Teaching is the Oldest Profession.
Boy image; Credit: © Shutterstock
We rarely feature the modern human on these pages, but the propagation of learning is one of our major features among mammals (such as these dolphins), birds and even ants. The teacher therefore figures here because all of us may have capabilities in that direction. The anthropologist, Barry Hewlett, has spent many years in Africa, noting ideas that may well prove useful in configuring our thoughts on education generally. This is the result. The 40,000 Aka hunter gatherers of central Africa are known as egalitarian thinkers, fond of childrens rights in terms of individual autonomy and, with their small groups of 25-35, adept at sharing most of their total resources, as well as child care.
169 relevant teaching events involving teaching were recorded by the 2 researchers among the small hunting groups including 112 episodes of teaching. Those episodes were brief, with an average of 20.3 seconds duration, involving techniques like simple demonstration. One interest of the researchers was the high frequency of pointing by the adults, which did not count as any kind of formal teaching act. It all pointed to one fact: teaching seems here to be part of the human genome, not simply part of any advanced education system.
There were different forms of teaching seen, all brief and subtle. The cost to society is therefore low, partly because of a great belief in a childs autonomy. The teacher of course was very close to the infant (and biologically related), indicating that the adult had little need to modify the behaviour a great deal in order to achieve better learning. The researchers noted the Aka habit of facing children towards a group and pointing out individuals to them. This clearly defines the behaviour of a human, as opposed to that of any other known primate.
A very high frequency of teaching was found in the Aka. The lengthy leisure time of adults in camp was especially relevant for that activity. As many types of research deny that the small scale culture can be a genuine teaching culture, this result was surprising. Perhaps the failure to define teaching properly is based on the actual lack of definitions of teaching itself. Our ways of teaching children forever change according to political beliefs, while hunters simply want
a high fidelity skill transmission to offspring who can become accurate, unselfish and productive. To help elucidate this almost unrecognised teaching, a small scale or microanalysis from brief segments of video material helped to capture events that lasted only 3-4 seconds.
The children used were all of a similar age (12-14 months), but from 9 different camps, enabling a great focus on teaching culture with little chance of any copycat problems. The ability of teaching to limit learning was also considered, with the childs flexibility being all-important in such a mobile community. In fact, the old ideas surrounding a lack of teaching in small-scale societies prove true after the children reach early childhood (after infancy!) The learning involved may be better achieved in natural processes, previously regarded as
play,especially as children become more independent Our problem in many countries lies in developing older children into better-equipped people for an electronic era, without offending their over-developed sense of
autonomy! . The suggestion is that evolutionary biologists and very few (cognitive) psychologists are closest to understanding understand this universality of teaching. It really is older than that other profession.
The revolutionary piece was provided in Royal Society Open Science by Barry S. Hewlett and Casey J. Roulette of Washington State University in the US, under the title,
Teaching in huntergatherer infancy.