Putting the Heart Back into Learning


I held a child back last week for detention. He’d been shouting out and generally being annoying and so I kept him back. I know that the point of a detention is supposed to be a punishment, but for me, it’s a chance to get to know this person a little better.

Why, I wonder, does he demand so much attention? Well why not talk to him? He is in a very excited mood, despite being kept back. He’s going to see his Dad tonight – for the first time in 9 years. The last time he saw him, he tells me cheerfully, he was three years old and clinging to the leg of a police officer screaming as they arrested his father. He remembers it clearly. He says, “I’ve missed him every day.” So today, he found it hard to concentrate. Who can blame him? But then he says something that proves he had been absorbing the learning nonetheless.

“He wouldn’t be up there, Miss, on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but I still love him.”

We’ve been looking at Maslow as part of our exploration of The Switch, by Anthony Horowitz. Our key question (a lens through which the novel of the half term is viewed) is ‘To what extent am I a product of my environment?’ The sub questions the children have generated have included:-

‘If a child is raised by poor parents, can they still do well?’ (Hence we used Maslow as a basis for exploring what good parenting might look like).

‘Does a good education guarantee you happiness?’

‘Does being poor affect how you learn?’ (We watched the BBC documentary Poor Kids, examined some of the statistics and they developed action plans for improving the lives of those children living in relative poverty)

‘Is the world a fair place?’

‘Can empathy make the world fairer?’

The questions were all generated by the children in response to the key question and we used them as a basis for developing the curriculum. This kind of autonomy would make many traditionalists shiver, but fear not. We read a new book every half term, including some classic literature. The children have,  through these books, developed some key vocabulary which would impress the most die-hard knowledge addict – inflation, hyper-inflation, population growth, emigration, immigration, asylum, free markets, globalisation, polytheistic and monotheistic belief systems, eco systems, sanctity and sanctuary… and others. They’re thirsty for new words, ideas and knowledge. Not necessarily because it is the knowledge itself that they desire, but because the need to know it is rooted in an emotional centre.

The language they learn is remembered because it is critical to the problem they are exploring, or the character they are developing in and out of the central fiction. It’s rooted in the power of story – something Willingham and others explore in terms of its impact on memory. So in their exploration of The Arrival, by Shaun Tan, it became critical to wrap our inquiries up in the elements of narrative memory – Character, Causality, Consequence and Conflict. In choosing a destination for the character fleeing from an oppressive regime, we needed to know which kinds of society would welcome him. What the values, tolerances and immigration policies of that particular society might be. They researched and learned not because our topic was ‘Migration’ but because they were emotionally invested in the life of someone they were learning to care about whose actions and choices had consequences that they wanted to understand.

If we genuinely want children to love learning and to remember it, we need to ensure that their hearts and minds are locked into inquiry. Facts without feeling are meaningless. I haven’t had to point to the work of Antonio Damasio and other neuroscientists for the children to understand that. They feel it.

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