The Trivium consists of the first three formal subjects of the seven liberal arts: Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric. This is the formal Trivium in the classical sense. This formal Trivium is an academic reflection of the more basic Biblical Trivium, the mental capacities of Knowledge, Understanding, and Wisdom. (See the list of references at the end of this article.) The classical style of education is built upon these three mental or intellectual capacities:
- The first, for receiving and gathering up information – Knowledge.
- The second, for arranging and connecting the information in a logical order – Understanding.
- The third, for putting this gathered and ordered information into practical expression – Wisdom.
Children are continually developing in Knowledge, Understanding, and Wisdom. Though these three capacities are mutually dependent upon each other, and the capacities are developing in the child from before birth, nevertheless, children pass through several developmental stages, or levels of learning, where one capacity experiences rapid growth. We will describe these stages below. Keep in mind that our age divisions are not meant as nice neat little cubicles. They are only arbitrary approximations, and they may vary greatly from child to child.
The Knowledge Level (or Grammar Stage) Before Birth through Age Twelve
The child is always learning facts, relating the facts to each other, and expressing these facts and relations in practical ways. But there is nevertheless a logical and developmental order among them. During the child’s early years, (up to age ten), children are largely learning the language, building their vocabulary, and filling up their basic understanding of the world. These children need more training than they need teaching. They should be trained in self-discipline and filled with useful information. This lays a proper foundation for more formal studies later. While all three capacities are growing during this time, the capacity for Knowledge grows the most rapidly. We call this period of intense basic factual learning the Early Knowledge Level, because it lays the foundation for what follows, which is the more intensive period of building Knowledge.
At about age nine or ten, these youngsters develop the capacity for more abstract thinking. They have reached such a state of maturity that the light bulb goes on and their capacity for Knowledge makes a growth surge into an intensive period when capacity and ability for formal academic study of Knowledge-related materials is most profitable. They can handle abstract mathematical concepts. They can discern the difference between a noun and a verb. This may be called the Later Knowledge Level. Understanding (reasoning) skills are beginning to increase their rate of development at this level, so some might classify this as the beginning of the Understanding Level. But this is really just a warming-up period. Their Knowledge skills must become more highly developed before either their Understanding (reasoning) skills or their Wisdom (practical expression) skills can develop rapidly.
While the child is in the Knowledge Level, we focus on teaching him the skills of comprehension, to accurately receive information, to gather the facts. Knowledge is imparted through telling, and demonstrating. It comes through the senses. We develop a vocabulary of facts and rules. At this level, we do not need to separate subjects. We can combine 1) language with literature and fine arts 2) mathematics with natural sciences 3) history with geography and cultural studies. Our goal is to develop competence in the tools of inquiry: reading, listening, writing, observing, measuring.
The Understanding Level (or Logic Stage) Ages Thirteen through Fifteen
The intensive Knowledge period lasts about three years, and when it is over, Knowledge, of course, continues to grow and develop, but the capacity for Understanding, which has been developing all along, emerges as the frontrunner in this race. With a large foundation of Knowledge already laid, and the development of Understanding reaching a level of maturity, another light bulb goes on. The capacity for Understanding now makes a growth surge into an intensive period when the capacity and ability for formal academic study of Understanding-related materials is most profitable. Youths, from ages thirteen through fifteen, begin to develop their reasoning skills. They can handle algebra and geometry. They should be developing the critical apparatus for thinking. They should be more inquisitive and analytical. Their minds should be trained to correctly reason things out, to logically evaluate presuppositions and conclusions.
When the child is at this level, we teach him the skill of reasoning, to critically question, analyze, evaluate, and discern causes, motives, means, purposes, goals, and effects, to investigate the theory. Understanding is imparted through coaching, correcting, drilling. We develop a vocabulary of relationships, order, and abstractions. Our teaching will become more sequential and systematic, separating the different branches of learning. Our goal is to develop competence in the tools of investigation: analyzing, comparing, contrasting.
The Wisdom Level (or Rhetoric Stage) Ages Sixteen through Eighteen
The intensive Understanding period lasts about three years, and when it is over, Understanding, of course, continues to grow and develop, but the capacity for Wisdom, which has been developing all along, emerges as the frontrunner in this race. When a large foundation of Knowledge and Understanding has been laid, and the developmental parts of Wisdom have reached a level of maturity, then a third light bulb goes on, and the capacity for Wisdom makes a growth surge into an intensive period when the capacity and ability for formal academic study of Wisdom-related materials is most profitable. Older youths, from ages sixteen through eighteen, begin to develop their skills in communication and application. They want to creatively and effectively express what things they have learned and to put these things into practice.
When the child is at this level, we teach him the skills of prudent judgment and effective expression, through communication and practical application. Wisdom is imparted through encouraging individual initiative and innovation, asking questions, and leading discussions. We develop a vocabulary of philosophical ideas and values. We begin to recombine the knowledge and the skills from separate disciplines. We seek the application of principles, values and goals.
The intensive Wisdom period lasts two or three years, and when it is over, Wisdom, of course, continues to grow and develop, but all three capacities, Knowledge, Understanding, and Wisdom, which have been developing all along, emerge as a fully developed team of tools.
The Final Finishing Level (or Stage) Age Nineteen and Up
During the next couple of years, as all of the mental capacities have been fully developed, the moral capacity of conscience, which has been developing all along, is brought to full measure. Young adults, ages nineteen and twenty, should bring these capacities into unison under the moral capacity for conscience. The capacity for accountability should be fully developed by the completion of the full Biblical age of twenty years (Numbers 14:29, etc.). Of course, all of the capacities will continue to grow, but the basic tools, which will be used throughout life, should all be developed by this time.
Applying the Trivium to Subjects
This same progression, Knowledge, Understanding, and Wisdom, applies to many other things. For example, each individual subject of study has three levels of development. First we learn the facts, that’s Knowledge. After we know a fair amount of facts, then we begin to discover the connection between the facts, that’s Understanding. After we know a fair amount of the connections between facts, then we create ways of expressing and applying the facts, that’s Wisdom.
If we fail to properly develop one capacity, or to eventually bring all capacities into balance, then we will create a learning dysfunction. Knowledge is the most basic of all. Without Knowledge of a subject, we cannot go on to build a proper Understanding or to develop Wisdom in the subject. Likewise, improper development of Understanding will hinder Wisdom, but it will also hinder the capacity to pursue Knowledge. Finally, an improper development of Wisdom will hinder the pursuit of Knowledge and Understanding. For example, if we fail to teach the basic phonics skills, we’ll artificially induce dyslexia, the inability to read well. If we fail to teach basic logic skills, we’ll artificially induce what we call dyslogia, the inability to reason well. If we fail to teach basic skills of expression and application, we’ll artificially induce what we call dyssophia, the inability to exercise good judgement.
In summary, the capacities for Knowledge, Understanding, and Wisdom are not neat little compartments with sealed doors between them. Rather, they all develop at the same time from the very beginning, yet they each pass through successive periods of intensive development, until they finally catch up with each other and work harmoniously together. These ages are only approximate, and your child may be on either side of the line.
To summarize it all in one sentence: we first instruct the child in Knowledge; then we guide the youth in Understanding; then we challenge the older youth in Wisdom.
*Exodus 31:3; 35:31; 36:1; Deuteronomy 1:13,15; First Kings 7:14; Job 15:8-9; Proverbs 2:6; 3:19,20; 5:1,2; 8:12; 18:15; 23:23; 24:3,4; Daniel 1:4,17; 5:14; Ephesians 1:8,9,17,18; Colossians 1:9,10; 2:2,3; and many other places.