Directors of the School: Antonio M. Battro and Kurt W. Fischer
Directors of the Course: Sidney Strauss and Elena Pasquinelli
Program officer: María Lourdes Majdalani
Teaching, per se, and its cognitive building blocks
The last three decades have been ripe of stimulating theories of learning, and namely of social learning - a decisive mechanism for explaining cultural variation and the accumulation of culture. However, a major effort has still to be made in order to understand teaching per se, and to converge upon a shared characterization of teaching. As citizens of the Western Educated Industrialized Rich Democratic world, we all have an intuitive understanding about what teaching is. But it is still contentious whether non-WEIRD societies, and even more non-human animals teach. Teaching is advocated by some as the proper of our species, if not of our culture: a demanding behavior (in cognitive terms) that is intentional and aimed at reducing the knowledge gap in others. Alternatively, as a costly, altruistic behavior, serving the purpose of facilitating learning in descendants or in cooperatively breeding species.
I will propose a characterization of teaching, which is free of the constraints imposed by views centered upon the learner and its “interests” (teaching per se). I will also advocate the necessity of identifying the precursors and the cognitive building blocks of teaching, in realms of the mind-brain that are more differentiated than those traditionally associated with teaching - i.e. theory of mind, intention to teach, metacognition.
1. Teaching will be presented as one of the mechanisms that play a role in the probability of success of certain cultural variants (skills, ways of doing, beliefs, …), namely: the variants that are endorsed by the teacher (population level). At least indirectly, teaching thus serves learning in others (the acquisition of a new variant), but the learner’s benefit needs not to be its primary, or at least, its exclusive, concern. At the individual level, in fact, teaching warrants prestige, social status, possibly cognitive advantages to the teacher, who exerts an influence on the learner. Teaching can thus provide a direct advantage to the teacher (or to the teacher’s genes), in adaptive terms, through the “manipulation” of the learner.
2. As other mechanisms that influence the success of cultural variants (like social biases and cognitive attractors), teaching needs not to be intentional and metacognitive, or to imply the reading of others’ minds. These components can but need not to add up to more ancient components of teaching. When they do, they change the aspect of teaching, explaining why teaching can take so many forms across cultures and across species. When they don’t, teaching is still a thing.
An analogy can be traced with numerical skills, which building blocks can be traced back into the cognitive functioning of a variety of species, early in human ontogeny, and constitute the precursors of numeracy in WEIRD societies.
3. Teaching is not necessarily well described in terms of a specific class of cognitive traits or of a specific class of behaviors. This might explain why approaches focusing on a specific class of traits (intentionality, metacognition, theory of mind) or on a specific class of behaviors (altruistic behaviors that facilitate learning) have failed at providing a shared, consensual, satisfying theory of teaching. Teaching is rather a family of behaviors, served by different combinations of cognitive skills.
I will thus propose that the precursors and cognitive building blocks of teaching should be looked at in multiple directions that include cognitive mechanisms involved in manipulation, the acquisition of influence, prestige, social status and in behaviors such as: approving-disapproving others, signaling, showing up one’s knowledge – rather than in the sole direction of transmission, facilitation, information sharing.