The Lost Tools of Learning

Last night my bedtime reading was “The Lost Tools of Learning“, a speech given by Dorothy Sayers in Oxford, 1947.  You can buy a copy very cheaply online as an ebook, or you can also find it for free with a quick Google search.  The copy I accessed was found through Trivium Education‘s website, and is a PDF you can download from their study materials page. I also recommend you check out that page as it will help you identify where to start with the Trivium, and provides a lot of very good resources.

In The Lost Tools of Learning, Dorothy Sayers puts forth the argument for a return to education based on the Trivium, saying that:

“…modern education concentrates on teaching ‘subjects’, leaving the method of thinking, arguing, and expressing one’s conclusions to be picked up by the scholar as he goes along.” 


“The whole of the Trivium was, in fact, intended to teach the pupil the proper use of the tools of learning, before he began to apply them to “subjects” at all.”

I found this to be the most succinct explanation of the Trivium so far. It is a toolkit which if taught first, opens the doors to learning throughout life, and paves the way for learning on any subject that is attractive.

Miss Sayers also goes on to outline at what stage each part of the Trivium should be taught. She breaks down the stages of development (by her own admission ‘rough-and-ready’), into:

  1. The ‘Poll-Parrot’: – when learning by heart is easy, but reasoning is difficult. This stage focuses on observation, memorisation, and repetition.
  2. The ‘Pert‘: – the stage where the learner begins to contradict, reason, and question.
  3. The ‘Poet’: – the stage where it all comes together and the learner is starting to show self-expression, creativity, and preference of one thing over another (e.g. science, literature, music).

This is then further explored through what should be taught at each of these developmental stages. I won’t go into detail here as I recommend you read the speech for yourself (it’s only 14 pages long). But in short, what Miss Sayers sets out is a very good blueprint or framework for any learner attempting the Trivium.

Poll-Parrot (observation and memory – grammar):
Beginning with language (she recommends post-classical and medieval Latin as being livelier), poetry and prose, classical stories, myths and legends, and a focus on recitation.

Pert (discursive reason – logic):
Moving on to mathematics (focusing mainly on multiplication at first, then later algebra and geometry), geography (places, maps, local customs), history (names, dates, key events, architecture), and science (identification of species, collecting and identifying specimens). Here is also where theology is introduced as the story of God and man, not to be fully understood at this stage but at least known and remembered.

Poet (Rhetoric):
In this final stage, it is recommended that “…the doors of the storehouse of knowledge should now be thrown open for them to browse about as they will.” A certain amount of freedom should be allowed, because this is where the learner applies the grammar and logic skills they have been honing. It is recommended to focus on one or two subjects and learn to do them well, with a few subsidiary subjects to keep the mind open to the inter-relation of all knowledge.

What next for me?

I am going to take what I learnt from this speech and start to formulate a study plan for myself. The one thing that I have struggled to do each time I started delving into the Trivium was finding where to start, what to study first and how to apply what I was reading. There are some who will say that the basis of the Trivium is to read, read, read and then read some more. But what I need is a plan. So that is where I am heading next.  Once I’ve outlined something I think will work, and is manageable with a full-time job and you know, life, I’ll post it here.

Until next time.

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