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The Learning Conference 2003

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Presentation Details


Decoding the Trivium: Information Theory, Entropy, and the Classical Model of Education

Dr. Hal McDonald Jr..

In 1948, Bell Laboratories mathematician Claude Shannon introduced information theory, which quantifies the most efficient means of encoding and decoding messages , in order to maximize the amount of information that may be exchanged through a given channel. Shannon’s theory began a revolution in communication technology which continues to this day. Education being composed of messages sent through various channels, information theory would seem to be as applicable to the classroom as it to the communications industry, evaluating different models of learning to distinguish the most efficient from the less so (the latter of which currently dominate American public education).

In 1947, one year before Shannon published his two influential papers, Dorothy Sayers delivered a speech in Oxford calling for Western educators to return to the “classical model” of learning. Although Sayers’ plea has been heeded by many home educators and small private schools, the American public school system at large has virtually ignored it as being old-fashioned or even elitest, and hence politically incorrect. When viewed in light of information theory, however, classical education warrants greater consideration than it has received. Indeed, the trivium, which is the foundation of classical education, proves to be an extremely efficient methodology for teaching any new subject, maximizing the amount of new information communicated, while minimizing the entropic “noise” with which the new information must compete.


Dr. Hal McDonald Jr.  (United States)
Associate Professor
English Department
Mars Hill College

  • Trivium
  • Classical education
  • Information theory
  • Entropy
Person as Subject
  • Shannon, Claude Campbell, Jeremy

(30 min Conference Paper, English)