Teaching and Learning Coevolved?

Just a few pages in to David Didau and Nick Rose’s new book What Every Teacher Needs to Know About Psychology, and I’ve already come across what is, for me, a new thought—that teaching ability and learning ability coevolved:

Strauss, Ziv, and Stein (2002) . . . point to the fact that the ability to teach arises spontaneously at an early age without any apparent instruction and that it is common to all human cultures as evidence that it is an innate ability. Essentially, they suggest that despite its complexity, teaching is a natural cognition that evolved alongside our ability to learn.

Or perhaps this is, even for me, an old thought, but just unpopular enough—and for long enough—to seem like a brand new thought. Perhaps after years of exposure to the characterization of teaching as an anti-natural object—a smoky, rusty gearbox of torture techniques designed to break students’ wills and control their behavior—I have simply come to accept that it is true, and have forgotten that I had done so.

Strauss, et. al, however, provide some evidence in their research that it is not true. Very young children engage in teaching behavior before formal schooling by relying on a naturally developing ability to understand the minds of others, known as theory of mind (ToM).

Kruger and Tomasello (1996) postulated that defining teaching in terms of its intention—to cause learning, suggests that teaching is linked to theory of mind, i.e., that teaching relies on the human ability to understand the other’s mind. Olson and Bruner (1996) also identified theoretical links between theory of mind and teaching. They suggested that teaching is possible only when a lack of knowledge can be recognized and that the goal of teaching then is to enhance the learner’s knowledge. Thus, a theory of mind definition of teaching should refer to both the intentionality involved in teaching and the knowledge component, as follows: teaching is an intentional activity that is pursued in order to increase the knowledge (or understanding) of another who lacks knowledge, has partial knowledge or possesses a false belief.

The Experiment

One hundred children were separated into 50 pairs—25 pairs with a mean age of 3.5 and 25 with a mean age of 5.5. Twenty-five of the 50 children in each age group served as test subjects (teachers); the other 25 were learners. The teachers completed three groups of tasks before teaching, the first of which (1) involved two classic false-belief tasks. If you are not familiar with these kinds of tasks, the video at right should serve as a delightfully creepy precis—from what appears to be the late 70s, when every single instructional video on Earth was made. The second and third groups of tasks probed participants’ understanding that (2) a knowledge gap between teacher and learner must exist for “teaching” to occur and (3) a false belief about this knowledge gap is possible.

Finally, children participated in the teaching task by teaching the learners how to play a board game. The teacher-children were, naturally, taught how to play the game prior to their own teaching, and they were allowed to play the game with the experimenter until they demonstrated some proficiency. The teacher-learner pair was then left alone, “with no further encouragement or instructions.”

The Results

Consistent with the results from prior false-belief studies, there were significant differences between the 3- and 5-year-olds in Tasks (1) and (3) above, both of which relied on false-belief mechanisms. In Task (3), when participants were told, for example, that a teacher thought a child knew how to read when in fact he didn’t, 3-year-olds were much more likely to say that the teacher would still teach the child. Five-year-olds, on the other hand, were more likely to recognize the teacher’s false belief and say that he or she would not teach the child.

Intriguingly, however, the development of a theory of mind does not seem necessary to either recognizing the need for a special type of discourse called “teaching” or to teaching ability itself—only to a refinement of teaching strategies. Task (2), in which participants were asked, for instance, whether a teacher would teach someone who knew something or someone who didn’t, showed no significant differences between 3- and 5-year-olds in the study. But the groups were significantly different in the strategies they employed during teaching.

Three-year-olds have some understanding of teaching. They understand that in order to determine the need for teaching as well as the target learner, there is a need to recognize a difference in knowledge between (at least) two people . . . Recognition of the learner’s lack of knowledge seems to be a necessary prerequisite for any attempt to teach. Thus, 3-year-olds who identify a peer who doesn’t know [how] to play a game will attempt to teach the peer. However, they will differ from 5-year-olds in their teaching strategies, reflecting the further change in ToM and understanding of teaching that occurs between the ages of 3 and 5 years.

Coevolution of Teaching and Learning

The study here dealt with the innateness of teaching ability and sensibilities but not with whether teaching and learning coevolved, which it mentions at the beginning and then leaves behind.

It is an interesting question, however. Discussions in education are increasingly focused on “how students learn,” and it seems to be widely accepted that teaching should adjust itself to what we discover about this. But if teaching is as natural a human faculty as learning—and coevolved alongside it—then this may be only half the story. How students (naturally) learn might be caused, in part, by how teachers (naturally) teach, and vice versa. And learners perhaps should be asked to adjust to what we learn about how we teach as much as the other way around.

Those seem like new thoughts to me. But they’re probably not.

Published by

Josh Fisher

Instructional designer, software development in K-12 mathematics education.