'The ability to learn is not what makes us human; it is the ability to teach'

17th June 2017 at 16:01
One leading educationist explores the idea that teaching and language co-evolved as the means by which humans developed

Once, when my daughter was very young, we heard a series of bangs, accompanied by a stream of salty expletives. We found her happily hitting a Duplo brick with a plastic hammer, offering an incantation of short Anglo-Saxon words.

Called to account, she explained that she was doing DIY, like Daddy.

Copying (whisper it softly, after all, it is exam season) appears to be crucial to our survival as a species. In a brilliant new book, evolutionary biologist Kevin Laland analyses the choice between copying another individual’s behaviour ("social learning") and trying out new things ("asocial learning", or innovation).

Across the animal kingdom (and not just mammals; even fruit flies and fish are in on the act), the most successful strategies are those that rely almost entirely on copying rather than innovation.

Copying is the most direct and successful form of learning in an evolutionary context.

To be sure, copying has a negative connotation, but Professor Laland says that copying in exams brings home the strategic nature of social learning: “The strategy to copy when uncertain is a smart rule that has served humans well throughout history”.

It isn’t just our species that is capable of learning, although we seem to do it better than others. The reason is that while learning (in some form) is a characteristic of many organisms, teaching appears to be species-specific. The ability to learn is not what makes us human; it is the ability to teach.

The meaning of words

Professor Laland reports that teaching is either absent or exceedingly rare in other species. Individuals of other species do not “actively facilitate learning in others”; they transmit information and skills by going about their business while being observed and imitated.

Limited examples of "instruction" have been reported in cheetahs, meerkats, bees and some ant species; but there is no compelling evidence that any other big-brained species apart from humans invest much in pedagogy.

Apes and chimpanzees don’t teach; nor do dolphins. Elephants’ legendary inability to forget doesn’t sound so impressive when we know how little they were taught in the first place.

Successful and sustained teaching and learning depend a lot, but not entirely, on language. And here, Professor Laland makes a fascinating claim – that language originally evolved to facilitate the teaching of knowledge and skills.

Not all experts agree that language is adaptive, and among those who do believe that it developed because it served a purpose, there is disagreement about what that purpose was: did language give an edge in co-operative hunting or sexual attraction, replace grooming in large groups, assist pair bonding or allow gossip?

Or did language develop as a tool for thought rather than communication?

Professor Laland says that language facilitates “high-fidelity transmission”. The most effective learning comes through teaching, and effective teaching makes use of language.

Put another way, teaching and language co-evolved as the means by which humans developed a cumulative culture capable of ever-growing sophistication. Candidates for the world’s oldest profession include prostitution and farming. But teaching may well have got there first.

Dr Kevin Stannard is the director of innovation and learning at the Girls' Day School Trust. He tweets as @KevinStannard1

For more columns by Kevin, visit his back catalogue

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