The lie that we can’t learn new attitudes.

Old dogs, new tricks


‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ is the old line, but there’s a consensus that it isn’t actually true. The actual statement may still stand, but I’m no dog trainer so couldn’t say for sure.


In humans though, it has been shown that a very high percentage of the brain’s ability to learn new things remains far into old age. We refer to adults as life-long learners. We have silver surfers and tweeters (or twits) in their 90s (the oldest died recently aged 104).


Old dogs, old attitudes


Learning is three things – knowledge, skills and attitudes. OK that’s a pretty broad statement, but I think those three words cover most of what we try to do in UK schools. I think we’re happy that new knowledge can be learnt at any age, and the ‘old dogs’ disproval would indicate that we’re also happy that new skills can be learnt at any age. However I think we’re not so assured about attitudes. In other words, old dogs are stuck with their old attitudes.


Unsure about attitudes


In fact if you check your own experience of school, I’m not too sure that we’re really sure how to change. influence or teach attitudes at all. What do we do? – we have a school ethos with some rules attached to it. We punish non-compliance and reward compliance. We may have other strategies such as circle time, but what proportion of the timetable do we really allocate to attitude shifting?


And what attitudes are we really teaching. It seems to me that for the most part, we rely on the educator in front of the children.


And at what age are children most likely to learn positive attitudes to life and learning? And at what age do they stop?


My teaching experience goes up to the age of 11, and I’ve certainly seen attitude change there. This year, a girl who had very little confidence in maths (yet high ability in English) turned it round to become a brilliant problem solver. The change was more down to a change in attitude rather than new skills she learned. I’m sure secondary colleagues also have stories where they have seen students’ attitudes completely change around.


Stuck with adults


I’m sure you’ve heard adults say things like “I can’t draw” or “I’m no good at maths.”


Somewhere along the way, we must get the idea that we’re stuck. We can’t improve our attitudes. We believe things like our intellience is fixed and we’ve reached our limits, or we can’t learn a new language because we just don’t think that way. It’s about the difference with being fixed and being flexible.


And if, as teachers, we pass on a fixed way of thinking to our children then they you will become stuck at some point in the future.


Our behaviour isn’t fixed. We can learn new attitudes.


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