How to learn, how to teach is an age old question! How do people learn? What is the most effective way to teach? One can make the argument that since the beginning of humanity, we have learned the same way. The neurological development of babies growing into children growing into adults has been the same. And the concept of the trivium, while Latin in origin, was only discovered by humans as an already existing mode of learning. Before I lose you completely, let me explain. 😊 I have a seven-year-old who can already read at a 4th grade level. We are so proud. However, when it comes to math, she can only do addition and subtraction. I try to sneak in additional some pre-algebra concepts like substituting simple variables or solving a set of 2 linear algebra equations. It’s like a deer in headlights. Crickets, anyone? Why does she not get it? She is certainly intelligent enough. The answer is simple brain development. Brain Development is Not About Age As children’s brains develop, several things happen. The first is the transition from the concrete to the conceptual. This is highly documented by a lot smarter people than myself. Babies, for instance, are so concrete, you can play the game “Peek-a-boo” with them, because simply hiding your face makes you “disappear” because literally what babies see is what they believe. As children begin to develop further, their brains can understand more abstract concepts like what a variable is (asking my daughter just now, she said it’s a letter that is used in math to make other letters … [sigh]). In a year, however, this will be common sense to her, and she will never believe that she even said that. Why? Brain development. People try to put ages on certain mile-stones, but the reality is brain development and cognitive achievement vary based on age, personality, environment, genetics, and even the child’s interest in learning. Honestly, you can’t put the human brain in a box.
That brings us back to the Trivium – what’s that? The trivium is an ancient understanding of how people learn. Learning begins with Grammar, or the memorizing of relevant facts to some subject. Grammar can literally be language grammar or constructs of mathematics (like theorems, corollaries, variables, equations, operations), or one could memorize the periodic table and atomic weights in Chemistry. In fact, facts that we could memory could include facts from any of the following disciplines: Agriculture, Animal Husbandry, Botany, Horticulture, Gardening, Analytics, Math, Engineering, Computers, Programming, Logic, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Geology, Meteorology, Medicine, Physiology, Anatomy, Pharmacology, First Aid, EMT, Social Studies, Politics, Philosophy, History, Economics, Literature, Writing, Penmanship, Forensics, Argument, Art, Music, Sculpting, Painting, Dance, Pottery, Religion, Apologetics, Evangelism, Cults, Epistemology, Eschatology, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Spanish, German, French, Chinese, Fitness, Martial Arts, Marksmanship, Archery, Tactics, Strategy, … but just the facts, ma’am.
Grammar is about learning facts, but not understanding them. It is music to my ears when a child is memorizing large amounts of information and then says, “what is this all for?” When I hear this, it tells me the student is saturated with grammar, and is ready to move into Dialectic – or the understanding of what was memorized. It is true that as we memorize facts, we naturally begin the Dialectic process. As adults, we almost immediately begin understanding what we are memorizing, and how it works with the other facts we are memorizing. However, for children, Dialect begins to occur as their brains can process more abstract concepts. So, we really need to be careful at how hard we press Dialect on young minds. We can actually sour their excitement for learning by trying to force them to learn that which their minds are not ready for or holding them from learning what their minds are hungry for. Each student is unique in this way.
Once a student can understand all the facts that are given them, and they have a chance to chew it over in the brain (an indication of additional brain development), they begin to form opinions on the information. Rhetoric is simply the forming of opinions and ideas, making assertions (either verbally or in writing as I am doing now) and then defending those assertions using various techniques (like argument or research). And that’s the Trivium in a nutshell. Remember, the Trivium both helps explain the developmental stages of the brain in adolescents, as well as the stages of learning for grown adults. Next time, we will use our understanding of the Trivium to better understand what cross-discipline learning is.