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Teaching: Natural or Cultural


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In this chapter I argue that teaching, as we now understand the term, is historically and cross-culturally very rare. It appears to be unnecessary to transmit culture or to socialize children. Children are, on the other hand, primed by evolution to be avid observers, imitators, players and helpers—roles that reveal the profoundly autonomous and self-directed nature of culture acquisition (Lancy in press a). And yet, teaching is ubiquitous throughout the modern world—at least among the middle to upper class segment of the population. This ubiquity has led numerous scholars to argue for the universality and uniqueness of teaching as a characteristically human behavior. The theme of this chapter is that this proposition is unsustainable. Teaching is largely a result of recent cultural changes and the emergence of modern economies, not evolution.
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Evolutionary Psychology
Series Editors: Todd K. Shackelford · Viviana A. Weekes-Shackelford
DanielB.Berch Editors
on Child
and Education
33© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016
D.C. Geary, D.B. Berch (eds.), Evolutionary Perspectives on Child Development
and Education, Evolutionary Psychology, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-29986-0_2
Chapter 2
Teaching: Natural or Cultural?
David F. Lancy
An important part of the common lore of anthropology is that “other people have
culture.” That is, most people fail to recognize or appreciate how much of their lives
are governed by habits, values, and expectations that are largely the product of his-
tory and culture. They fail to acknowledge that their own way of doing things is not
necessarily universal or even widely shared. This ethnocentrism can have enormous
consequences for the construction of child development theory and education. In
fact, as Henrich, Heine, and Norenzayan ( 2010 ) have so brilliantly demonstrated,
much of what we consider “human” psychology comes from facsimile, lab research
carried out with US undergraduates—members of WEIRD (Western, Educated,
Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) society. They question “whether researchers can
reasonably generalize from WEIRD samples to humanity at large” (Henrich et al.,
2010 , p. 62). In fact, “WEIRD people are the outliers in so many key domains of the
behavioral sciences; [they are] one of the worst subpopulations one could study for
generalizing about Homo sapiens” (Henrich et al., 2010 , p. 79).
While Henrich et al.’s ( 2010 ) identifi cation of this problem—the tendency to
overgeneralize results from WEIRD samples to the species—is quite thorough,
theirs is only the latest in a very long history of such challenges. Anthropologists
have been particularly critical of many “established” principles in human behavior
studies. This happens so often that LeVine coined the expression the “anthropolo-
gists veto” (LeVine, 2007 ; see also Fouts, 2005 ). He has forcibly exercised this veto
in his critique of the Bowlby and Ainsworth theory of infant attachment. LeVine’s
observations of agrarian, East African Gusii parents suggest the possibility of weak
attachment and consequent blighted development. He found that while mothers
respond promptly to their infant’s distress signals , they ignore other vocalizations
such as babbling . They rarely look at their infants or speak to them—even while
breastfeeding. Later, when they do address their children, they use commands and
D. F. Lancy (*)
Utah State University , Logan , UT , USA
threats rather than praise or interrogatives (LeVine, 2004 , 2014). In spite of these
obvious signs of “deficiency” on the part of Gusii mothers, LeVine and his
colleagues—who have been studying Gusii villagers for decades—fi nd no evidence
of widespread emotional crippling.
Researchers in the behavioral sciences are often vulnerable to the anthropolo-
gist’s veto. As noted earlier, we are largely unaware of our own culture unless we
make it a practice to step outside our own ethnocentric biases. Generalizations about
behavior observed in the dominant WEIRD society—especially when validated
through lab research—are treated as “natural,” the product of nature rather than
nurture (Lancy, 2010a ). This seems to be particularly true for infant studies where
there is an assumption that the infant resides in a bubble that is as yet impervious to
cultural infl uence (but see Bjorklund, 2007 , for a critique). As Hunt notes: “Until
the necessary cross-cultural research has been done, we have to admit the possibility
that [observed patterns of behavior] are the result of experiences that are specifi c
either to American and perhaps other post-industrial societies” (Hunt, 2007 , p. 145).
However, behavioral scientists rarely test the universality of their fi ndings via a
survey of the relevant ethnographic literature. For example, a recent lab study made
the unqualifi ed claim that “ early pretend play is heavily scaffolded by adults
(Rakoczy, Tomasello, & Striano, 2005 , p. 70)”—in spite of a near total absence of
any reference to parent–child pretend play in the ethnographic or historic records
(Lancy, 2007 ). 1 In a representative cross-cultural study, the investigators invited
rural village mothers and their educated, urban counterparts to “scaffold” their
child’s introduction to toys donated by the researchers.
[Village] caregivers appeared to interpret activities such as exploring novel objects, as an
appropriate context for children to play with the objects independently, not as a context for
adult-child interaction or play. Thus, caregivers would let the child play independently when
the novel objects were presented, while they returned to their chores. However, [WEIRD]
parents did not see the [request] for joint play with their toddlers as inappropriate
(Göncü et al.,
2000 , p. 322).
Natural Pedagogy?
Parent–child teaching is another behavioral practice characteristic of WEIRD
child- rearing that has recently been elevated to evolved, universal, or “natural”
status. In the remainder of this chapter, I will interrogate this claim.
The lines in this debate are very clearly drawn (Bonawitz et al., 2011 ). On the
one hand are scholars who argue that for successful child development and reliable
transmission of culture from generation to generation, parents must teach their
children skills and knowledge essential to survival and successful adaptation
(Kline, 2015 ). A typical expression of this belief:
1 In Peter Breughel’s 1560 masterpiece “Children’s Games” in the Kunsthistoriches Museum,
Vienna, he portrays, in one canvas, 84 distinct children’s “pass-times” or games. In none is an adult
shown as a participant.
D.F. Lancy
Teaching is recognized as a universal human activity and has received much attention …
refl ecting the centrality of adult teaching in educating children and in enhancing their
cognitive development (Strauss & Ziv,
2004 , p. 451) … teaching may be a natural cognition
(Strauss & Ziv, 2004 , p. 455) … all know how to teach (Strauss, Ziv, & Stein, 2002 , p. 1477).
But anthropologists see a very different picture. “If selection favors teaching
because it is necessary to promote learning of critical skills, it should be common
within populations” (Thornton & McAuliffe, 2012 , p. e8). On the contrary, cultural
anthropologists and primatologists studying juveniles often draw marked attention
in their ethnographic/fi eld accounts to the almost total absence of teaching of juve-
niles by their parents or others.
2 Here is a sampling of anthropologists’ and histori-
ans’ view of the role of teaching:
The ability to learn is older—as it is also more widespread—than is the ability to teach
1964 , p. 44).
Everyday activity is a more powerful source of socialization than intentional pedagogy
1988 , p. 14).
The equation, implicit in Vygotsky’s work, of culturally transmitted knowledge learned
through instruction is ethnocentrically biased. In most human societies, children become
competent adults without the help of … teaching … Most learning is achieved as a by- product,
in the course of interactions that have other purposes (Atran & Sperber,
1991 , p. 39).
The specialized cognitive skills of children that underlie their innate ability to learn (as
opposed to adults’ more conscious and less reliable ability to teach) establishes the success
of cultural reproduction as the child’s achievement (Langdon,
2013 , p. 174).
As Premack and Premack ( 1996 ) note: “The anthropology of pedagogy is largely
nonexistent” (p. 315). I have conducted four successive reviews of this literature,
each incorporating a greater number of cases (Lancy, 1996 , 2008 ), the latest extend-
ing to the historic record (Lancy, 2010 , 2010a , 2014a ). In each review, the conclu-
sions were that teaching was extremely rare and did not seem to map onto any
inventory of critical survival skills. In parental ethnotheories of “proper” child-
rearing, teaching was specifi cally proscribed—even deemed harmful. Table 2.1
represents a very small sample of the cases that illustrate these points.
In the model embraced by contemporary child psychologists, parents, and educa-
tors, the learning and development process is dominated by a top-down transfer of
knowledge (teaching) from experts/teachers to novices/pupils. By contrast, the eth-
nographic record portrays the development of skill and knowledge as largely a bot-
tom- up process where the eager, self-initiating learner takes advantage of social
learning opportunities to replicate (often initially in play) the observed skills and
behaviors practiced by members of his/her family (Bloch, Solomon, & Carey, 2001 )
and community (Lancy, in press a , in press b ). Geary ( 2007 ) has developed an
extremely useful theory that provides a fi rm evolutionary foundation for the top-
down, bottom-up distinction. In his theory, evolution has afforded children apano-
ply of cognitive skills and the motivation to master “evolutionary-signifi cant content
2 In another paper ( Lancy, in press a ) I take up the question of why evolution might favor social
learning over teaching in cultural transmission.
2 Teaching: Natural or Cultural?
areas.” These culture acquisition tools (e.g. bottom-up) are adapted for mastering
“biologically primary domains” such as language and the ability to decode and
learn from the natural environment (see, for example, Zarger,
2002 ). On the
other hand, “academic learning involves … a suite of culture-specifi c, biologically
secondary domains, such as mathematics” (Geary, 2007 , p. 5). To “survive” in
post- industrial society, individuals must learn material that nature has not endowed
them with the ability to learn on their own initiative. To learn mathematics you must
be taught—in a top-down process. For example, the Roman philosopher Quintillian
asserts “it is quite clear the young student lacks the judgment to understand … what
is set for him.” (Langdon, 2013 , p. 457).
Table 2.1 Evidence of an anti-teaching philosophy
[On Truk Island, there is no] “‘training’ of children in our sense” (Bollig, 1927 , p. 96)
During this period, there is no formal training [among the Mbuti Pygmies], but boys and girls
alike learn all there is to be learned by simple emulation and by assisting their parents and
elders in various tasks (Turnbull,
1965 , p. 179)
No formal instruction is practiced among the [!Kung] learning … comes from the children’s
observation of the more experienced (Marshall,
1958 , p. 51)
[Among the reindeer-herding Saami of Norway], “the child … is not instructed before starting a
project, nor does he solicit help” (Anderson,
1978 , p. 194)
[There] “is remarkably little meddling by older [Inuit] people in the learning process. Parents
do not presume to teach their children what they can as easily learn on their own” (Guemple,
1979 , p. 50)
In contrast to American parents, who seem to feel that knowledge is something like medicine—
it’s good for the child and must be crammed down his throat even if he does not like it—
Rotuman parents acted as if learning were inevitable because the child wants to learn (Howard,
1970 , p. 37, emphasis added)
Nyaka [foragers from the Lake Nyassa region of Southern India] “parents do not feel the need to
‘socialize’ their children and do not believe that parents’ activities greatly affect their children’s
development” (Hewlett & Lamb
2005 , p. 10). “Young [Nyaka] people learn their skills from
direct experience, in the company of other children or other adults” (Bird-David,
2005 , p. 96)
Kenyan Gusii “mothers … expect … their infants and toddlers to comply with their
wishes … they could be harsh [and] rarely praised their infants or asked them questions, but
tended to issue commands and threats in communicating with them” (LeVine,
2004 , p. 156)
[Manus] “children accompany their parents and participate in adult activities that involve little
skill. No attempt is made to develop skills—the emphasis is rather on the easy, pleasant
identifi cation with the activities of adults” (Mead,
1964 , p. 57)
“If one asks a Chaga [from Tanzania] where he got his knowledge, in nine cases out of ten, the
reply is: ‘From nobody; I taught it myself!’” (Raum,
1940 , pp. 246–247)
The Chewong of Malaysia believe that “ a child will grow and develop without specifi c
parental interference” (Howell,
1988 , p. 162)
To say that [Matsigenka] children learn from their parents does not imply that they receive much
in the way of instruction. Children are given freedom to watch and imitate parents with minimal
interference. Orna and I, in trying to learn many elemental skills like cooking over an open fi re
or walking on mountain trails, received virtually no advice or instruction; people watched us
ounder without showing us how it is done (Johnson,
2003 , p. 111)
Copying, and trial and error, rather than explicit teaching, are certainly the methods by which
Duna men learn about fl aked stone (White, Modjeska, & Hipuya,
1977 , p. 381)
D.F. Lancy
As leaders in the “teaching is essential” contingent, Csibra, Gergely and associ-
ates go well beyond the claim that teaching is universal and argue that it is part of
an evolved psychology unique to humans: “ [teaching or] natural pedagogy is a
basic cognitive hominin adaptation” (Csibra & Gergely, 2009 , p. 149). “ Natural
pedagogy was an independently selected adaptive cognitive system [rather] than … a
by-product of some other human-specifi c adaptation, such as language” (Csibra &
Gergely, 2011 , p. 1149). Tomasello and colleagues also claim that only humans
have evolved the capacity for teaching because “ … human beings, and only human
beings, are biologically adapted for participating in collaborative activities involv-
ing shared goals and socially coordinated action plans” (Tomasello, Carpenter, Call,
Behne, & Moll, 2005 , p. 674). Those who do fi eld studies with great apes, on the
contrary, fi nd ample evidence for collaborative activities (hunting, for example,
Boesch, 2005 ). Matasuzawa and colleagues describe the process whereby chimpan-
zee mothers facilitate their child’s persistent imitation of her skilled nut cracking ,
including providing free access to shelled nuts and the hammer and anvil stone tool
kit (Matasuzawa et al., 2001 ). In fact, it is striking how similar human’s facilitation
of children’s attempts to learn tool use is to chimpanzee practice (Humle & Newton-
Fisher, 2013 ; Lancy, in press b ). Hatano and Takahashi ( 2005 ) provide the following
summation of this body of work:
Our speculation is that there is only a small, quantitative difference in many basic aspects
(including sharing, intentionality) between humans and great apes, but the aggregate of a
number of these small differences produces the remarkable qualitative difference [between
apes and humans] (Hatano & Takahashi,
2005 , p. 703).
Ethnocentrism as an Impediment to Theory Construction
I have already noted the tendency to consider the practices of our own culture as
“normal” or “natural.” Two cases can be cited where an ethnocentric perspective
seriously undermines claims for the ubiquity of teaching. In constructing an argu-
ment about the genesis of teaching in the (universal) parent–infant relationship,
Tomasello and colleagues offer this exemplar: “suppose a child and adult are build-
ing a block tower together” (Tomasello et al., 2005 , p. 682). Nowhere in the entire
ethnographic record of childhood have I found any instance of a parent and child
building a block tower (or anything else) together; the purpose being to entertain
while also instructing the child in some critical-to-the-culture skill (see Callaghan
et al., 2011 ). Such behavior would fl y in the face of widespread, core beliefs about
parent–child relationships. To take a typical case, Sisala “parents regard an interest
in children’s play as beneath their dignity” (Grindal, 1972 , p. 25). Once this ethno-
centrism has been recognized and the research group has incorporated cross- cultural
material in their analysis, the contrast becomes obvious.
due to a child-rearing philosophy focused heavily on pedagogy—parents in many
Western, industrialized societies quite naturally interact with their young children in
these ways, whereas parents in more traditional, small-scale societies do so much less
2 Teaching: Natural or Cultural?
often. The comprehension and use of pretense and graphic symbols therefore, is something
that would seem to be quite dependent—especially in terms of early emergence—on the
ways that children in different cultural settings experience these symbols (Callaghan et al.,
2011 , p. 109; see also Kärtner et al., 2008 ).
Schooling provides a powerful model of the way information can be transmitted via
language So, we can expect more-educated parents to engage in more conversation,
especially pedagogic and explanatory conversation, with their children (Harris,
2012 ,
p. 34).
As noted above, WEIRD society places an extremely high premium on the early
development of academic knowledge and a high degree of literacy. One example of
this truly urgent imperative can be found in the enormous popularity of “Baby
Signs,” a system of using ASL (American Sign Language) to accelerate the infant’s
use of language (see also Bjorklund & Beers, this volume). A typical testimonial to
this innovation cheers “Hurray for Baby Signs! Considering how slowly babies
learn even easy words like ball and doggy, let alone diffi cult words like scared or
elephant, many months are lost that could be spent having rich and rewarding inter-
actions, both for the child and the parent” (Acredolo & Goodwyn, 2002 , p. 3).
Other examples come from a growing body of research in WEIRD society that
reveals parents are “teaching” children skills that they can readily learn on their own
and have always done so (Shneidman & Goldin-Meadow, 2012 ). Prominent exam-
ples include: teaching children to speak (Clark, 2005 ); teaching them how to do
make-believe (Vandermaas-Peeler, Nelson, von der Heide, & Kelly, 2009 ); teaching
them how play with peers (Schütze, Kreppner, & Paulsen, 1986 ; Waldfogel, 2006 );
and teaching them how to play with toys. In another line of research, middle class
parents were asked to carry out a cooking exercise (making crispy treats) with their
4-, 6- and 8-year-old children. But WEIRD parents used the cooking activity as a
pretext for teaching children about literacy and basic mathematical concepts and
3 The parents’ overly didactic focus undermined children’s enthusiasm for the
exercise (Finn & Vandermaas-Peeler, 2013 ). 4 Gergely and associates have devel-
oped one of the more elaborated arguments for the signifi cance and evolved charac-
ter of teaching. Their natural pedagogy theory derives from laboratory research on
infant cognition and infant–parent interaction in middle-class Hungarian society.
Humans are adapted to spontaneously transfer fast and effi ciently (Gergely, Egyed, &
2007 , p. 145) relevant cultural knowledge to conspecifi cs and to fast-learn the
contents of such teaching through a human-specifi c social learning system called “peda-
gogy.” Pedagogical knowledge transfer is triggered by specifi c communicative cues (such
as eye-contact, contingent reactivity, the prosodic pattern of ‘motherese,’ and being
addressed by one’s own name). Infants show special sensitivity to such ‘ostensive’ cues that
signal the teacher’s communicative intention to manifest new and relevant knowledge about
3 In a large-scale longitudinal study, the authors found that children attending heavily academic
pre-school programs, had lower test scores in 3rd and 4th grade than those who had attended a
more child-initiated, play-centered programs (Marcon,
2002 ).
4 Fortunately, there is a growing “popular” movement to give children space to learn on their own
without the constant mediation and supervision of a parent/teacher/coach/child-minder (see, as
examples, Gray,
2013 ; Honroe, 2009 ; Sampson, 2015 ; Skenazy, 2009 ; Tulley & Spiegler, 2011 ).
D.F. Lancy
a referent object. Pedagogy offers a novel functional perspective to interpret a variety of
early emerging triadic communicative interactions between adults and infants about novel
objects they are jointly attending to (Gergely et al.,
2007 , p. 139).
Again, a thorough reading of the ethnographic record would undermine their
arguments. This collection of parent–infant interaction patterns is rare beyond
WEIRD or post-industrial society, particularly when applied to fathers (Brazelton,
1977 ). In the many societies where infants are not held en face as a rule, but attached
to the mother’s body or held facing away from the caretaker (e.g. Field & Widmayer,
1981 ; Jay, 1969 ; Ochs & Izquierdo, 2009 ), infants may be far “more attuned to their
caregivers’ postural positions than to their caregivers’ gaze direction” (Akhtar &
Gernsbacher, 2008 , p. 61). Motherese and baby-talk are not found universally
(Ochs, 1986 ; Pye, 1991 ; Solomon, 2012 ). Pointing and interactive communication
by the infant and parent are, according to Tomasello et al. ( 2005 ), the nascent signs
of later, full-blown teaching. But, like other components of “natural pedagogy,”
pointing by infants may be uncommon,
5 especially as others rarely respond to more
than the child’s basic needs. In a systematic and focused study:
pointing (in Tzeltal and Rossel) … does not have the canonical result observed in postindus-
trial societies, with the adult labeling the object pointed at … On the basis of these observa-
tions, it is hard to believe that indexical pointing per se is playing a critical role in the
infants’ understanding that others have minds and communicative intentions of their own
2011 , p. 48).
In another recent study, middle and lower class mothers in Caracas and Chicago
were recorded (90 min in total) during interaction with their 3-month-old infants.
The amount of communication—verbal and gestural (e.g. pointing)—varied enor-
mously from 0 (lower class Caracas) to 6000 (middle class Chicago) words directed
at the infant. And this range was accounted for by the mother’s and grandmother’s
education level. Those with more schooling showed greater awareness of “modern”
socialization methods including the need to actively engage in “conversation” with
the infant (Rowe, 2015 ).
Mothers with little schooling or exposure to teaching don’t often engage cogni-
tively with infants (Callaghan et al., 2011 , p. 66; Kärtner et al., 2008 ). They respond
quickly to their distress cues by nursing and soothing them. But they rarely gaze at
them or engage in shared attention to novel objects (de León, 2011 ; Göncü, Mistry,
& Mosier, 2000 ; LeVine, 2004 ). When Nso babies gaze at their mothers during
nursing, the mother blows in their eyes so they avert their gaze and pay attention to
others (Keller, 2013 ). Mazahua nursing mothers often display a “distracted air and
pay almost no attention to the baby” (Paradise, 1996 , p. 382). “Pashtu mothers
rarely make eye-contact with their infants when nursing unless there’s a problem”
2010 , p. 22). In a comparative, quantitative analysis, “Euro-American
adults were much more likely than Aka [foragers] or Ngandu [farmers] adults to
stimulate (e.g., tickle) and vocalize to their infants (see also Whiten & Milner,
5 Consider also that, in many societies, infants are swaddled or hidden away in cocoon-like contain-
ers, which restrict any sort of communication except distress.
2 Teaching: Natural or Cultural?
1984 ). As a result, Euro-American infants were signifi cantly more likely than Aka
and Ngandu infants to smile, look at, and vocalize to their care providers” (Hewlett,
Lamb, Leyendecker, & Schölmerich, 2000 , p. 164). Akira Takada makes the point—
based on his extensive observation of mother–infant interactions among Kalahari
San—that the mother is engaged in a whirlwind of activity while holding or nursing
her infant. This may include extensive verbal interactions with others. In short, she’s
much too busy to gaze at the infant or attempt to engage it in a mutual activity
(Takada, 2012 ; see also Meehan, 2009 ).
The entire idea of stimulating infants cognitively and teaching them ( knowledge
transfer ) is belied by practices like seclusion, swaddling, cradle-boards, and envel-
oping the child in a cloth attached to its mother’s (or sister’s) back. The most widely
shared philosophy of infant care is to do everything possible to reduce stimulation
so that the infant remains at rest (Howrigan, 1988 ). Chiga babies are kept quiet and
not spoken to (Edel, 1957/ 1996 ), and traditional Chinese practice provides the
infant “a tranquil and protective environment” (Bai, 2005 , p. 11). Contemporary
Dutch parents embrace a model of infancy in which plenty of sleep and restful, quiet
waking periods are ideal. By contrast, US mothers are committed to keeping infants
stimulated via physical contact, speech, and toys (Harkness & Super, 2006 ). Like
the rest of Gergely et al.’s communicative cues , “being addressed by one’s own
name” (Gergely et al., 2007 , p. 139) carries little theoretical weight because, in most
societies, infants don’t receive a distinctive name until their viability is assured and
they are considered ready to “become persons” (Lancy, 2014 ). Keller and col-
leagues, based on extensive cross-cultural research, sum up the major difference in
infant care between WEIRD society and others: “face-to-face contact is the most
prominent system of parenting in urban educated middle-class families of Western
societies,” while elsewhere extensive bodily contact with little visual or verbal
engagement is the rule (Keller, Borke, Lamm, Lohaus, & Dzeaye Yovsi, 2010 ,
p. 234). The contrasting patterns are designed to develop the child’s individuality
and agency in the fi rst case and self-regulation and conformity to group expecta-
tions, in the second.
Lastly, there is little evidence in the ethnographic literature that adults feel any
urgency to transfer knowledge to children “fast and effi ciently.” In fact, the infant
cognition studies which are the well-spring for Gergely and associates’ ( 2007 ) the-
ory are far more congenial to child-initiated acquisition of culture than adult-
directed “transfer of cultural knowledge.” For example, Gergely et al. conducted a
study of 14-month-old infants ostensibly learning to execute a task from watching
an adult model. But the infants don’t faithfully copy the demonstrator, only those
actions which seem relevant to completing the task. “Our results indicate that imita-
tion of goal-directed action by preverbal infants is a selective, interpretative process,
rather than a simple re-enactment of the means used by a demonstrator, as was
previously thought” (Gergely, Bekkering, & Király, 2002 , p. 755). Even at 14
months, infants are out in front of would-be teachers, taking the initiative to learn
(Lancy, in press a ).
Recent empirical studies by Rogoff and colleagues support this perspective. It
would appear that children who must learn in and from the environment (as opposed
D.F. Lancy
to learning from teachers and books) develop characteristically different attention
patterns (Gaskins & Paradise, 2010 ; Rogoff, Correa-Chávez, & Cotuc, 2005 ).
Village children, as well as immigrant children whose mothers have little school-
ing—invited to learn to make something (e.g. Origami fi gures)—rely on observing
the task as it is carried out by an expert or attempted by other children. A sample of
more “schooled” individuals, on the other hand, pay little attention to the demon-
stration, waiting for (or soliciting) a teacher’s explanation and verbal guidance
(Correa-Chavez & Rogoff, 2005 ).
Data and Defi nition Issues
Even those who claim that teaching is ubiquitous and universal acknowledge that
teaching is a slippery concept” (Strauss & Ziv, 2012 , p. 187). I will review two
studies in non-WEIRD societies that purportedly show evidence of parent–child
instruction to illustrate this slipperiness.
In an early study of the Aka—forest foragers from central Africa—using inter-
view data, Hewlett and Cavalli-Sforza ( 1986 ) reported on the results of a survey
( n = 72, ages 7 to adult) asking who had taught respondents a list of 50 common
skills. Eighty-one percent of respondents identifi ed a parent as their teacher.
However, the authors do not clearly differentiate between adult-directed, explicit,
intentional teaching and more informal, learner-initiated observation of an older
role model, or the kind of interactive skill learning that occurs during the participa-
tory activity described by Lave, Rogoff, and colleagues (Lave & Wenger, 1991 ;
Rogoff et al., 2005 ; Tehrani & Collard, 2009 ; Tehrani & Riede, 2008 ).
In more recent reports of the same Aka community surveyed by Hewlett and
Cavalli-Sforza ( 1986 ), relying on ethnographic observation rather than interviews,
Hewlett and colleagues (Hewlett et al., 2011 ; Hewlett, 2013 ; Hewlett & Hewlett,
2013 ) present evidence of how children learn, and from whom, that is more consis-
tent with the ethnographic record as a whole. In a report drawing on two systematic
observational studies, Boyette—using a very broad, inclusive defi nition of teach-
ing—fi nds teaching to be quite rare among the Aka: “observed during about two
percent of all minutes of observation in both 2008 and 2010” (Boyette, 2013 , p. 91).
In a comparable recent interview study conducted with 72 Fijian adults, the
authors found that, depending on how the query was posed, teaching was seen as
critical in the transmission of valued skills, 18–43% of the time (Kline, Boyd, &
Henrich, 2013 ). But interview data are particularly vulnerable to response compli-
ance. The villagers Kline queried had had over 100 years’ exposure to Western
schooling and missionary infl uence (Kline et al., 2013 ). In my fi eldwork with Kpelle
children in the early 1970s, where teaching was conspicuously absent, the village
inaugurated its fi rst school during my fi eldwork. The Christian congregation was
tiny and Muslims even rarer (Lancy, 1996 ). Little conducted a child-focused eth-
nography among the Asabano, a remote and relatively unacculturated Papua New
Guinea (PNG) Highlands tribe. Schools and churches had arrived within the previ-
2 Teaching: Natural or Cultural?
ous 15–20 years. In his observation of children and parents, he saw no teaching.
Parents displayed no obligation to encourage children’s learning; to manage their
activity; or even to acknowledge, let alone reward, children’s efforts. However,
when “asked how their children learn anything, [parents] unanimously answered
that they explicitly ‘show’ children in a step-by-step process, even though they very
clearly did no such thing” (Little, 2011 , p. 152). Probing further, Little discovered
that the resolution to this contradiction lay in the consistent and explicit sermoniz-
ing of village pastors regarding the Christian duty of parents to instruct their chil-
dren. Although parents had not actually changed their parenting behavior, they
could parrot the credo and apply it to their own culture (Little, 2011 ).
In summary, it is my recommendation that for a phenomenon as “slippery” as
teaching, one would be on much fi rmer ground if the data were triangulated: ethno-
graphic study to provide cultural and historical context and meaning (Odden, 2007 ;
Little & Lancy, in press. ); systematic observation (e.g. Boyette, 2013 ); and informed,
open-ended interviews with both experts and learners (Lancy, 1996 ).
An equally challenging problem is the lack of consensus on a defi nition of what
teaching (or pedagogy) is. Kline ( 2015 , p. 1) notes “there is wide disagreement
about how to defi ne teaching, and how to interpret the empirical evidence for teach-
ing across cultures and species.” She defi nes “teaching as behavior that evolved to
facilitate learning in others ” (emphasis in original). But this defi nition presumes the
acceptance of a hypothesis that has yet to be tested. To do so, Kline must identify
behaviors that facilitate learning in others; then determine that those behaviors are
uniquely associated with teaching and not some other purpose(s); and lastly, estab-
lish that the behaviors are ubiquitous and critically important among humans, but
absent in close relatives such as apes. But such is clearly not the case: “If teaching
is defi ned very broadly to include any behavior of one animal that serves to assist
another animal’s learning, teaching is relatively common in the animal kingdom”
(Boesch & Tomasello, 1998 , p. 602).
But Kline does not develop a stringent defi nition of teaching suitable for testing
the theory that it has evolved separately from other behaviors that might assist learn-
ers. Instead, she offers a very catholic and inclusive catalog of behaviors that she
would count as fi tting her defi nition of “teaching.” But, as other evolutionary schol-
ars interested in teaching have noted: “We feel that moving away from a clearly
delineated and testable defi nition risks creating confusion and eroding standards of
evidence in this nascent fi eld” (Thornton & McAuliffe, 2012 , p. e7). I see enormous
diffi culties in unequivocally identifying the named behaviors as refl ecting structures
evolved to facilitate learning in others. For example, one type of teaching behavior
is opportunity provisioning where the “teacher” provides the child access to objects
or settings from which they can learn (Kline, 2015 , p. 7). This would include the
frequent accounts of the provision of knives to young children. For example, a
Pirahã child:
was playing with a sharp knife … swinging the knife blade around him, often coming close
to his eyes, his chest, his arm … when he dropped the knife, his mother-talking to someone
else—reached backward nonchalantly picked up the knife and handed it back to the
toddler (Everett,
2008 , p. 89).
D.F. Lancy
And from Taiwan:
Parents were surprised and amused when questions such as ‘How do you teach children … ’
were put to them. ‘We don’t teach them; why they just learn themselves,’ was the usual
answer A 2-year-old girl was seen imitating her mother by attempting to whittle off
pieces of bamboo with a large 12-inch blade bushknife Sickles and knives are used
expertly by many 6-year-olds. Bandaged fi ngers and numerous little scars are evidences of
learning and experimentation (Maretzki & Maretzki,
1963 , pp. 510–511).
I would use these examples of “opportunity provisioning” as prima facie evidence
of parents’ aversion to teaching coupled with the widespread belief (Lancy, in press b )
that learning how to use knives is children’s business (e.g., Willerslev, 2007 ).
Evaluative feedback is another type of teaching discussed by Kline ( 2015 , p. 8).
A normative reading of the ethnographic record would stress the rarity of feed-
back—especially praise—from adults (Hilger, 1957 ; Metge, 1984 ). Even in the
West, providing positive feedback or praise was, until fairly recently, rejected as a
child-rearing or pedagogical technique because of the danger of “spoiling” the child
(LeVine & Norman, 2001 ). Not surprisingly, in the bottom-up model of culture
acquisition that predominated until very recently, evaluative feedback is provided to
the learner automatically during the learning process (Paradise, 1998 ). The learner
doesn’t need an adult to tell them whether or not they’re successful; the results of
their efforts will provide all the feedback necessary. Indeed, one of the most impor-
tant contemporary research programs in educational psychology has been the de-
mythologizing of excessive teacher-donated praise (Mueller & Dweck, 1998 ). On
the other hand, corporal punishment (Ember & Ember, 2005 ; Hsiung, 2005 ) and
frightening the child are certainly common instances of “evaluative feedback”
(these commonly employed elements of “natural pedagogy” are conspicuously
absent from the major evolutionary-based theories, e.g. Kruger & Tomasello, 1996 ).
But of course, it isn’t clear that the intent is to teach . Verbal and corporal punish-
ment or denial of food is usually aimed at a child who has failed to do a chore or run
an errand—tasks she/he has already mastered. “Evaluative feedback” is largely used
to manage the child’s behavior, rather than to transmit the culture.
In crafting a broad, inclusive defi nition of teaching, in order to counter the argu-
ment that teaching is rare and unlikely to play a role in human evolution, Kline et al.
( 2013 ) make it near impossible to differentiate teaching from other behaviors. This
quandary is easily illustrated (Köhler, 2012 ). When a mother tolerates the presence
of her 4-year-old daughter while sitting in the shade of her house working clay into
pots, is she teaching (yes, according to Kline)? Or, is she “child minding?” When
she donates a ball of clay to the daughter (without any verbal instruction), is she
teaching (also yes in Kline’s theory)? Or, is she keeping the child occupied so she’ll
not be a bother? If she donates a ball of clay to her sister who drops by, is she teach-
ing or displaying reciprocal altruism? Obviously, many behaviors displayed by one
party can “facilitate learning” in another party. But crediting such behaviors as
“teaching” is merely a hypothesis which is diffi cult, if not impossible, to support.
To take another “slippery” example, the Aka may take their 10–12-month old
infants along on net-hunting expeditions. A mother will assemble, in a basket, a
miniature or toy tool kit (axes, digging sticks, spears). When the hunting party stops
2 Teaching: Natural or Cultural?
to rest, the mother empties the basket of tools whose contents keep the toddler
happily chopping, cutting and, digging. This activity distracts the child, lessens the
likelihood he’ll wander off into the bush, and is patently entertaining for the adults.
It refl ects an understanding of children’s deep interest in objects, their desire to
achieve greater competence using them, and also refl ects an Aka “core cultural
value”—respect of the child’s autonomy (Hewlett & Hewlett, 2013 ). Although this
seems the most straightforward rationale for the mother’s tool/toy basket, the
authors claim a pedagogical intent on the part of parents. But these are 10–12-month-
olds—hardly the most propitious age for beginning “training” in the use of tools.
Further, they report no evidence that the occasional on-the-spot teaching is part of a
program of systematic instruction in which the parent takes responsibility for devel-
oping the child’s mastery of tool use (Hewlett et al. 2011 ).
A Working Defi nition of Teaching
I believe that a defi nition of teaching that is robust enough to survive the rigors of
evolutionary theory must meet the criteria noted in Table 2.2 . For most of the village
curriculum, children are capable of learning socially or individually. They do not
require the services of a teacher. Even when they seek the assistance of a teacher,
they may well be rebuffed if the expert feels that this is unnecessary (they’ll learn
on their own) or a waste of his/her time (Lancy, in press b ). That is, teaching incurs
costs to the teacher. These costs must be offset by clear fi tness gains for the teacher;
most obviously that the lesson is critical to the child’s (or other close kin) learning
skills which are vital to survival and eventual reproduction. The teacher may also
increase his/her fi tness directly—a successful lesson will increase the child’s work
output, unburdening the parent/teacher—or indirectly, where the skills taught will
lead to some future surplus output that can be donated to the teacher. We can imag-
ine any number of hypothetical scenarios that would meet these criteria. However,
in the real world, the necessity for teaching is mediated by the child’s ability to learn
without the aid of a teacher. We have overwhelming evidence from both fi eld and
laboratory studies that children are self-starters, getting about the business of
Table 2.2 Components of a defi nition of teaching
The teacher must incur costs (taking time away from their work or using non-recoverable
materials) and these “costs to teachers of facilitating learning are outweighed by the long-term
tness benefi ts they accrue once pupils have learned” (Thornton & Raihani,
2008 , p. 1823)
Teaching will not occur, or is unlikely, where the learner is able to acquire the requisite
knowledge or skill in the absence of teaching (Thornton & Raihani,
2008 )
Teaching involves the intent of the teacher to alter/enhance the knowledge or competence of the
learner. The learner is aware of the teacher’s intention and engages with or attends to the
“lesson” (Olson,
2009 )
Teachers explicitly monitor the progress of the learner and modify teaching activity
accordingly (Kruger & Tomasello,
1996 )
D.F. Lancy
learning critical skills without the intervention of a teacher (Geary, 1995 ), and par-
allel evidence of deep-seated pro-social tendencies which compel them to apply
their newly learned skills in the service of family (Haun, van Leeuwen, & Edelson,
2013 ). Why should an expert invest time, materials, and energy instructing a novice
who will learn just fi ne on her own and likely enhance relative fi tness in the long
term? (Trivers, 1972 )
Criterion three and four in Table 2.2 point to the necessity of fi nding signs that a
“lesson” is underway. Without these indicators, as I’ve mentioned earlier, it is nigh
impossible to distinguish a behavior or suite of behaviors as teaching, rather than
altruism, punishment, child-minding, and so on (Thornton & Raihani, 2008 ). If you
argue for the survival value of the skills or information being taught, and you argue
that they are opaque and can’t be learned without teaching (Csibra & Gergely,
2011 ), there should be lessons . That is, you should see/hear a parent say something
like, “I will now teach Goma to make traps; he is ready to learn it.” It should be
obvious to an observer that a lesson is underway. One should see demonstration,
verbal explanation, and correction. There should be decision rules, for example:
when to change teaching tactics to get Goma over any obstacles, or when to stop and
declare him trained. You can’t claim that teaching is ephemeral, fl eeting, and casual,
that it is not matched up in any specifi c ways with the developing child and the local
skill set, while also claiming that culture and individuals would not survive without
it (Csibra & Gergely, 2011 ). If a baby isn’t fed, it dies. Csibra and Gergely’s asser-
tions re: teaching MUST be supported by life or death examples.
Teaching in the Village
To this point, the reader may well assume that I am arguing that teaching does not
exist outside WEIRD society. On the contrary, it certainly does exist and I will dis-
cuss these specifi c cases in this section. My argument rather is that the extreme
rarity of teaching, its seemingly random variety and distribution, and the very evi-
dent aversion to and disapproval of teaching in most situations fatally weaken argu-
ments for the ubiquity, importance, and evolutionarily shaped nature of teaching. In
actuality, when we seek out instances of teaching, we see situations suggestive of
Lévi-Strauss ( 1966 ) famed bricoleur .
In the ethnographic record, teaching tends to cluster around certain bodies of
knowledge and skill. In a handful of societies infants are “taught” to sit and/or walk.
The purpose is clearly not to ensure that children will master sitting and walking—
they’ll obviously learn on their own eventually. But, in high fertility societies, the
infant’s independence and separation from its mother is accelerated via early
weaning from the breast and the back and accelerated walking to free up the mother
to attend to the next birth. According to the defi nition outlined earlier, these exam-
ples can’t be classifi ed as teaching because the child can learn entirely on their own,
so I have chosen to characterize these behaviors as “acceleration” rather than teach-
ing (Lancy, 2014 , 2015 ).
2 Teaching: Natural or Cultural?
I have characterized a second cluster of behaviors as “learning manners.”
Extremely common in Oceania (Lancy, 2014 , 2015 )—but much rarer else-
where—we fi nd families systematically teaching the skills needed for full accep-
tance as a human being—a “true” Tongan, for example. That is, most societies
differentiate between not-fully-human infants and children who are considered
human (but still of little importance). In the Pacifi c Islands, issues of rank, speech,
and etiquette are so important that families feel that their not-fully-human chil-
dren are a source of embarrassment and loss of status (Fajans, 1997 ). To remedy
these defi cits, lessons are constructed (and administered by all family members
from about age 5) to teach polite speech, appropriate terms of address, and social
A limited number of societies intervene early to promote sharing (Lancy, 2014 ,
2015 ). For example, Papel infants are given something desirable, such as a snack,
then immediately told to pass it on to another, particularly a sibling (Einarsdóttir,
2004 ). Generosity is demanded of even small Ngoni children both directly—forcing
them to donate prized resources to peers—and indirectly, through proverbs lauding
generosity and condemning meanness (Read, 1960 ). A !Kung grandmother most
often takes on the task of teaching hxaro , their formal system of exchange and
mutual support. The very young child is given beads and told which kinsmen to pass
them on to (Bakeman, Adamson, Konner, & Barr, 1990 ). 6 It is certainly the case that
sharing—especially of food—is a core value in most societies (Mauss, 1967 ) and
children are hastened into compliance. But a related goal in “humanizing the child”
is to make him/her as attractive as possible to alloparents or foster parents.
Once again this behavior falls short of the criteria I have outlined that defi ne
teaching. There’s considerable evidence that children will learn the appropriate pro-
social behaviors with time (d’Andrade, 1984 ; Fehr, Bernhard, & Rockenbach,
2008 ), 7 including proper kin terms (Beverly & Whittemore, 1993 ). For example, on
Samoa (where rank and etiquette are important):
Children as young as six … begin to pick up the distinctive features characterizing people of
rank and authority without any explicit instruction. This was particularly the case for
distinctive behavioral aspects of common ritual events associated with chiefs that children
could readily witness (Odden & Rochat,
2004 , p. 46).
So there’s a cluster of teaching or quasi-teaching practices that are designed to
accelerate the child’s independence from mother’s care and ensure that the child is
tolerated and given alloparental care by other family and community members.
A second cluster relates to a critical element in Gergely and associates’ theory.
Csibra & Gergely ( 2011 ) argue that there is a great deal of the culture that is opaque.
They give the following example:
6 Like other hunter-gatherers, the !Kung are “fi erce egalitarians.” They “consider refusal to share as
the ‘ultimate sin’” (Howell,
2010 , p. 194).
7 Recent laboratory studies underscore that human children exhibit pro-social behavior spontane-
ously from the age of three or earlier and are more readily pro-social than juvenile chimps
(House, Henrich, Brosnan, & Silk,
2012 ).
D.F. Lancy
Imagine that you observe a man as he turns a bottle upside down, twists its cap three
times to the left and then another time to the right, turns it upside again, then opens it and
drinks its content. (Csibra & Gergely,
2011 , p. 1149).
They argue that social learning alone would be insuffi cient, or at least ineffi -
cient, in fi guring out the bottle-opening sequence. But what can we learn from
their example? First, Csibra & Gergely seem to be ignoring the work by Keil and
colleagues (Keil, 2006 ; see also Ruiz & Santos, 2014 ) with WEIRD subjects that
reveal the obvious fact that opacity per se is no obstacle to learning to use a
myriad of common devices from locks to zippers. In the bottle opening example,
all the learner must do is carefully observe the procedure then replicate it. No
explicit, conscious instructional demonstration is required. Nor would a lecture
on the procedure and its necessity unless the whole exercise is a case of “func-
tionless pedantry” (Mead, 1964 ). Second, in the real world of the village, com-
pletely opaque processes that are essential for children to learn are almost
nonexistent. In both ethnographic and historical accounts, we see children gain-
ing virtually complete access to all aspects of the society. Children are not prohib-
ited from “dangerous” situations. They may eavesdrop on adult conversation and
interaction, including sex. In a butchering party, a 5-year-old has his hands buried
in the guts of the animal. Children are ubiquitous as spectators at court, funerals,
rituals, marital confl icts, etc. Further, when one inventories the tools and pro-
cesses involved in each society’s adaptation to their environment, this technology
is inevitably quite uncomplicated and easily broken down into visible and com-
prehensible components (Oswalt, 1976 ; Whiten & Milner, 1984 ). After all, vil-
lagers don’t use multi-part food processors in meal preparation, combines to
harvest their crops, or magnetic resonance imaging to diagnose their illnesses. Far
from being opaque, pre-modern societies are characterized by transparency. This
is in stark contrast to post-industrial society where “Multiple surveys of chil-
dren’s understanding of work shows great naiveté and ignorance. Because they
have little opportunity to observe different kinds of work, the whole subject is
opaque” (Dunn, 1988 , p. 309).
Lastly, the twist-off bottle cap is a modern, WEIRD artifact, hardly the sort of
tool found in the Paleolithic tool kit and, hence a very poor example.
On the other hand, Gergely and associates are certainly correct in linking opacity
to instruction. I have found only a few cases in the ethnographic literature of this
necessity. The best known is the explicit, lesson-based instruction necessary to train
a long-distance navigator in the Puluwat Islands. So complex and opaque is their
navigation system that it must be explicitly taught to the novice by an expert. But
note that on the entire island there are only a very few expert navigators, so an out-
sider might well live on Puluwat several years without actually witnessing such
training. Further, on Puluwat, short-distance navigation and outrigger canoe con-
struction are so completely transparent, no instruction is necessary (Gladwin, 1970 ).
Among the Yoruba, and undoubtedly many other societies, the skills and knowledge
of ritual practitioners, such as Ifá diviners, are hidden and only taught to a select ,
gifted few (Bascom, 1969 ; see also the Kogi priesthood, cf. Reichel-Dolmatoff,
1976 ). This is a pretty paltry sample to build a case for the evolutionary imperative
2 Teaching: Natural or Cultural?
of teaching. These few cases of teaching certainly illustrate the human capacity to
create lessons, but they leave open the following critical questions:
Is it possible to analytically extract some “teaching essence” that is only deployed
during a lesson? Or to put it differently, is the conduct of lessons dependent on some
key skill or behavior that is not used in other interactional settings (e.g. speech,
shared intentionality) nor routinely displayed in non-human primates. If this chal-
lenge proves impossible, then we’re left without the empirical tools (e.g. operational
defi nition) to even begin a test of teaching as an evolved suite of unique skills.
Another essential set of components implied by a proposed evolutionary theory
would relate to tness. We should expect to see teaching occurring where there is
a body of knowledge and/or specifi c skills which children cannot acquire on their
own and where, lacking them, their fi tness (survivorship, reproduction) is severely
impaired. No proponent of teaching as the engine of culture transmission has even
raised this question, let alone tested it. From my extensive survey of the literature,
this hypothesis cannot be sustained. I have found only one prototypical case. The
Fort Norman Slave band of Inuit hunts during severe winter weather and must tra-
verse ice-fi elds. Fathers “instruct” sons about this dangerous environment (which
comprises 13 kinds of ice and multiple modes of travel) via a game-like quiz
(Basso, 1972 ). But one can fi nd similar examples of apparently opaque knowl-
edge—Siberian hunters’ mastery of their challenging environment—where teach-
ing is not considered useful because “to be a hunter you must know everything
yourself” (Willerslev, 2007 , p. 160). In other words, despite the challenges of navi-
gating the arctic landscape, not all societies that must do so consider it essential to
teach (Geary, 2000 ) their novices such as hunters and reindeer herders (Istomin &
Dwyer, 2009 ).
Given the theory, one can speculate on where we might fi nd critical skills that
are, because of complexity and opaqueness, candidates for deliberate instruction.
Prime candidates would be hunting and fi shing. Here is a suite of skills that improve
both individual fi tness and that of one’s family and community. A “good” hunter/
sher who shares his bounty of scarce protein is considered an excellent “mate,” and
empirical studies have demonstrated that more successful hunters have increased
opportunities for extra-marital mating, thereby increasing their inclusive fi tness
(Hawkes, 1991 ). From the theory (“a basic cognitive hominin adaptation,” Csibra &
Gergely, 2009 , p. 149), one might expect that virtually all boys in a society where
hunting or fi shing contributed to the diet would be “taught” to hunt and/or fi sh.
A very thorough review of the ethnographic record shows the near total absence
of “lessons” in which fathers/adults teach young boys to hunt . “Much of the [young
Penan’s] expertise will be gained through trial and error experience in play or while
actually hunting, not by direct instruction” (Puri, 2005 , p. 281). “Ju/wasi hunters
maintain that hunting is not something that one teaches You have to teach your-
self” (Liebenberg, 1990 , p. 70). In fact, unlike other forms of work where social
learning from adults is the norm, with hunting (and fi shing in some cases as well,
e.g., Lancy, 2014 , 2015 ), boys are prevented from accompanying hunters, so oppor-
tunities to observe experts’ hunting skills and acquire knowledge of prey are
limited. Children are left behind on the hunt because they are noisy, slow, and impa-
D.F. Lancy
tient (Martu—Bird & Bliege Bird, 2005 ; !Kung—Howell, 2010 ; Penan—Puri,
2005 ; Yora—Sugiyama & Chacon, 2005 ). Aka boys rarely are in the company of
men hunting (their primary contribution to subsistence) because hunting is best
done solo (Boyette, 2013 ). Among the Huaorani, “hunting is performed more
effi ciently alone” (Rival, 2002 , p. 102).
Nevertheless, on their own or with peers, boys can begin to learn hunting/trapping
quite early—targeting small creatures (which would be spurned by adult hunters)
and practicing their tracking and capture skills for hours each day (Apache—
Goodwin & Goodwin, 1942 ; Baka—Higgens, 1985 ; Hadza—Crittenden, Conklin-
Brittain, Zes, Schoeninger, & Marlowe, 2013 ; !Kung—Shostak, 1981 ;
Asbano—Little, 2011 ). While adult role models may not be available, older brothers
seem quite happy to show off their skills to impress their juniors (Little, 2011 ;
Biyaka—Neuwelt-Truntzer, 1981 ; Puri, 2005 ). There is an extremely relevant body
of research that supports the notion that children are “natural” foragers and do not
need to be taught or even shown how it’s done (Chipeniuk, 1995 ; Heth & Cornell,
1985 ; Hunn, 2002 ; Piel, 2012 ; Zarger, 2002 ). And boys are free to listen and learn as
“real” hunters recount their experiences back in the village after the hunt (Liebenberg,
1990 ; Tayanin & Lindell, 1991 ). Nevertheless, the hunters have no pedantic intent
and make no adjustment for the rudimentary knowledge of the aspirant hunters
(Yukaghir—Willerslev, 2007 ).
A parallel could easily be drawn between girls and craftwork. If certain crafts
(weaving, pottery, basketry) provide essential community needs, and if competence
in those crafts marks a young woman as “ready” to assume the responsibilities of
wife and mother, then teaching should be essential to ensure that all achieve the
necessary level of competence. But again we fi nd many more cases of children
becoming competent crafts-persons without the aid of instruction than the reverse
(Lancy, 2015 ; Crown, 2002 ). Perhaps even more common are societies where “path-
ways to learning vary signifi cantly”—some less expert crafts-persons seeking and
getting assistance from those more expert while others progress without seeking
assistance (Puri, 2013 , p. 293). The Shipbo-Conibo people of the Amazon Basin are
a good case in point. The socialization (including teaching) of young potters leads
to a “bewildering variety of designs” (DeBoer, 1990 , p. 88). So, contrary to the
assertion made by Kline ( 2015 ) and others that teaching is essential to the “faithful”
transmission of culture, clear evidence of teaching of Shipbo-Conibo novice potters
does not result in the faithful and conservative transmission of culture. In addition
to stylistic variation, skill levels vary widely, suggesting that mothers do not carry
out lessons designed reliably to bring the novice to a state of mastery or at least clear
competence. Indeed, “there are scandalous cases of Shipbo-Conibo women who
never become good, or even adequate artists” (DeBoer, 1990 , p. 88).
In short, proponents have argued that teaching evolved as a unique cognitive adap-
tation to ensure that critical, fi tness-enhancing skills—which could not be acquired
solely through social learning—would be learned by aspirant practitioners.
Proponents must, therefore, be able to identify prototypical domains or a suite of
skills that would be very likely to provoke a teaching response. I have supplied two
prototypes for them—hunting and craftwork—and showed (see also Lancy, 2015 , in
2 Teaching: Natural or Cultural?
press b ) that, by and large, boys learn to hunt without the benefi t of a teacher or even
an adult role model, and boys and girls typically master critical craft production with-
out direct instruction. This scattered and scarce distribution of culturally sanctioned
and routinized applications of instruction in the rearing of children fatally under-
mines any claim that there is an evolutionary imperative for “natural pedagogy.
“Good” Teachers, “Good” Pupils?
If teaching is vital and universal, we should fi nd the majority of adults considered
“good” teachers and children “good” pupils. Assuming, for the sake of argument,
that everyone is born with a suite of cognitive traits and the explicit motivation and
determination “ to facilitate learning in others (Kline, 2015 , p. 6, emphasis in origi-
nal), we might expect to see the majority of the adult population acting eagerly and
willingly as teachers.
8 On average, they should be “good at it.” By the same token,
children should gravitate readily to the role of pupil and automatically display
appropriate behaviors in order to benefi t from the lessons. Again, the majority
should exhibit considerable native ability to learn from an instructor.
On the subject of “natural teachers,” cases that illustrate careful, informed, sys-
tematic Vygotskian-style scaffolded instruction are virtually nonexistent before the
modern era. Even in formal apprenticeship, one isn’t likely to see much teaching—
by anyone’s defi nition (Lancy, 2012 ). In fact, there are probably more descriptions
in the ethnographic record of experts spurning overtures from would-be novices/
pupils than of the reverse (Edwards, 2005 ; Gladwin & Sarason, 1953 ; Hill & Plath,
1998 ; Krause, 1985 ; Lancy, 1996 ; Reichard, 1934 ). Even more common in the eth-
nographic record are broader, normative statements made by both adults and chil-
dren that assert the absence of teaching in cultural transmission; its superfl uity; even
its capacity to harm and undermine a child’s self-initiated learning—a fi nding
affi rmed in recent experimental psychological research (Bonawitz et al., 2011 ). A
sample of such statements can be found in Table 2.1 .
When observing the junior member of the teacher/pupil partnership, the picture
is similar. Camilla Morelli ( 2011 , 2012 ) has been a recent participant observer—
with a focus on children—in a transitional community of Matses Indians in the
Peruvian Amazon. She marvels at how facile and active the Matses children are in
the natural environment compared to her own feelings of ineptitude. She is cowed
by 3- and 4-year-olds who competently paddle and maneuver canoes on the wide
river. She observes young boys nimbly catching and handling enormous catfi sh.
And then she is struck by the painful contrast between the children’s mastery of
their natural surroundings while displaying great discomfort and incompetence in
8 One piece of contrafactual evidence for this statement is the frequency with which ethnographers
complain about their informants’ unwillingness to assist them in learning the culture–subsistence
skills in particular. Indeed, villagers see the inept attempts of the ethnographer and his/her social faux
pas as occasions for hilarity and entertainment, not instruction (Henze,
1992 ; Nicolaisen, 1988 ).
D.F. Lancy
the classroom. She summarizes the dilemma as “learning to sit still.” Somehow,
Matses children must suppress their spontaneous inclinations, which serve them
well in learning their culture, and adopt a pattern of behavior and cognitive engage-
ment that is completely novel. Matses children are active, hands-on learners; their
role models are other children, not their parents. The learning process is profoundly
physical rather than verbal. When free to learn on their own, they are contented;
constrained to learn from a teacher, they are restless and frustrated.
Natural Pedagogy in the Classroom
“Natural pedagogy” should also have been in full view as schools were introduced
to rural communities that had never encountered formal education—assuming of
course that Gergely and associates acknowledge that natural pedagogy should apply
in the school as well as in the home. But, in a well-known series of monographs
sponsored by the anthropology of education program at Stanford (Spindler &
Spindler, 1983 ), ethnographers portrayed village classroom scenes that were painful
to observe. Children were treated cruelly. For instance, in the schools in the Chiapas
Highlands of Mexico, students were beaten and made to kneel on pebbles or fruit
pits to drive lessons home. It is no wonder that “Indian parents did all they could to
save their children from the terrible fate of attending school” (Modiano, 1973 ,
p. 87). In the 1960s, John Gay, Michael Cole (Gay & Cole, 1967 ), and I (Lancy,
1975 ) observed Kpelle village classrooms where teachers behaved like automatons,
completely unable to adapt the to-be-learned material to the skill level, language,
prior knowledge, or comprehension of the students. The most frequently used
“instructional aide” was some form of physical punishment or verbal chastisement
(Rival, 2002 ) 9 and these pedagogical tactics may be endorsed by parents in some
societies (Wolf, 1972 ). Students weren’t learning much from the constant rounds of
rote memorization and repetition of the teacher’s words and ended up leaving school
long before they’d learned enough to use schooling as a passport into salaried
employment. Mead refers to “functionless pedantry” (Mead, 1964 ) where the
learner is subjected to teaching not for the content or skill transmitted, but to assert
the “teacher’s” dominant status.
10 Rural schools have been a colossal failure on a
world-wide scale, at least in part because the principal players don’t know how to
enact the roles of teacher and student.
Aside from seeking evidence of natural pedagogy in the behavior of classroom
teachers, the theory should predict that children or novices will take on the role of
pupil easily. They should demonstrate a willingness to comply with the teacher and
9 In rural Morocco, beating as a form of “instruction” is still accepted at home and in school
(Nutter-El Ouardani,
2013 , p. 115).
10 For a review of “functionless pedantry” in adolescent initiation rites, see (Lancy, 2014 , pp. 334–
336). Similarly, “the Romans used education to reproduce social hierarchies within their own
society … the political function of pedagogy is … easily disguised ” (Corbeill,
2001 : 282).
2 Teaching: Natural or Cultural?
collaborate to the extent, for example, of asking questions of the teacher when they
can’t understand the lesson. But we see precisely the opposite. We see “pupils” in
classrooms fretting at the inactivity (Morelli, 2011 ) and at having to focus on listen-
ing to a teacher (Paradise & de Haan, 2009 ) when they’re accustomed to learning
through doing. “The child keeps on doing and doing, and then gets used to it [is an
expression] very often used [by Tapajós Indians] to talk about the learning process”
(Medaets, 2011 , p. 4). Yukaghir (Siberian foragers) model of knowledge transferal
could be described as “doing is learning and learning is doing” (Willerslev, 2007 ,
p. 162). With respect to the pupil asking questions of the teacher, the descriptions in
Table 2.3 are representative
11 :
These village norms have real consequences in terms of the mindset children
bring to the classroom, as demonstrated in an ingenious experiment. Mayan chil-
dren were compared with middle-class American counterparts in an origami- folding
task. The village-reared children were much more attentive to the demonstration
11 In my study of Kpelle childhood (Lancy, 1996 ), my best informant was a child who was not at all
intimidated by me, was very talkative and articulate, and quite perceptive. I was repeatedly warned
by adults to keep my distance from this child as he was a rascal and “not a proper Kpelle child.
Table 2.3 How novices are expected to behave
In a Mayan community … children are taught to avoid challenging an adult with a display of
greater knowledge by telling them something (Rogoff,
1990 , p. 60)
On an Indian Reservation in the US, children are viewed as being inattentive because they don’t
gaze at the teacher when she is speaking; yet averting one’s gaze in the presence of adults is
“proper” behavior in the village (Phillips,
1983 )
West African Wolof parents never quiz their kids by asking known-answer questions (Irvine,
1978 )
Fijian children are never encouraged to address adults or even to make eye contact. Rather, their
demeanor should express timidity and self-effacement (Toren,
1990 )
Were the Mazahua children to ask questions it would be considered immature and rude (Paradise
& Rogoff,
2009 ; see also Penn, 2001 )
Because Inuit children are present in many multi-age situations, they are exposed to a great deal
of talk by older people. Yet, it became apparent in this study that they were neither expected to
participate nor to ask questions of adults who were speaking together. If they did ask questions,
the adults ignored them, leaving their questions unanswered (Crago,
1992 , p. 494)
In a Tongan classroom, teachers may well expect students to volunteer information, ask
questions, or eagerly answer the teacher’s academic questions. This doesn’t happen though
because, in a Tongan village, children are to learn through observation alone (Morton,
1996 )
In a four-culture (Samoa, Caribbean, Nepal, Kenya) comparative study, children very rarely
asked information-seeking questions. Parents did not engage in dialog with their children to
exchange information. They were to be obedient, respectful, and responsible (Gauvain &
2013 )
Tizard and Hughes (
1984 ) showed that middle class preschoolers asked more questions than
lower class. Middle class parents consistently asked and received more questions/answers than
lower class. Middle class parents are more likely to take up, repeat, or expand what the child
has just said. Parents who didn’t pose or solicit questions were much more likely to use
commands or directives with children
D.F. Lancy
and to the activities of others in the setting, especially adults. Unlike the Anglo
children, they did not seek additional information to aid them in completing the task
(Correa-Chavez & Rogoff, 2005 ). 12 Parallel results were observed in a study com-
paring native Hawaiian and Haole (Anglo) students where the latter were much
more likely to request adult assistance, and consequently, were more successful at
the task (Gallimore, Howard, & Jordan, 1969 ).
The First Schools
There is little evidence that schooling in the village has changed a great deal in the
intervening 50 years since the anthropology of education fi eld was launched
(Shepler, 2014 ). In fact, when West African education authorities attempt to “mod-
ernize” (e.g., to abandon “natural” pedagogy) teaching methods in village class-
rooms, they are met with resistance on the part of teachers and parents
(Anderson-Levitt & Diallo, 2003 ; Moore, 2006 ). Specifi cally with respect to corpo-
ral punishment, teachers in Guinea echo a widely expressed view: “ Il faut suffrir
pour apprendre ” = “to learn one must suffer” (Anderson-Levitt, 2005 , p. 988).
To check any tendency the reader might have to fi nd some bias or inaccuracy in
this portrait of teaching, a review of the historical record will readily show that what
is today considered effective pedagogy was also absent from the fi rst few millennia
of formal education.
“Literate and numerate education, characteristic of the Eastern Palace cultures
[dating] to 3200 BCE [was] developed to train a scribal class in service to a central-
ized monarchy” (Langdon, 2013 , p. 446). The oldest known classroom and peda-
gogical material were found in Mesopotamia. The edduba (Tablet House) from the
third millennium BCE, excavated at Mari, had two rows of benches for the students
and many discarded clay tablets. The clay tablet facilitated instruction because it
could be easily erased and reused and was much less costly than the writing media
used elsewhere in antiquity. Sumerian scholar Samuel Kramer notes—from a
reading of the ancient texts—that the schools were “uninviting,” the lessons were
dull, and discipline was harsh (1963, p. 243). One poor novice describes his experi-
ence: “My headmaster read my tablet, said: ‘There is something missing,’ caned
me. ‘Why didn’t you speak Sumerian,’ caned me. My teacher said: ‘Your hand is
unsatisfactory,’ caned me. And so I began to hate the scribal art” (Kramer, 1963 ,
pp. 238–239).
12 In a parallel study in the US, groups of children whose immigrant mothers were relatively well
or poorly educated, behaved differently when shown how to make origami fi gures. The latter group
relied solely on observation whereas the former sought additional information through questioning
the teacher (Mejia-Arauz et al.,
2005 ).
13 The specifi c cuneiform sign for “caned” is an amalgam of the signs for stick and fl esh (Kramer,
1963 , p. 237).
2 Teaching: Natural or Cultural?
This unpromising regimen changes little through the ages (Chiappetta, 1953 ).
And evidence of the confl ict between top-down teaching and bottom-up learners is
not hard to fi nd. “Graffi ti at Pompeii reveals the children mocking their school
learning” (Bloomer, 2013 , p. 453). And, “a common writing exercise had the stu-
dent write ‘work hard lest you be beaten’” (Bloomer, 2013 , p. 455). In Britain, the
master is depicted perched at his elevated desk “grasping the birch—a bundle of
twigs—that formed his badge of offi ce” and used “to punish indiscipline and inabil-
ity to answer” (Orme, 2006 , p. 144). A teacher in the 1590s “laments that children
are afraid to come to school and wish to leave as soon as possible because of the
severity and frequency of the whippings” (Durantini, 1983 , p. 125). These practices
grew out of the belief that children would not naturally accept the role of pupil. In
Holland in the seventeenth century, children’s resistance to pedagogical practices
was so widely acknowledged that it spawned an entire genre of painting—“unruly
school scenes” (Durantini, 1983 , pp. 152–154).
Teaching in the Present and Future
Ironically, even in WEIRD society, where parental teaching is practically a sacred
duty, parents and professionally trained teachers aren’t necessarily very good at it.
In a study of WEIRD parents teaching their children the game Chutes and Ladders,
some parents used effective techniques, other were quite ineffective (Bjorklund,
2007 ; see also Bergin, Lancy, & Draper, 1994 ). In a recent massive study in the US
(Robinson & Harris, 2014 ), the level of parents’ academic involvement did not pre-
dict children’s grades. In fact, “helping with homework” had a negative impact
because parents lacked appropriate knowledge and/or teaching skills and students
were more successful on their own. The main thrust of this study is that the “parent
involvement” mantra is based on the myth that all parents are effective teachers. But
in fact, from the earliest teachers in the fi rst schools to the unhelpful homework
tutors, a common element is the employment of controlling teaching techniques,
such as commands and corrections—shown to negatively affect a number of child
learning outcomes including conceptual understanding and task performance.
The parent involvement campaign has, as a primary goal, the recruiting of par-
ents—typically lower or working class—as auxiliary teachers. But these parents,
historically, disavow any interest in teaching their children or taking responsibility
for their successful schooling. These aren’t neglectful parents, but modern adher-
ents of the village-based socialization model. For example, Lareau (see also
Kusserow, 2004 ) found that working class children “have more autonomy from
adults than their middle-class counterparts” (Lareau, 2003 , p. 151).
The linguistic anthropologist Shirley Brice Heath conducted a long-term ethno-
graphic project with families in the Piedmont region of the US in the 1970s. Her
goal was to understand how different communities interact with literacy, especially
where children were concerned. In a poor, African-American community, “Tracton,
D.F. Lancy
use of books (other than the Bible) and printed material was limited, and parents did
not engage in elaborate conversations or other “joint activity” with their young chil-
dren, nor did they see it as their responsibility to act as the child’s fi rst teacher. She
recorded sentiments that echo those recorded by anthropologists in villages through-
out the world.
He [her grandson] gotta learn to know ’bout dis world, can’t nobody tell ’im. Now just how
crazy is dat? White folks uh hear dey kids say sump’n, dey say it back to ’em, dey aks ’em
’gain ’n ’gain ’bout things He just gotta be keen, keep his eyes open … Gotta watch his-
self by watchin’ other folks. Ain’t no use me tellin’ ’im: “learn dis, learn dat” He just
gotta learn he see one thing one place one time, he know how it go, see sump’n like it
again, maybe it be same, maybe it won’t. He hafta try it out (Heath,
1983 , p. 84).
The very same philosophy was displayed in Dickens’ ( 1836 ) classic The
Pickwick Papers. The Pickwickians had taken on Sam Weller as general manager
and all-around assistant to support their peregrinations through England. When
Pickwick meets Sam’s father, they have this interchange:
Beg your pardon, sir,” said Mr. Weller senior, taking off his hat, “I hope you’re no fault to
nd with Sammy sir?” “None whatsoever,” said Mr. Pickwick. “Why very glad to hear it,
sir,” replied the old man; “I took a good deal o’ pains with his eddication, sir; let him run in
the streets when he was very young, and shift for hisself. It’s the only way to make a boy
sharp, sir. (p. 306 in 1964 edition).
Lareau’s cross-class comparative ethnography identifi es similar attitudes in a
typical US working-class community. For instance, Mrs. Morris, a mother from
Colton, saw her son Tommy’s education beginning when she “turned over responsi-
bility” for him to the school. Afterwards, she remained largely in ignorance of his
progress and was surprised to be called to the school and informed that he was doing
poorly (Lareau, 1989 ). Each of these studies of contemporary parenting practices
outside WEIRD society reinforces my argument that teaching by parents is cultural,
not natural. And further, the skills involved are not learned easily (Geary, 1995 ).
If teaching was rare and patchy in the past and across cultures, then what has led
to the unquestioned dominance of teaching as the essential means of child rearing
and cultural transmission?
The requirement of out-of-context, or context-independent, learning makes formal school-
ing an evolutionarily novel and “unnatural” experience Children did not evolve to sit
quietly at desks in age-segregated classrooms being instructed by unrelated and unfamiliar
adults. Yet such procedures, to varying degrees, are necessary. They are necessary because
the demands of modern culture required that children master basic technological skills, the
most important of which are reading and writing, and mathematics, as well as knowledge in
a broad realm of domains (Bjorklund,
2007 , p. 120).
In pre-modern, face-to-face communities, skills and knowledge that are both
critical and opaque are rare to nonexistent. In post-industrial societies, opaque
material that is essential for young learners to acquire fi lls entire libraries. The sheer
volume is enormous and growing exponentially. An entire system of instruction has
been invented over years to handle this massive challenge in cultural transmission
2 Teaching: Natural or Cultural?
Berch ( 2013 ). In WEIRD society, infants are subject to early lessons from conscien-
tious and attendant parents and, not surprisingly, they become precocious teachers
14 (Strauss & Ziv, 2012 ). Nevertheless, despite spending billions on
developing curricula, methods, and teacher training, the schooling process, at least
across much of the US, seems, by many measures, seriously defi cient. There seems
to be very little that is “natural” about effective pedagogy. On the contrary, promoting
successful pedagogy seems like an engineering challenge comparable to sending
humans to the moon.
I would propose that the arguments which attempt to elevate teaching to a privileged
place in human evolutionary theory are doomed to fail. I believe that a far more
fruitful discussion might center on reconsidering the degree to which childhood
should be considered a period of dependency (Kramer, 2014 ). I believe that contem-
porary thinking across the social sciences and biology may over-estimate the degree
of dependency during the subadult period. Thinking is colored by three factors.
First: the pervasive effects of living in a Neontocracy (Lancy, 1996 , 2014a , 2014b )
where youth are almost totally dependent on others well into adolescence. Second:
the early !Kung reports which initially defi ned the “ancestral” analog. But !Kung
children are unable to contribute much to subsistence—which is highly unusual.
And third: the very evident dependency of infants who are truly helpless. Once we
open this debate, we might begin to entertain the idea that, while children do learn
from others, especially parents, they are the active and leading partners in this enter-
prise; and that parents are passive and even reluctant partners (see Gray, this vol-
ume; Toub et al., this volume). If this view prevails, “teaching” might be placed in
the marginal position in theory that it occupies in reality.
Acknowledgment I am grateful to J. J. Delliskave for her critical reading and editing of this chapter.
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... Ethnotheories may distinguish approaches by anthropologists and psychologists on the subject of learning and teaching. Anthropologists have views about teaching that include infants' ability to learn outside of formal teaching contexts and they know that teaching and learning practices differ across a wide range of socialization contexts (e.g., Lancy, 2016). Psychologists tend to focus on the importance of intentional pedagogy (e.g., teaching is what drives infant learning), and the multiple contexts that provide opportunities for teaching (Csibra & Gergely, 2009). ...
... It is noteworthy that young children who live in farming, foraging and other small-scale communities often have regular work and chores that make a real-world contribution to the functioning of the family (Lancy, 2012;Mosier & Rogoff, 2003). There is a greater emphasis on egalitarian principles in some foraging cultures compared to the emphasis on hierarchy that exists in some subsistence farming cultures (B. S. Hewlett, 1992;Keller, 2003Keller, , 2007Lancy, 2016). An indigenous African view is that child development consists of a progression of assigned roles that increasingly promote social integration and responsible contributions to cultural and economic activities (Nsamenang, 2006). ...
... Broesch et al. (2021) observed infants and children across several culturally distinct communities, and found that whereas infants were most commonly in close proximity with an adult female, children (5 years and older) spent the majority of their time with other children. It is possible that the role played by juveniles (some of whom are older siblings) in infant's developing triadic engagements becomes more important when infants are older than 1 year, although this may vary by socio-ecological setting (e.g., Ivey Henry et al., 2005;Kazemeini & Pajoheshgar, 2013;Lancy, 2016Lancy, , 2019Meehan & Crittenden, 2016;Mooya, 2016;Morelli et al., 2003;Rogoff et al., 1993;Roopnarine & Krishnakumar, 2006;Schieffelin & Ochs, 1998;Takada, 2020;Zukow-Goldring, 2002). For example, Takada (2020) reports than toddlers are often part of child groups, in which the older children teach the infants about dancing and singing as a community activity (e.g., by providing structure, demonstrations, and feedback to toddlers). ...
Joint attention (JA) is an early manifestation of social cognition, commonly described as interactions in which an infant looks or gestures to an adult female to share attention about an object, within a positive emotional atmosphere. We label this description the JA phenotype. We argue that characterizing JA in this way reflects unexamined assumptions which are, in part, due to past developmental researchers' primary focus on western, middle‐class infants and families. We describe a range of cultural variations in caregiving practices, socialization goals, and parenting ethnotheories as an essential initial step in viewing joint attention within inclusive and contextualized perspectives. We begin the process of conducting a decolonized study of JA by considering the core construct of joint attention (i.e., triadic connectedness) and adopting culturally inclusive definitions (labeled joint engagement [JE]). Our JE definitions allow for attention and engagement to be expressed in visual and tactile modalities (e.g., for infants experiencing distal or proximal caregiving), with various social partners (e.g., peers, older siblings, mothers), with a range of shared topics (e.g., representing diverse socialization goals, and socio‐ecologies with and without toys), and with a range of emotional tone (e.g., for infants living in cultures valuing calmness and low arousal, and those valuing exuberance). Our definition of JE includes initiations from either partner (to include priorities for adult‐led or child‐led interactions). Our next foundational step is making an ecological commitment to naturalistic observations (Dahl, 2017, Child Dev Perspect, 11(2), 79–84): We measure JE while infants interact within their own physical and social ecologies. This commitment allows us to describe JE as it occurs in everyday contexts, without constraints imposed by researchers. Next, we sample multiple groups of infants drawn from diverse socio‐ecological settings. Moreover, we include diverse samples of chimpanzee infants to compare with diverse samples of human infants, to investigate the extent to which JE is unique to humans, and to document diversity both within and between species. We sampled human infants living in three diverse settings. U.K. infants (n = 8) were from western, middle‐class families living near universities in the south of England. Nso infants (n = 12) were from communities of subsistence farmers in Cameroon, Africa. Aka infants (n = 10) were from foraging communities in the tropical rain forests of Central African Republic, Africa. We coded behavioral details of JE from videotaped observations (taken between 2004 and 2010). JE occurred in the majority of coded intervals (Mdn = 68%), supporting a conclusion that JE is normative for human infants. The JA phenotype, in contrast, was infrequent, and significantly more common in the U.K. (Mdn = 10%) than the other groups (Mdn < 3%). We found significant within‐species diversity in JE phenotypes (i.e., configurations of predominant forms of JE characteristics). We conclude that triadic connectedness is very common in human infants, but there is significant contextualization of behavioral forms of JE. We also studied chimpanzee infants living in diverse socio‐ecologies. The PRI/Zoo chimpanzee infants (n = 7) were from captive, stable groups of mixed ages and sexes, and included 4 infants from the Chester Zoo, U.K. and 3 from the Primate Research Institute, Kyoto University, Japan. The Gombe chimpanzee infants (n = 12) were living in a dynamically changing, wild community in the Gombe National Park, Tanzania, Africa. Additionally, we include two Home chimpanzee infants who were reared from birth by a female scientist, in the combined U.S., middle‐class contexts of home and university cognition laboratory. JE was coded from videotaped observations (taken between 1993 and 2006). JE occurred during the majority of coded intervals (Mdn = 64%), consistent with the position that JE is normative for chimpanzee infants. The JA phenotype, in contrast, was rare, but more commonly observed in the two Home chimpanzee infants (in 8% and 2% of intervals) than in other chimpanzee groups (Mdns = 0%). We found within‐species diversity in the configurations comprising the JE phenotypes. We conclude that triadic connectedness is very common in chimpanzee infants, but behavioral forms of joint engagement are contextualized. We compared JE across species, and found no species‐uniqueness in behavioral forms, JE characteristics, or JE phenotypes. Both human and chimpanzee infants develop contextualized social cognition. Within‐species diversity is embraced when triadic connectedness is described with culturally inclusive definitions. In contrast, restricting definitions to the JA phenotype privileges a behavioral form most valued in western, middle‐class socio‐ecologies, irrespective of whether the interactions involve human or chimpanzee infants. Our study presents a model for how to decolonize an important topic in developmental psychology. Decolonization is accomplished by defining the phenomenon inclusively, embracing diversity in sampling, challenging claims of human‐uniqueness, and having an ecological commitment to observe infant social cognition as it occurs within everyday socio‐ecological contexts. It is essential that evolutionary and developmental theories of social cognition are re‐built on more inclusive and decolonized empirical foundations.
... A broader cross-cultural and evolutionary perspective, however, indicates that schools are evolutionarily novel and most of the school-related activities and associated beliefs are far from natural for children (Lancy, 2016). In traditional contexts, children and adolescents engage in activities that will prepare them for adult activities in these contexts, but the associated competencies emerge from a combination of evolved cognitive abilities and biases that are elaborated through engagement in species-typical developmental activities and observational learning and imitation of adults (Lancy, 2016). ...
... A broader cross-cultural and evolutionary perspective, however, indicates that schools are evolutionarily novel and most of the school-related activities and associated beliefs are far from natural for children (Lancy, 2016). In traditional contexts, children and adolescents engage in activities that will prepare them for adult activities in these contexts, but the associated competencies emerge from a combination of evolved cognitive abilities and biases that are elaborated through engagement in species-typical developmental activities and observational learning and imitation of adults (Lancy, 2016). The knowledge learned in this way tends to be instrumental, focused on a culturally important outcome (e.g., hunting, foraging), and does not include academic competencies (Legare, 2017). ...
... Adapted from "Male, female: The evolution of human sex differences," by D. G. Geary, 2021, p. 302. Copyright 2021 by American Psychological Association for culturally important tasks, with a few exceptions for some specific tasks (Lancy, 2016). There are oftentimes organized games and play (e.g., use of smaller versions of adult tools) that mirror adult activities, and there is exposure to folk lore and traditions that provide structure to children's learning of culturally important skills and knowledge (e.g., Riede et al., 2018;Scalise Sugiyama et al. 2018). ...
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Schooling is ubiquitous in the modern world and academic development is now a critical aspect of preparation for adulthood. A step back in time to pre-modern societies and an examination of life in remaining traditional societies today reveals that universal formal schooling is an historically recent phenomenon. This evolutionary and historical recency has profound implications for understanding academic development, including how instructional practices modify evolved or biological primary abilities (e.g., spoken language) to create evolutionarily novel or biologically secondary academic competencies (e.g., reading). We propose the development of secondary abilities promotes the emergence of academic self-concepts that in turn are supported by evolved systems for self-awareness and self-knowledge. Unlike some forms of self-knowledge (e.g., relative physical abilities) that appear to be universal and central to many people’s overall self-concept, the relative importance of academic self-concepts are expected to be dependent on explicit social and cultural supports for their valuation. These culturally contingent self-concepts are contrasted with universal social and physical self-concepts, with implications for understanding variation students’ relative valuation of academic competencies and their motivations to engage in academic learning.
... Asian parent's engagement with their children's schooling and the resulting achievement gains stands in sharp contrast to the more lackadaisical parenting in traditional contexts (Lancy, 2016). Despite lower levels of engagement in their children's learning of culturally important information (much of this occurs through observational learning and imitation), children in these societies develop sophisticated cognitive abilities in multiple domains, such as language and the ability to navigate from one place to the next. ...
... As mentioned earlier, there are no formal educational systems or even much direct parental instruction (with a few exceptions for some specific tasks) of children in traditional contexts (Lancy, 2016). Sometimes there are organized games and play-like activities (e.g., use of smaller versions of adult tools) that mimic adult activities, as well as folk lore and traditions that provide some structure to children's learning of culturally important skills and knowledge (Loy & Hesketh, 1995;Riede, Johannsen, Högberg, Nowell, & Lombard, 2018;Scalise Sugiyama, Mendoza, White, & Sugiyama, 2018). ...
... In many cases, these goals were not achieved until well into the 19 th century and in some cases the early 20 th , and a universally available educational system is still a work in progress in some parts of the world today (Golden, 1999). These patterns are consistent with the idea that formal education is an evolutionarily recent and socially constructed enterprise that is designed to foster the development of academic competencies that are not found in traditional contexts (Geary, 2002(Geary, , 2007Lancy, 2016). ...
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The articles in this special issue provide state-of-the-art reviews of the brain and cognitive systems that are engaged during some aspects of mathematical learning, as well as the self-beliefs, anxiety, and social factors that influence engagement with mathematics, along with discussion of any associated sex differences. These issues are integrated into an evolutionary perspective that includes discussion of how evolved brain and cognitive systems might be co-opted for learning in the evolutionarily novel domain of mathematics. Attitudes and beliefs about mathematics are considered in the context of the evolution of self-awareness that in turn explains why many students do not value mathematics, despites its importance in the modern world, as highly as many other personal traits, such as their physical appearance. The overall argument is that reflecting on academic learning and attitudes from an evolutionary perspective provides insights into student learning and self-beliefs about learning that might otherwise elude explanation.
... Ethnographic surveys of hunter-gatherers and other premodern societies show that children use observational learning (without pedagogy) for simple technologies such as hunting or tool use (Lancy, 2016;Terashima & Hewlett, 2016). However, adult involvement drives the acquisition of complex techniques, conventions (e.g., kin terms), social norms (e.g., sharing), and rituals (e.g., initiation) (Salali et al., 2019). ...
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Harvey Whitehouse offers a complex and stimulating theory of rituals that bind people together and propagate via affiliative imitation. The Ritual Animal argues that fundamental problems of group cooperation can be solved by causally opaque and goal-demoted behaviors which produce arbitrary cultural conventions, honest signals of membership, and collective fused identities. This amply evidenced and compelling account explains a broad variety of prominent examples, yet other key causal mechanisms emerge from the ethnographic literature and analytical reflection on affiliation and groups. Taking a glance at some widespread and unusual rituals, this paper highlights the importance of cultural transmission via pedagogy with or without copying, costly signaling and coordination without coalitional groups, and meta-representations of impenetrable ritual efficacy. Future research can explain how bonding rituals become central features of social interaction without relying upon a quite debatable adaptive function of ritual behavior for cooperation-or anything else.
... Formal education is conceptualized as goal-directed instruction of evolutionarily novel concepts, skills, and abstract ideas. This definition encompasses any learning related to literacy, numeracy, scientific concept change, abstract rules and ideas, and certain forms of human coordination such as military training or using time to order society (Carey, 2000;Geary, 2007;Lancy, 2010Lancy, , 2012Lancy, , 2016Eskelson, 2020). This paper uses these conceptualizations to analyze early-modern Europe. ...
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The purpose of the paper is to develop the theory that structural or procedural changes in institutions precede changes in education in a society. It examines the development of pre-modern institutions in Western Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries and the influences this had on growth in literacy rates within these states. Literacy rates in Western European countries during the Middle Ages were below twenty percent of the population. For most countries, literacy rates did not experience significant increases until the Enlightenment and industrialization. Two early exceptions to this broad trend were the Netherlands and England, which had achieved literacy rates above fifty percent of their populations by the mid-seventeenth century. The explanations for these divergent trends are the structural changes in formal institutions that embodied capital markets, protected private property, and overall established the initial steps in developing modern political institutions. This created incentives to invest more in schools per capita as well as incentives for a middle class to invest more in literacy and numeracy skills for a market-exchange economy that was becoming more specialized in division of labor.
An evolutionary perspective on academic learning and schooling more generally helps us to understand why learning comes effortlessly in some domains (e.g., language) but only with extensive instruction and cognitive effort in others (e.g., mathematics); why many students’ self-concepts are more strongly influenced by physical traits and social relationships than by academic achievement; and why many problematic social behaviors, including bullying, persist in school settings. The articles in this special issue provide cutting edge reviews and empirical studies informed by this perspective and help to solidify the foundation for the nascent field of evolutionary educational psychology.
Humans are extraordinary in the extent to which we rely on cumulative culture to act upon and make sense of our environment. Teaching is one social learning process thought to be fundamental to the evolution of cumulative culture as a means of adaptation in our species. However, the frequency of teaching and how we teach are known to vary across human sociocultural contexts. Understanding this variation adds to our understanding of the complex interplay between cognition and culture in shaping learning behavior but also contributes to theory around the costs and benefits of different social learning processes. Here, we examined how prior experience with formal education is related to the frequency and diversity of teaching behaviors in an experimental paradigm where caregivers were motivated (but not instructed) to teach a simple skill to a child (7–10 years old). We identified and coded a suite of subtle nonverbal behaviors that could be construed as facilitating learning. Dyads (n = 64) were recruited from two communities on Tanna Island that differ in their experience with formal schooling and their acceptance of Western institutions. We found evidence for parallel teaching strategies in both communities. However, the rate and diversity of teaching behaviors were positively associated with caregiver’s experience with formal schooling and independently and negatively associated with being from a village that rejects Western-derived institutions. These results further our understanding of how multiple cultural processes influence social learning and highlights the powerful influence of formal schooling on the cultural evolution of teaching in humans.
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The article deals with the phenomenon of weisure and the changes that this phenomenon brings in the area of leisure time. It is a theoretical study aimed at showing the role of pedagogy of leisure time in modern Western society, where the boundary between work and leisure is vanishing. The article concludes that from the point of view of pedagogy of leisure time, childhood is the best time to have the personality base and the basis of value orientation formed, which is important for the prevention of weisure. Leisure is more likely an important life position than just a time space (free time) and leisure significantly influences the balance of not only an individual's life but also society as a whole. Therefore, pedagogy of leisure time should focus on the development of leisure time competencies, value education, critical thinking and socialization. On the contrary, leisure time education should not be focused on the mere implementation of activities, despite their attractiveness, entertainment or meaningfulness. If leisure education is replaced by just leisure activities, leisure time is instrumentalized and the weisure lifestyle is developing. Instead of learning to develop freedom, responsibility perseverance and searching for meaning, the child learns to consume leisure activities, to have fun and to selectively choose according to the momentary mood or fashion. Free time as a time category has not disappeared from a person's life, but the essence of leisure time, which is largely influenced by the instrumentalization and pedagogization of leisure time, is being erased. Leisure takes on the character of an obligation, thus reducing the potential that leisure has. It is this development that is based on the importance of leisure time education, which should focus its efforts not only on children and young people, but also on the education of parents and leisure time educators who are involved in the instrumentalization and pedagogization of leisure time in many ways.
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The ability to transmit information between individuals through social learning is a foundational component of cultural evolution. However, how this transmission occurs is still debated. On the one hand, the copying account draws parallels with biological mechanisms for genetic inheritance, arguing that learners copy what they observe and novel variations occur through random copying errors. On the other hand, the reconstruction account claims that, rather than directly copying behaviour, learners reconstruct the information that they believe to be most relevant on the basis of pragmatic inference, environmental and contextual cues. Distinguishing these two accounts empirically is difficult based on data from typical transmission chain studies because the predictions they generate frequently overlap. In this study we present a methodological approach that generates different predictions of these accounts by manipulating the task context between model and learner in a transmission episode. We then report an empirical proof-of-concept that applies this approach. The results show that, when a model introduces context-dependent embedded signals to their actions that are not intended to be transmitted, it is possible to empirically distinguish between competing predictions made by these two accounts. Our approach can therefore serve to understand the underlying cognitive mechanisms at play in cultural transmission and can make important contributions to the debate between preservative and reconstructive schools of thought.
Does digital technology allow for less constrained learning? A review of the literature If a teaching situation highlights constraints of place, time, the knowledge taught and the way of learning, can digital technology reduce these constraints? To answer this question, a review of the empirical literature on digital education was carried out. It highlights that digital technology has had little effect on the constraint of taught knowledge. It also shows that although the constraints of time, place and manner are sometimes alleviated, they are above all displaced: managed by the teacher in the classroom, they are often self-managed by the pupils in educational digital environments, particularly remotely. In reality, an increase in requirements is often observed, to the detriment of the most fragile pupils or those who are the least competent in self-regulating their learning.
In the vast anthropological literature devoted to hunter-gatherer societies, surprisingly little attention has been paid to the place of hunter-gatherer children. Children often represent 40 percent of hunter-gatherer populations, thus nearly half the population is omitted from most hunter-gatherer ethnographies and research. This volume is designed to bridge the gap in our understanding of the daily lives, knowledge, and development of hunter-gatherer children. The twenty-six contributors to Hunter-Gatherer Childhoods use three general but complementary theoretical approaches--evolutionary, developmental, cultural--in their presentations of new and insightful ethnographic data. For instance, the authors employ these theoretical orientations to provide the first systematic studies of hunter-gatherer children's hunting, play, infant care by children, weaning and expressions of grief. The chapters focus on understanding the daily life experiences of children, and their views and feelings about their lives and cultural change. Chapters address some of the following questions: why does childhood exist, who cares for hunter-gatherer children, what are the characteristic features of hunter-gatherer children's development and what are the impacts of culture change on hunter-gatherer child care? The book is divided into five parts. The first section provides historical, theoretical and conceptual framework for the volume; the second section examines data to test competing hypotheses regarding why childhood is particularly long in humans; the third section expands on the second section by looking at who cares for hunter-gatherer children; the fourth section explores several developmental issues such as weaning, play and loss of loved ones; and, the final section examines the impact of sedentism and schools on hunter-gatherer children. This pioneering volume will help to stimulate further research and scholarship on hunter-gatherer childhoods, thereby advancing our understanding of the way of life that characterized most of human history and of the processes that may have shaped both human development and human evolution.