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FREW Consultants Group        
Wednesday, August 01 2018

The Tribal Classroom

In a recent Newsletter we discussed how important a relationship is to enhance the learning for students in our class.  This importance lies in the reality that we have evolved to live in groups to share resources rather than in isolation where we would have to fend for ourselves.  That means our individual success depends on how we fit into that group, how socially aware we are.  This is not the case for all creatures, reptiles and some mammals do live in isolation but for the higher forms of mammals belonging to a group is critical for success. 

It follows that the strength of our sense of belonging and acceptance is necessary for us to feel secure in our social group.  Children who do develop this sense of belonging are categorized as being able to:  

  • Think well of themselves
  • Trust others
  • Regulate their emotions
  • Maintain positive expectations
  • Utilize their intellect

They learned these skills through their association with a healthy group, from their family and their school. 

However, our interest is with those children who have been subjected to abuse and/ or neglect at an early age and develop a toxic sense of their worth and learn a range of dysfunctional behaviours.  These have been learned through either abuse of their sense of self or exclusion, neglect from the only company they experience.

In light of this it is informative to examine how we developed the reliance on the group.  In the first stage of evolution there was little development of social groupings and the subsequent social brain.  This ‘social brain’ coincided with the growth of the limbic system, that place where our emotions and sense of connectedness resides.  About 100,000 years ago humans moved into tribes and the social development began. 

The benefits of this tribal life went beyond the provision of food, shelter and security it extended to more time for ‘child care’ meaning there was more time for the development of our physical and cognitive skills.  Along with this was the development of language, from grunts, to words, from grooming to non-verbal communication.  This drive to communicate coupled with more security and better nutrition provided the conditions for the expansion of our brains.  

The size of these groups has been shown to be between 50 and 75.  This number is still a likely size of other primates who live in groups.  These seem to be the numbers where strong bonds and attachments are formed.  The cohesion found is supported by a sense of sharing and fairness.  We trust things will be fair and we can rely on our group for support when we are struggling.

In contemporary times the tribe has been replaced by the big cities.  Now in those cities we live not in discrete groups of about 75 we live with millions of strangers, our contribution to this metropolis often lacks satisfaction, being detached from the feedback your support is providing.  We have become very individualised moving away from the supportive benefits of the tribe.

Successful arrangement of these large cities relies on some form of hierarchical authority that needs to dominate the organization.  Those in ‘authority’ enjoy their own sense of power and the rewards that come with ‘individual success’ but they are not attached to those who serve them.  Likewise workers in large industrial organisations have no contact with those who consume their production. 

This loss of an encompassing tribal sized community has forced people to look for alternate ways to belong.  This means we look to ‘belong’ to a football team, a political party, or a religion, something that we can identify with.  This gives us something to defend but the support back from these communities is questionable.  These types of communities have invariably become another version of industrialisation.  Football teams have moved from being a ‘district team’ to a ‘franchise’ that really belongs to their owner not the fans.  They are businesses where power and authority rest with those who compete for the leadership position.

There is no doubt that this marginalization of the group for the development of large industrial organization has led to an increase in our consumption of materials and benefits in services but at what cost.

However, what has been observed in this industrial age that the best outcomes are achieved when tasks are carried out by subset, tribe-like groups within the larger organisation.  Success depends on tasks being designed to be completed by a special section, armies divide into units, police have squads, etc. there is an understanding of the benefit of ownership. This advantage comes from the social interaction of the group.  

Schools have by design understood this process and have organized their children into classes.  There have been attempts to ignore this process, we have had accelerated progression and vertical streaming but approaches satisfy the rationality of cognitive learning in fact they exemplify this approach but they have failed.  Learning is about the development of the brain and the best conditions for neural plasticity for children, the creation of autobiographical memories the substance of all curriculum is in the tribal group.

As teachers it is relatively easy in primary school to create your class as a tribe.  It is not as easy in the secondary years but it’s not as important but can still be done.  The trick is to develop an identity for the class, create a culture that the kids want to belong to.  Handle disputes as you would in a large family emphasizing the responsibility each class member has to the whole.

Creating this tribal class will not only benefit the students’ social learning it will provide the environment that will enhance their academic achievement.

Posted by: AT 12:11 am   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email

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John R Frew
Marcia J Vallance

ABN 64 372 518 772


The principals of the company have had long careers in education with a combined total of eighty-one years service.  After starting as mainstream teachers they both moved into careers in providing support for students with severe behaviours.

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