Dorothy Sayers in her essay on “the Lost Tools of Learning,” refers to three stages of childhood she calls the Poll-Parrot, the Pert and the Poetic stage. She noted that children grow naturally through three stages, each one corresponding to the three elements of that Trivium: grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric. This essay has a significant impact on the Home and Christian School movements.
In the elementary years (generally), the students occupy what she called the Poll-Parot stage (ages 9-11). They love to chant, memorize, and recite, individually or in groups. If they are not given things to chant, memorize, and recite, then they will make up their own. They enjoy the sounds of strange words. This corresponds to the grammar stage of the Trivium. At this point in their education, the kids would memorize vast amounts of information-presidents, kings, mountain ranges, rivers, multiplication tables, battles, catechism answers, psalms, and so forth. In doing this, the school is cutting with the grain. The children enjoy taking large amounts of information on, and so we will gladly accommodate them. They do not yet have it all sorted out, which is fine. That will come at the next stage. Grammar—the study of language and the fundamental rules of each subject—involves learning the basic facts about English, history, science and the Bible.
From this point, the children grow into what Miss Sayers called Pert stage (ages 12-14). This matches the dialectic stage of the Trivium. This is the point where they begin to question and dispute. .They like to argue. They enjoy correcting the mistakes of their parents and teachers. They are beginning to develop the ability for abstract thought. They wonder why they are being made to learn all this stuff. They wonder why they can’t listen to a portable CD player during lunch hour. They wonder why, how, and how come? They develop a natural disposition to argue, and so, continuing to cut with the grain, we teach them to argue. This is why they will take a course in symbolic logic and argumentation in the eighth grade. In their other courses, they are learning to relate all the various facts they have already accumulated. This stage corresponds generally to the junior-high or middle school years. Logic—learning to define terms accurately, structure arguments, and organize thoughts— involves learning to argue correctly, learning to look for fallacies in what they read and hear.
They reach the Poetic Stage (ages 14-16) in their high-school years, corresponding to the rhetoric stage of the Trivium. This is the age when the young people are very concerned with their appearance, how they are coming across. Students finally show the ability to formulate their own creative written and oral expressions. They are ready to demonstrate their desire for independent thought. Consequently, this is when the school should teach them how to present themselves in a rhetorically winsome way. They will take rhetoric during these years, along with all their literature courses. In Bible, they should be offered apologetics. Instead of a prom, they should be trained in manners and etiquette in preparation for various “protocol nights,” where they attend different cultural events as a class-for example, dinner at a classy joint, and then a night at the opera. Rhetoric—learning how to express thoughts and ideas—involves learning how to prepare eloquent and persuasive arguments, the importance of style and applying the tools of learning previously received.