Directors: Antonio M. Battro and Kurt W. Fischer
Program officer: María Lourdes Majdalani
Teaching and learning: some perspectives from Prehistory
The study of human evolution develops in an awkward relationship with contemporary social issues. Advocates of social programs often attempt to draw lessons from our origins as a species, but at the same time prehistorians are influenced by the society they inhabit. Rather than serving as an authoritative voice on our essence as humans the work of prehistorians might best be considered as a foil to discourse about contemporary issues, where questions that preoccupy us are recast in a foreign and challenging context. Prehistory might serve to hone our questions rather than provide easy answers.
Perhaps no issue is more central to contemporary society than the goals of education and the related issue of the nature of intelligence. Literacy, and particularly the quantification of language skills, is a particular focus of concern. It is perhaps not a coincidence that contemporary theories of modern human origins often focus on the dramatic consequences of the origins of language in our lineage. In the archaeological literature an equation of language with symbolic means of representation and a view of language as conferring advantages in the storage and access to knowledge is dominant. In this paper I would like to draw out an speculative perspective on the origins of language as a gradual process of change and emphasize the development of the capacity to expand social relations beyond aspects of the world that are visible. In a sense the archaeological record can be seen as showing an expanding scaffolding, and exploitation, of a theory of mind. Language might emerge in the context of this long process.
The implications of this view of human cognitive evolution for contemporary practice of teaching is to emphasize the relational aspects of learning and that not all knowledge (or use of language) serves a practical end. My sense is that such a perspective allows us to accommodate, and encourage, an appreciation of the full scope of the way language is used rather than focusing exclusively on language as a means for transferring information.