric. For example Andrew Fitch at Highbury says -˜there is no reason not to have the same high expectations of speech than we do in any other work they do.' And, -˜just because students know how to speak naturally doesn't mean they will naturally know how to speak effectively.'

    Similarly, Mike Grenier in showing the similarities between the Trivium and the Slow Education movement says, -˜first, children must learn to love language, to admire its tricksy spirit and to play with it.' And Carl Hendrick writes a marvellous chapter on his take on the Trivium, focusing on dialogue via the work of Mikhail Bakthtin and a particularly neat analysis of the difference between and the importance of monologue and dialogue.

    It's a book full of gems and my copy is full of underscores and notes. A final reference to a brilliant description of robust extended project qualifications from Dr John L Taylor: -˜At its best, an EPQ is not just a dry run for a university dissertation, but is also a journey of personal exploration; a means of gaining the Socratic wisdom that comes through having seen a problem or issue through the lens of alternative perspectives.'

    Bring on the philosopher kids-¦
  2. Martin Robinson's first book, Trivium 21c, struck a chord with educational professionals who were perplexed and frustrated by a commonly occurring portrayal of pedagogy as a struggle between -˜traditionalist' and -˜progressive' approaches. Trivium 21c asserted that by drawing on the practices of the past, a balanced educational model could be created in which students develop a body of knowledge, a capacity to analyse and an ability to communicate effectively. Employing an engaging style, which in itself embodied the meshing of the old and the new through the combination of a classical lyricism with contemporary wit, Robinson's book caused many teachers to experience a -˜this is it, this is the answer' moment. As a result, schools around the UK began to experiment with Robinson's model and his new book, Trivium in Practice, provides an insight into the experiences of some of these schools.

    One of the immediately striking things about the book is the diversity of schools types portrayed. It would be easy to assume that institutions attracted by an educational model drawing on a classical tradition would largely come from the -˜old school' independent sector. Indeed private schools are represented here but they are joined by various state schools serving a diverse range of socio-economic groups. Clearly, the Trivium resonates across the educational landscape. 

    Equally noteworthy is the range of ways in which the Trivium model is drawn on by the schools. Robinson does not present the Trivium as an -˜off the shelf' curriculum to be delivered; rather it is offered as a prism which can be used to reflect on and refine practice. The voices in the book are largely those of teachers and leaders from the profiled schools and what comes across very clearly in their words is a sense of thoughtfulness and nuanced insight that has been facilitated by working with the Trivium. Their stories are all very different but one common factor alluded to is the professional satisfaction that evidently comes from engaging with deep thought about the fundamental purposes and nature of education; something which is not easily achieved in the maelstrom of contemporary school life.
  3. Trivium in Practice is a series of attempts to bring historical -˜high' thought about education to bear in current realities. From what I read about the work of Highbury Grove School, here there is an open-hearted and ambitious attempt to contextualise historical -˜high' thought about how to educate in the -˜modern' needs of a multi-cultural London school. Aside from the introduction, this is the standout chapter as it means to change things for the better for the children. It understands that the ability to investigate ideas and to articulate (and even perform) responses to those ideas is a vital drive in less well-off communities, and it wonders aloud how future generations of our kids are ever to challenge the primacy of entitled buffoons if they do not have the first clue about the linguistic and cultural codes that the entitled use to recognise each other? This school and the chapter they have offered up are trying really bloody hard to do the right things for the right reasons. 

    It is a book of strange bedfellows: some of whom are less open to easy penetration than others. But the varied cast here is a symptom of how much of a wind Martin's first book caught. What is interesting is that the state sector's contributions are pealing with enthusiasm about taking the ideas written about in the first book and running with them, using the trivium to help kids transcend their circumstances while the independent sector's responses are in the form of mini dissertations. Carl Hendrick's essay on Bakhtin is a mazy minor key dribble that lingers around the idea of dialogism: broadly, chatting without the need for one position to be victorious over another. Eton College's Mike Grenier sculpts an enjoyable and playfully well-written rejection of industrialised versions of education that makes the welcome and overdue proposition that we all just slow down a little.
  4. At the heart of the trivium of promoting grammar, dialectic and rhetoric skills within the classroom is debate, dialogue, reading, writing, critical thinking, self expression and creativity. I was intrigued and enthused by some excellent views of practitioners, in particular the reports by Tom Sherrington and members of his team at Highbury Grove School. The accounts of their experiences in developing the theory into practice in the application of the -˜three part trivium structure' were thought provoking and illustrated clearly the practical implications and pitfalls. Within all the -˜essays' there is a clear link to thought provoking ideas developed by Martin Robinson. The emphasis within the text is on a discourse of the practical adaptation of Robinson's ideas with a view to inspiring and promoting the confidence of the reader to take forward the ideas into their own practice. I wish I had read this thought-provoking book when I taught at a non selective secondary modern school on the Portobello Road.
  5. Trivium 21c is an educational masterpiece, a book which presents the very nub of education in a hugely entertaining form. This sequel, Trivium in Practice, is a collection of essays by practitioners who explain how teachers might make real the theoretical model of the trivium. Tom Sherrington's practical application of the trivium in an inner-city London comprehensive school is brave, true and inspirational. Mike Grenier's short history of trivium-related pedagogy at Eton is a delight. Carl Hendrick's contribution is typically intellectually challenging. The final chapter, which details Dr Jonathan L. Taylor's work at Cranleigh School, should give hope to all of us who yearn to educate our students, not school them to be qualification hoop-jumpers. This is a book whose time is now, which reflects the courage of practitioners who can rightly call themselves educators.
  6. With Trivium 21c, Robinson did something rare: he wrote something new about education based on ideas that were centuries old. With Trivium in Practice he brings that into the classroom. Together, these two books should be compulsory reading for any teacher entering the profession, and every teacher within it.
  7. Trivium in Practice is a great book that forces us to think about what students need to learn at school. Building on Trivium 21c which successfully yokes medieval and 21st century ideas together, this field book lets us see how practitioners from different sectors have successfully combined the trivium with their own beliefs and traditions. We need students and teachers who speak and think and write with the clarity of philosophic understanding which Robinson shows so well. Teachers will immediately be able to see how they can adapt and use these ideas.
  8. We all grow tired of hearing this or that book is a -˜must-read' for all interested in education. Most of the books are, to be honest, ephemeral. But this book is different, about the profoundest idea in education, and how to mobilise it in today's schools.
  9. Anyone hoping for a how-to guide or a template on -˜doing' the trivium will be disappointed; this is not that. Instead, Robinson has edited a collection of thoughts, discussions and approaches on how grammar, dialectic and rhetoric might be brought together and adapted to fit in any setting.
  10. By embracing the tension in the discourse between education's traditionalists and progressives, Martin Robinson brings the liberal arts trivium into the 21st century. This latest instalment presents a valuable compendium of real-world examples of practice that teachers and school leaders interested in nurturing autonomous learners will find invaluable.

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