A Quick Summary of “The Lost Tools of Learning”

First and foremost, the Trivium, as described by Dorothy Sayer in “The Lost Tools Of Learning, is a guide to help in the proper use and understanding of the tools of learning. This is a map not for teaching subjects as such, but a guide for how to think. It is an “order” of learning, an “unfoldment” of the natural processes of thinking which evolves naturally with learning.

These natural processes, independent of age, follow a well described path. Although Sayers does list age ranges for each of the three stages, I would argue that the more relevant point to her work is a focus on the natural stages of development, regardless of age. As she herself stated “what age shall the children be? Well, if one is to educate them on novel lines, it will be better that they should have nothing to unlearn; besides, one cannot begin a good thing too early, and the Trivium is by its nature not learning, but a preparation for learning. We will, therefore, “catch ’em young..”

The tools of learning are described in the metaphor of the Trivium ( grammar, Dialectic and Rhetoric). This is a description of the three fold way in which our thinking and learning evolve together, naturally. The Trivium provides “the proper use of the tools of learning before applying to subjects”. Sayers describes these phases of overlapping cognitive evolution in the following ways. These are not discreet phases, they overlap, blending at the conceptual margins.

The grammar phase constitutes the first stage of mental evolution where the basic building blocks of a subject area are learned. For children, this could apply to language, but for an adult, this would apply to any subject. So, no matter what the age, the process is the same. In language, structure is learned first (the basic nuts and bolts of the subject: what it is, how it works, etc.) along with reading, writing and “cipher” (meaning of symbols and such). This process is applied to anything in the child’s world, from raindrops to carnival clowns. This phase, according to Sayers, is to “master the faculties of observation and memory” and to avoid rational explanations. Many subject areas for teaching this phase are provided in the form of History, Geography, Science, Math, etc. This sets the groundwork for the next stage.

The Dialectic phase is initiated by the child when he begins to challenge what he has been told and starts to “talk back”. The implication here is that there may be an age relationship in terms of normalized cognitive evolution, but regardless, the phase begins when the child or student begins asking questions. Sayers suggests that the student in this stage is to “master the faculties of Discursive Reason” and begin playing with Formal Logic. Here begins learning the art of arguing correctly. Again, there is, provided in the text, a list of subject areas and approaches to each (eg. in language, focus on syntax). Argumentation and debate are hallmarks of this stage and it will likely come naturally to kids. The process and ability highlighted here are built on the previous one. One must encourage and guide the child without judgement or criticism. Above all else, the challenge is to make it fun and avoid the pitfalls of “destructive criticism” between adult and child or child and subject. Again, the groundwork is prepared for the next and final phase.

This stage, as in the previous one, begins on signals from the child. When there is a challenge about the value and purpose of logical thinking and reasoning, then naturally begins the Rhetoric phase. This is all about freedom of self-expression, rooted in constructive criticism. Here, now the student has the tools needed to approach any study and requires some guidance as to keeping focus on one or two areas of study and to compliment and balance these areas (eg. balance an interest/focus on math with studies in humanities). This will support an evolving revelation that all areas of study are connected. Sayers does not provide a list for guided study for this phase due to the difficult nature to customize and standardize free thinking. The only guide is the limit of interest and imagination.

The Trivium is the map, the guide that illustrates in metaphor the natural evolution of the mind and thinking. This evolution is not strictly standardized to age, but more to be considered a rough guide given that each child or older student is unique and develops independently of standards set upon them. The map is alive and without strict margins of differentiation, one phase evolves into another adapting to individual ability and interests.

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