The Trivium and our digital lives

The Trivium and our digital lives

I first read Martin Robinson’ s Trivium in 2015, and have returned to it repeatedly since then, because I believe it helps us to answer the questions, “What is an education for?” and, “how do we structure learning?”

In my opening address to BSN colleagues this year I will be drawing from the reading, research and experience that leads me to believe that children and young people need to “know” and “remember” things, whilst being encouraged to research, argue and debate material before rehearsing the presentation of eloquent communication. This is the cyclical and interconnected nature of The Trivium – Grammar (knowledge), Dialectic (debate), Rhetoric (communication).

Image from Tom Sherrington and Martin Robinson’s FoE slideshare

Our digital lives both challenge and enable The Trivium.

I will re-state my belief that we should not be, “outsourcing our memory to Google.” We’re right to question the impact of our digital lives and the danger of learning becoming superficial, “A mile wide and an inch deep.” The well-thumbed image below, shared by Doug Lemov, of an answer given by a young student who had been asked to research the first president of the US is a leitmotif for this danger:

This learning should not have been left to chance.

Digital platforms enable people to move to “rhetoric” before they’ve established their learning credentials with knowledge, debate and research:

“It is better to keep your mouth shut and look stupid than to open it and remove all doubt” Mark Twain

There is strong evidence to support the view that the much lauded “21st century thinking skill” of creativity is a process of committing something to memory before applying it in a new form elsewhere. You can’t really do that with Google. The imagination can’t be manipulated or forced. I’m with the romantic poets on this one. You really do have to work hard and learn things; there are no short cuts to knowledge, wisdom and happiness.

Mark Cueto tweeted another view of the deleterious impact of modern culture on the behaviour of young people with regard to the Love Island phenomenon:

There is an even darker side to this perspective with reports of a four-fold increase in the use of steroids among young men in the last year. The pressure on young people to meet body image expectations is a well documented digital challenge. Images and opinions shared quickly and thoughtlessly can expose impressionable young people and make them even more vulnerable; they can perpetuate a shallow view of life and expose them to unsavoury material and radical political views.

Another of the great challenges we face as educators in our digital lives is that some young people only know a world in which every experience is shared. It can feel as if an experience or thought isn’t worthwhile unless it’s shared digitally and responded to. This dangerous dependence on others’ validation of our truth could be referred to as an, “an outsourcing of the self.”

The concept of the secret self, the hidden life of unshared thoughts, dreams and ideas can seem an anathema to young people. When I’ve had to deal with cyber issues in schools I’ve always found myself saying, “If it’s personal, write it in a diary. There are some things you know about me and some you don’t. It’s safer this way and gives you time to adapt your opinions and views at your own pace.”

However, I am a huge advocate of the purposeful and balanced use of technology. In our role as educators I believe we need to model an approach to living a good digital life, in harmony with the physical world. Technology is here to stay and it’s increasing its influence on humanity.

With regard to The Trivium, the access to properly sourced knowledge, ideas, research and other students is an incredibly powerful enabler for learning. Studying for my Masters in the mid 90’s, I remember having to send off for research articles and waiting for them in the post. This would seem a colossal waste of time today.

Managing the personal / professional divide is a skill in education and in our digital lives. We need to show enough of ourselves to demonstrate our humanity but must learn what to keep back in order to maintain our privacy. We do this implicitly through sharing our stories, the things we do in our spare time, our passions and our expertise.

The concept of Security in our Ed Tech Strategy [Pedagogy, Productivity and Security] promotes the digital responsibility of not compromising yourself or others online. Shrill headlines such as, “Have Smartphones destroyed a generation?” and, “Screen-time junkies,” do nothing to provide a balanced or useful approach to helping young people lead a good digital life.

We have to educate our children to inhabit the world they are going to live in, not the nostalgic world we remember from our youth. And the vast majority of the kids are alright. We shouldn’t be too down on them. The cyber issues I’ve encountered in schools were frequently brought to my attention by students themselves – across a variety of platforms. They often know what’s right and wrong and want to see something done about abuse or inappropriate posts.

Let’s instruct, support, teach and help our students explore and understand their world and its tools. Let’s help young people to be excited about their future – measured not fearful, both connected and private.

One of the ways in which we’ll be doing this is by hosting a TEDxYouth #BigBoldWorld event at our senior school this term. Alongside established external speakers, some of our students will have the opportunity to pitch their rhetoric into cyber-space, connecting with a global audience.

TEDxYouth @BSN – Thursday 9th November 2017

Colleagues at The BSN inspire their learners daily when sharing their knowledge, wisdom and expertise alongside curricular input. The lessons of our past are even more important now in preparing our children for their future and their digital lives.