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Ethos and Neurobiology

Updated: Mar 26, 2022

Eton. What picture does that conjure up for you? I am guessing a picturesque idyll of the quintessential British school, with centuries of tradition and prestige to match. It does sound rather nice doesn’t it, safe and nostalgic, no need for change.

Now here is another word. Neurobiology. What does that conjure up for you? Old fashioned, traditional? No I think not, probably exactly the opposite.

So have a think if you could connect these two words into meaning, ‘Eton and Neurobiology’, almost an oxymoron if you like, similar to the concept of Military Intelligence. Well it so happens there is a very close link if Tony Little, the previous Headmaster of Eton, and esteemed educator, is anything to go by. In his highly recommendable book – ‘An intelligent persons guide to Education’ he quotes quite passionately –

“The challenge for educators is to embrace neurobiological research and enter into a new contract with the young.”

Pretty strong words from someone steeped around centuries of tradition. But how does one go about trying to action such a mighty call? Changing traditional thought and practices is very difficult, especially in schools, and anything difficult creates challenges and challenges are well, you know, ‘challenging’! It reminds me of the 8 year old boy who gives his younger brother some advice before he goes to school for the first time.

"Don't learn how to spell 'car', because if you do, after that the words just keep getting harder and harder.”

The elder brother is right, it does get harder! But why do some children like the challenge of things getting harder and others feel like the elder brother, they don’t like the challenge? Well Tony Little may be on to something as it turns out as neurobiology is opening up many insights as to why some children cope with challenges better than others. Some examples can be found in Paul Tough’s wonderfully written “How children succeed – Grit curiosity and the hidden power of character”. Here’s just one:

Scientific studies have found that baby rats who were licked and groomed by their Mothers on a daily basis from birth grow up to be healthier, more social, more curious, less aggressive, more self controlled and live longer than baby rats who weren’t similarly groomed at birth. What’s more interesting is scientific studies now link this same finding with humans. Mothers who responded sensitively to their own infants cues, akin to licking and grooming in rats seem to have a powerful and long lasting effect on their child’s outcomes in a variety of similar ways: the human babies who receive the extra dose of early care are, later on, more curious, more self-reliant, calmer, and better able to deal with obstacles. In essence they are better equipped to cope with difficulty, including words harder than car!

There are schools taking on this neurobiological approach and having incredible results. Just look up the KIPP schools in the USA for an insight into what is being achieved. The great news is they are developing tools and techniques to build on early childhood experiences with incredible life changing effect. It is very heartening to hear but does that mean we need to replicate the KIPP schools way of doing things or develop neurobiological departments within each school?

Actually I don’t think such a radical step is needed just yet, so long as these well respected and well renowned school movements such as the IB, British, KIPP or Montessori schools (and the many others) can hold onto the unique ethos they each espouse to and cherish so much. I modestly like to think I run such a school, its only 10 years old but I hope it has been built on foundations that are made up of that intangible and in many ways esoteric British Independent School 'Ethos’ that I was fortunate enough to to experienced as a child. The conundrum we face though is how to ensure we keep such an Ethos alive in this modern brand orientated, results driven and grades valued culture, as no one as of yet has managed to explicitly formulate what exactly a British Independent School Ethos is (Tony Little’s book gets very close), and that can appear at times rather foolish. It’s a bit like the British Constitution, it is not actually written down, it exists by spirit and convention and can appear extremely confusing to many, as can the British for that matter:

“The English take everything with an exquisite sense of humour – they are only offended if you tell them that they have no sense of humour”. - George Mikes observation of the British in - “How to be a Brit”

Trying to decipher this type of cultural idiosyncrasy, feels similar to trying to decipher what a school's own Ethos is. But its very elusiveness may prove to be its very salvation. If you think about it we have a ‘British Curriculum’ (technically the National Curriculum of England and Wales... but lets not go there...). But that’s the easy bit. It’s easily written down and so it has been branded with the ‘Cambridge Logo’ and has been sold to the corporate world for vast profits; its been copied and passed around so much now its getting a bit embarrassing, but the Ethos 'thing' is elusive. In fact one gets the feeling that's the point, its very elusiveness empowers us, as teachers and leaders, to keep clear of 'mission creep', that oh so dangerous path. That we never lose sight of what really matters, our fundamental role of ‘in loco parentis’ - in place of the parent - because there is no greater calling, and it would appear neurobiological research is now scientifically backing us up.

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