The Learning Instinct

Roger Titcombe's picture

The inspiration for this article is Steven Pinker’s 1994 book, ‘The Language Instinct’, in which he builds on Chomsky’s assertion of the existence in the human genome of a universal grammar, as the explanation for the astonishingly rapid development of language skills in human infants. I am now of course immediately immersed in a longstanding controversy, which I am academically unqualified to debate, except to say that I believe that Pinker has got it broadly right.

As in other aspects of learning theory, there seem to be three distinct threads.


This is a ‘blank slate’ position in which the development of language is generated and reinforced by the responses of first the mother and later the extended family, to random sounds generated by the baby. Positive responses and rewards mould the growing linguistic skill of the child so as to generate the deep structure of the native language. There is no ‘universal grammar’.


This is also a ‘blank slate’ theory of ‘nurture overcoming nature’ in which the moulding agent is the culture and teaching regime in which the child grows up. It is akin to the general Marxist denial of ‘human nature’ and its assertion that being brought up in a socialist culture will, of itself, counter the negative human urges of greed and competitiveness that result from being brought up in a capitalist culture.

The Chomsky/Pinker/Piaget/Vygotsky position

This accepts the genetic inheritance of a ‘universal grammar’ that facilitates rapid infant development of language, but which requires social interaction for the inherited framework to assemble the specific language patterns and vocabulary of any particular native speaker. Academic linguists are naturally interested in researching and writing papers about the differences and alleged contradictions between the approaches of the four. However, I am more interested in what they have in common, with particular reference to the vital developmental role of socialisation. This is because I assert that Chomsky’s genetically inherited ‘universal grammar’ is the communicative sub-set of a similarly genetically inherited ‘universal learning facility’ possessed by all humans, the behavioural indicator of which is ‘curiosity’. The genes facilitating language development ‘kick in’ soon after birth. The curiosity that drives other learning, appears to peak before adulthood. Human autonomy and social culture, however,  can encourage curiosity-driven learning throughout life.

The Nobel physicist Richard Feynmann wrote a book about this, as has internationally renowned researcher of intelligence, James Flynn.

In terms of the facilitation of deep learning, curiosity is the essential fundamental cognitive urge. I characterise curiosity-driven ‘deep learning’ as that which builds ascending levels of cognitive sophistication (Piagetian plastic intelligence) as distinct from the ‘training’ that can be achieved through passive study, instruction and memorisation on the behaviourist learning model.

Vygotsky took the view that just as language learning is a social process for which talking and conversation are fundamental necessities, the same is true of all deep learning. Here are some of his thoughts.

The true direction of the development of thinking is not from the individual to the social, but from the social to the individual.

By giving our students practice in talking with others, we give them frames for thinking on their own.

Every function in the child’s cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people (interpsychological) and then inside the child (intrapsychological). This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory, and to the formation of concepts. All the higher functions originate as actual relationships between individuals.

Through others we become ourselves.

What children can do with the assistance of others might be in some sense even more indicative of their mental development than what they can do alone.

The child begins to perceive the world not only through his [or her] eyes but also through his [or her] speech.

Human learning presupposes a specific social nature and a process by which children grow into the intellectual life of those around them.

 … People with great passions, people who accomplish great deeds, people who possess strong feelings, even people with great minds and a strong personality, rarely come out of good little boys and girls.

Which brings us to the pupil rule book of the Academy Trust that runs ‘Great Yarmouth Charter Academy’. It can be found and downloaded here.

Here are some examples from the rule book.

Sit up straight

At Charter you sit up straight at all times and you never slouch. Teachers have a seating plan and you sit at the seat they have allocated. When you read you always follow the text with your ruler, with both hands on the ruler. This helps you concentrate, so you remember more and understand more. When you are not writing or reading you sit up straight with your arms folded. Your teachers will instruct you: “3,2,1 SLANT!” Everyone will sit up extra straight, eyes front, looking at the teacher. You will follow their instructions first time, every time. The same rules apply to all, so are fair to all. No exceptions.

Listen carefully

At Charter you listen to every single word your teacher says very, very carefully. You especially listen to instructions very, very carefully. You don’t pick up your pen or your ruler, or anything else, until your teacher gives you the signal.

Never interrupt

Your teacher is the expert. You never interrupt your teacher when he or she is talking. If you are confused, or unsure what to do, let the teacher finish what he is saying and then put up your hand to ask a question. Sometimes you will receive demerits and detentions. Sometimes you may even be put in internal isolation. This will be because your teachers have decided that your actions were rude or damaging to your education. You may think your teacher was unfair. The teacher’s decision is final. You never answer back.

Track the teacher

This means you keep your eyes on the teacher whenever he or she is talking. You never turn around – even if you hear a noise behind you. You don’t look out of the window. You don’t lose focus. You really, deliberately concentrate on what the teacher is saying at all times. You look at the board. You listen. You read. You practise the work set in silence. You deliberately try to understand and to memorise the information and the processes you have been taught. If someone tries to distract you, raise your hand and tell the teacher.

The beginning and end of lessons

It is essential that you make your way very quickly and efficiently between classes. You walk between lessons in single file, eyes front. You don’t talk. You can chat to your friends in the playground in the morning, break time and lunch time. At the end of each lesson you stand behind your chairs in silence. Your teacher will use the last five minutes of each lesson to pack away, ask you questions, and get you ready to go off to your next lesson. Lessons start and end very efficiently and calmly at Charter. We do not teach right to the very last second and then pack away in a rushed and inefficient manner. You pack away exactly as instructed. You do not talk to your friends. You remain focused on the task of packing away and then you track the teacher. You fold your arms and go back into a slant. Around two minutes before the end of your lesson your teacher will give you the signal and you will stand in silence, and your teacher will dismiss you row by row. You will say thank you to your teacher as you leave the classroom. Your teacher will ask you questions as you wait. He or she will choose pupils to ask by name rather than with hands up. When you get to your next lesson you wait outside for your teacher. You never enter a room without your teacher’s express instruction. Being on time is a sign of politeness. Being late is rude and disrespectful. When we line up we have eyes front, shoulder against the wall, we never turn around, our bags are off our backs, we are silent. We move along corridors in single file, we do not turn to our friends, we do not speak, we keep eyes front. Our job is to move very quickly, efficiently and politely between lessons. We remain in single file and we wait if another class is passing in front of us. When we line up we take our bags are off our backs and hold them in our hand. We line up – eyes front and shoulder against the wall and leave space for other people to pass. We never go to the toilet between lessons or in lesson time. The toilets are open before lessons and at break times. You should not go to the toilets in the last five minutes of break to ensure you do not miss a single second of lesson time.

In 2017, this school received publicity about aspects of its behaviour policy including deterring pupils from ‘claiming to be ill in order to get out of lessons’ by the teacher offering said child, a ‘puke jug’. You will find critical articles about such approaches hereand here.

The columnist Janet Street Porter wrote an article in the Independent praising this school’s behaviour policies. Similar approaches, according to a Guardian article, also appear to have the widespread support of delegates to Conservative Party Conferences, some Conservative Party supporting newspapers and also OfSTED.

The ‘Inspiration Trust’ does not appear to especially encourage the role of pupil’s curiosity in deep learning. Great Yarmouth Charter Academy appears instead to inhibit curiosity, in favour of pupils, ‘tracking the teacher at all times’, while being in general fear of being, ‘put in internal isolation’. 

This suggests that the school and the Inspiration Trust are either ignorant of Vygotsky’s theories of  ‘social learning’ or else they have no truck with them. I am with Chomsky, Pinker, Piaget and Vygotsky.

Where is the inspiration for the ‘Inspiration Trust’?

The answer could perhaps be found here.

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Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 27/09/2017 - 13:02

I posted this comment on Roger's website:

'Disciplinary rules such as the one from GY Charter Academy seem to be based on a belief that children must be subjected to draconian discipline in order to bludgeon them into submission. It hints at a profound dislike and fear of young people masquerading as ‘tough love’. There’s nothing lovable about forbidding children to speak to each other in corridors or expecting them to wait for commands to pick up equipment. Such authoritarianism might instil instant and unquestioning obedience but that is not what education should be about.'

'Not all behaviour policies at Inspiration Trust academies appear to be like GY Charter’s. Cromer Academy doesn’t impose such strict rules and yet Ofsted judged behaviour to be Outstanding. . Similarly, the ‘Trust wide’ behaviour policy on Inspiration’s Hethersett Academy website is nowhere near as draconian. . Again, Ofsted judged behaviour as Outstanding.'

'It appears the new head of GY Charter Academy is attempting to become ‘the toughest head in the UK’ – the type of head which sends the Daily Mail into raptures.'

Roger Titcombe's picture
Wed, 27/09/2017 - 15:43

You are right Janet. I wasn't aware that other Inspiration Trust Academies differed so much in their approach to pupil behaviour and discipline. However, the Inspiration Trust name and logo  is prominently displayed on the back cover of the GY Academy 'Rules and Behaviour Guide', so any reader might reasonably assume, not just that the general policy had the full approval of the MAT, but that the other Academies controlled by the same MAT would treat their pupils in the same way.

The more I have reflected on this rule book, the more disturbed I have become.

Sometimes you may even be put in internal isolation. This will be because your teachers have decided that your actions were rude or damaging to your education. You may think your teacher was unfair. The teacher’s decision is final. You never answer back.

Article 12 of the UN Convention on the rights of the child states the following.

When adults are making decisions that affect children, children have the right to say what they think should happen and have their opinions taken into account.

The school's policy is stated to apply to every child without exception in all circumstances. Is it necessarily appropriate for children on the autistic spectrum, or with various specific learning difficulties? If such children are suffering emotionally damaging treatment then who is to protect them? It could be that a pupil complained that he/she was innocent of the offence for which punished, or that the teacher was vindictively and selectively punishing that particular pupil, while ignoring similar misconduct by others, or if the pupil complained of being humiliated in front of the class, then these would be issues that warranted a response of some sort. It cannot be acceptable just to decree that the child has no rights - ever, in such circumstances.

This means that 'a teacher's decision can never be final'. While it may be reasonable to forbid a child to challenge the imposition, at the time, of a severe punishment like, 'being placed in isolation' , the child and ultimately the parent surely has a retrospective right of challenge that cannot be written out of existence by a line in a 'rule book'.

 I am a retired headteacher with 32 years of teaching experience. In my headship school we taught all our students to be assertive (rather than passive or aggressive) in their interactions with other individuals or institutitions. It was part of Personal and Social Education (PSE). In the event of a student feeling that they had been wronged in some way by a teacher they were taught to remain behind at the end of the lesson and privately raise the matter with the teacher. If this failed to resolve the issue then the student should discuss it with the Form Teacher, who may feel justified in having a conversation with the teacher concerned. In the event of still no resolution in the view of the Form Teacher, there would be a discussion with the Head of Year, who might involve the teacher's Head of Department. Such escalation was very rare and almost always successful with all parties happy. In my 14 years of headship I can recall a very few occasions when the Head of Department would arrange a meeting with the student  and the teacher concerned. The purpose of this would be primarily to resolve the problem rather than argue about who was in the right (or wrong).
In addition, all LEA/LA schools had a 'complaints procedure'. Parents could complain to the Head or to the local Senior Education Welfare Officer. This would result in a meeting to try to resolve the problem. If this failed then the parent had recourse to the Chair of Governors, who may decide to reply by letter or arrange a meeting between the parent and the Head and the Chair of Governors. After all this the parent still had the right of complaining to the Director of Education.
The fact that such escalations are likely to be rare in any good school does not make it right to give an Academy School the absolute power to forbid any challenge to the actions of its teachers on the part of a pupil or their parent.
We never go to the toilet between lessons or in lesson time. The toilets are open before lessons and at break times. You should not go to the toilets in the last five minutes of break to ensure you do not miss a single second of lesson time.
While going to the toilet in lesson times must be discouraged, there are circumstances that may warrant it. A young girl may have just started her period, or else is still learning to deal with her periods. A child may have a stomach upset, or may feel the need to vomit. This school recently was in the news for the head's instruction to teachers to offer a 'puke jug' in such circumstances.
To cause children to be in fear in the event of such circumstances is clearly 'cruel and degrading treatment'. Forbidding going to the toilet between lessons in all circumstances is clearly unreasonable. 
Pupils are not allowed mobile phones at Great Yarmouth Charter Academy. If a pupil’s mobile phone is seen or heard anywhere on the school site it will be immediately confiscated. We will keep your phone until the end of the half term. That could be up to six weeks.
All schools have confiscation rules. They are well established and LEAs/LAs have long given guidance to schools about what is reasonable and what is not. A school keeping a mobile phone for six weeks and refusing a parental request for its return is not just unreasonable but almost certainly illegal.
However, the main thrust of my article  concerns whether effective learning is being promoted in this school. The 'rules' also state the following.

It is important you get a good night’s sleep and have enough rest to properly study at school. As a guide you should be asleep for 9.30pm at the latest. You need around nine hours of uninterrupted sleep every night. If you don’t sleep enough you won’t learn effectively and you won’t remember what you’ve been taught.

This is very revealing. The hard part of learning is not 'remembering what you have been told', but making sense of it. Which is where Chomsky, Pinker, Piaget and Vygotsky come in.


Roger Titcombe's picture
Thu, 28/09/2017 - 14:05

An good article by Richard Vaughan at iNews today. Unsually for the mainstream media, this addresses the downside of such approaches for creativity and deep learning.

Dr Stephen Earl, a Birmingham University academic and expert on student motivation, believes that punitive behaviour policies can often have the opposite to the desired effect. “The research shows that psychological control can lead to disengagement of students,” Dr Earl says.

“The important thing is for teachers to show the relevance behind what they are doing. If it’s demanding pupils sit up straight all day with their eyes forward then they might push back against that, ” he adds. Dr Earl is now researching how to develop character and virtue in pupils in schools. He said the no excuses culture of these schools could inhibit creative thought and their development. His comments appear to be supported by research in the US. Joanne Golann, Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Education at Vanderbilt University, Tennessee, examined the US charter school system’s use of “micromanaging” behaviour. She found that while such approaches established order, they also led to students pushing back against the rules and also led to learners who struggled to use their own initiative. “These schools develop worker-learners—children who monitor themselves, hold back their opinions, and defer to authority—rather than lifelong learners,” her paper states. In short, being super strict can have lasting effects on children’s learning. Clearly, the key is finding a balance -a school can be too strict. As [Tom] Bennett [DFE Behaviour Tsar] says it is wise to “err on the side of kindness”. “All rules must be aimed at the nurturing of the child, as a person and a scholar. Any rule that impedes that is too much.” 

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