Establishing Competency: back to the middle ages

Yes, we all think of the middle ages as being, well, dark….full of the unwashed and uneducated. True, there were plenty of people without opportunities, but medieval academics set up a system for areas of competency that still hold pretty strong for today.

They called them the trivium (three things) and quadrivium (four). The trivium covered skills we usually hope to develop in Language Arts: grammar, logic and rhetoric (more about these in a moment). The quadrivium consisted of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy

Most of us would have no problem with arithmetic and geometry, especially since geometry makes it possible to create real-world projects. Perhaps the idea of studying  only astronomy gives us pause, but if we expand it to include the sciences of the world, how things work, the life sciences, physics, all that fascinating stuff about the way the world works, it makes sense.

But what’s this about music?

I think there might be an argument for every kid to learn music. The kind of focus and discipline required to read and perform music has been shown to improve academic skills and that is a pretty strong argument…and then there’s the delight of singing and playing in ensemble, the aesthetics of the thing. Learning to read music is a lifeskill that can last throughout your life.

We could also expand the idea of music to include applied arts generally–I’d have to say so, being an art teacher.

As for the trivium, it goes to what students seem to be lacking in their reading/writing: real comprehension, the ability to form and express a coherent argument, and the ability to write clearly and correctly. The British model of university curriculum has included writing across and within the curriculum in all subjects.

Most of today’s teachers may not necessarily want to go there. When I see the writing of some teachers, sometimes, I realize that they don’t know how to write and perhaps don’t like to. It’s too bad, because clarity of thought and clear writing can be one of the greatest gifts we can give our students.

Trivium, quadrivium: practical applications, yes. Standardized testing, not so much, because it doesn’t really prove mastery at all.


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