The Trivium: Putting the Pieces Together

by Mark Palmer, Founding Board Member 
The Trivium, Latin for “three ways,” is one of the key concepts guiding the classical approach at Trinity Classical School of Houston. The Trivium shapes the TCS curriculum from Pre-K to our eventual 12th grade. With the concept of the Trivium having many layers, what is the best way to describe this idea? At TCS we apply each of the three phases of the Trivium– Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric– in both a narrow sense and a broader sense. For example, “Grammar” refers to the rules governing language, which TCS students certainly learn, but Grammar also applies in the broader sense to “the rules and basic facts concerning any subject.” Similarly, Logic and Rhetoric are taught as individual subjects at TCS, as well as each shaping an entire four-year phase of learning.Authors and historians have used several methods of describing the three Trivium phases. Dorothy Sayers used the alliterative Poll-parrot (for the fundamental Grammar phase), Pert (for the inquisitive Logic phase), and Poetic (for the expressive Rhetoric phase). As a Christian school, we also find an appropriate parallel in the biblical progression from knowledge to understanding to wisdom. In Exodus 35:31 Moses commends Bezalel by observing that he was filled with “the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills.”It’s even possible to summarize the Trivium using the tersest of mnemonics– . ? ! — symbolizing Grammar as the ‘what’ (expressed as a factual statement ending in a period.), Logic as the ‘why’ (symbolized with a question mark?), and Rhetoric as the ‘how’ (expressed with an enthusiastic exclamation point!)

Let’s add another illustration to the pile, hopefully adding some perspective on how we view the Trivium at TCS.

The Trivium as a jigsaw puzzle

Neuschwanstein castle puzzleEnvison a large jigsaw puzzle featuring a photo of King Ludwig’s majestic castle Neuschwanstein, complete with blue sky, soaring castle walls, and Bavarian foliage. How can this puzzle help us understand the Trivium? The process of learning with the Trivium is like assembling a jigsaw puzzle.

 

The first Trivium phase, Grammar (Pre-K through 4th grade), is like getting the pieces of the puzzle. Find a large flat surface, open the box, dump out the pieces, untangle them, spread them out, and turn them all face up. The jumble of jagged cardboard certainly doesn’t look anything like the picture on the boxtop. But it is important to prepare for puzzle-solving by gathering the full set of pieces. This step cannot be skipped; if we reach into the box, scoop up a small handful of pieces and try to start connecting them, we will end in frustration. We need a broad view of all the shapes and colors across the entire puzzle.

 

The second Trivium phase, Logic (5th through 8th grade), is like assembling the puzzle. We sort the pieces, group all the pieces with blue sky into one area, and all the pieces showing trees into another area. Then we find and connect the edge and corner pieces to form the puzzle’s border. We ask questions along the way. Where does this corner piece belong? What colors and shapes belong together? Are there any distinct features that provide clues? Can I analyze the groups of pieces to find patterns and connections?

The third phase of the Trivium phase, Rhetoric (9th through 12th), is like describing the completed puzzle and explaining the story behind it. There is meaning and application that can be extracted from the completed puzzle, beyond the cardboard pieces and the assembled image. What can we say about the image depicted? What does it represent? Why is it important? How did a castle like Neuschwanstein come to be built? What motivated Ludwig to build this? What were the consequences? What lessons can we apply to our life?

The Trivium applied to learning history
We can trace the direct effect of the Trivium on how TCS students learn history. TCS students memorize a Grammar of History timeline spanning from Creation to the present. Learning the 79 timeline “pegs” (which consist of dates and events) allows students to mentally hang subsequent learning on or near a peg, developing a mastery of key events in world history. In the Logic phase students begin to inquire about the “why” of the events. Not just when was World War I fought, but what motivated the alliances? What was each country’s objective? What affect did this war have on World War II? In the Rhetoric phase, students are expected to clearly express an opinion, develop a thesis, and support it with facts and logic from the prior Trivium phases.

The Trivium applied to learning science
We also need to remember that the Trivium principles can apply equally well to math, science, and technology. Let’s look at chemistry as an example. In third grade chemistry (Grammar phase) TCS students get the puzzle pieces. The pieces include electrons, atoms, molecules, compounds, mixtures, acids, and bases. Students learn the difference between each of these. Student learn about pH, electron orbits, atomic weights, and types of reactions. When TCS students revisit chemistry in the seventh grade (Logic phase) they will assemble the pieces. The assembly process involves asking a lot of questions: What is the logic behind the order of the periodic table? What’s so “noble” about the noble gases? Why is copper such a good conductor of electricity? What’s the difference between organic and inorganic chemistry? In eleventh grade chemistry (Rhetoric phase), TCS students will combine their knowledge from the Grammar phase and their understanding from the Logic phase to observe phenomena, make calcuations, and articulate outcomes. How can we use our understanding to balance an equation? Can we predict what will happen when we mix two compounds? How does the Arrhenius concept apply to this problem?

Puzzle piecesSo if trivium education is a jigsaw puzzle, Grammar school is about giving the students puzzle pieces, Logic school is about students learning to put those pieces together, and the main agenda of Rhetoric school is standing over the picture, viewing it, thinking about it, articulating what they see, and creating new applications and insights.