The Learning Instinct

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.

[Author’s note : this link no longer appears to work – is the school reconsidering its approach?]

Here are some examples from the rule book [at the time of writing this article].

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 here and 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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2 Responses to The Learning Instinct

  1. It was always going to be risky attempting to interpret Marx. My correspondent Richard Hatcher tells me I have got it wrong.

    “Marx did not reject the idea of a human nature. He was right not to do so.”

    That is the conclusion of Marx and Human Nature: Refutation of a Legend by Norman Geras, published in paperback in 1985. In it, he places the sixth of Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach under rigorous scrutiny. He argues that this ambiguous statement—widely cited as evidence that Marx broke with all conceptions of human nature in 1845—must be read in the context of Marx’s work as a whole. His later writings are informed by an idea of a specifically human nature that fulfills both explanatory and normative functions.

    The belief that Marx’s historical materialism entailed a denial of the conception of human nature is, Geras writes, “an old fixation, which the Althusserian influence in this matter has fed upon … Because this fixation still exists and is misguided, it is still necessary to challenge it.”


  2. Janet Downs says:

    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.


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