What every teacher can learn from prehistoric school

Looking at the way children learned thousands of years ago may be the key to encouraging today’s EYFS pupils to drive innovation and fight the climate crisis in their later lives, says Paul Howard-Jones
28th July 2022, 12:38pm
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What every teacher can learn from prehistoric school

https://www.tes.com/magazine/teaching-learning/early-years/eyfs-climate-change-prehistoric-learning-school

Several years ago in Turkey, an archaeologist invited me to descend into a pit where one of the first urban settlements was being unearthed.

The site hosted early “urbanites”, who left their nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyles behind to begin a continuous period of innovation, starting around 6000BC.

The archaeologists discovered how these urbanites dealt with the perennial problem of the local clay: this material expanded every time it rained and shrank every time it dried, causing walls to become unstable and topple over.

Locals, therefore, devised ways to support collapsing clay walls: first by using tree trunks as posts, then by experimenting with larger bricks and sandier clays, before developing buttresses - a structure built against another structure in order to strengthen it.

This accumulation of knowledge and experience has allowed humans through the ages to create and shape technology that meets immediate, concrete and changing needs. 

The move from hunter-gatherer societies towards urbanisation required more than just knowledge transfer, though: it also relied upon our ancestors making a major cultural “swerve” - a shift in cultural values and ideas that helped to pass down this progressive technological approach across generations.


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I recently worked with anthropologist Dr Fiona Coward to explore, from the perspective of psychology and neuroscience, how this swerve occurred. We found a possible answer in an unexpected quarter - the EYFS classroom.

The children of those first urbanites were exposed to far more technology than they would have seen growing up in a hunter-gatherer group. Partly due to changing childcare regimes, they would have watched, listened and sometimes imitated adults as they worked with materials to solve everyday problems.

Engaging EYFS pupils in the battle against climate change

For these children, the collapse and repair of a wall at home would have been a major technological event unfurling in front of their eyes. Indeed, children’s fingerprints and teeth marks in clay objects confirm their presence during manufacturing.

Our growing understanding of the developing brain suggests that this could have created a firmer cognitive footing for them innovating as adults, helping to kick-start cultural transformation, and something we might call “progress”. 

We can learn from this, as we attempt to create the deep, cultural change needed to tackle some of the biggest problems we face as a society today. 

Take climate change, for example. The fight against this requires us to make another cultural swerve in relation to technology - this time towards using it in environmentally orientated lifestyles. And, as archaeology teaches us, we must be mindful of children’s early experiences if we are to make that swerve happen.

The key message for schools, then, is that it’s impossible to start environmental education too soon. 

At around five years old, we have already begun to learn cultural differences in how we direct our eye gaze. In other words, those around us determine how we (literally) look at the world - including whether we see just a flower or also the forest on which it depends. 

This orientation of our gaze helps to define where we end up on the collectivist-individualist scale, with collective thinking predicting more climate change action as an adult. Recent research suggests that this orientation of eye gaze may begin as early as 24 months. 

So although it’s great that a new natural history GCSE qualification is being planned for teenage students, the science tells us that earlier is usually better. 

Introducing children to the natural world when they are infants is key. Outdoor activities, followed by drama, art, playtime and conversations with adults around climate change can help to lay the foundations for the deep cultural shift we need.

A multitude of agencies now also provide fantastic climate resources for early years practitioners, including the charity Sustainability and Environmental Education (SEEd)

However, the impact of these lessons may depend on how children are encouraged by their teachers to look at and think about what they experience - and to see the flower as part of the forest.

Just as infant learning helped to initiate technological progress in our ancient past, the role of early education in addressing climate change should not be underestimated, as we attempt another cognitive leap to save our skin.

Paul Howard-Jones is an educational neuroscientist, known for his work on Channel 4‘s The Secret Life of 4-Year-Olds.

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