Teaching at the Primate Level

I’ve been seriously distracted by this WGBH/PBS NOVA interview with primatologist Rebecca Saxe, but it was so fascinating.

I’ve watched enough chimp documentaries to know that they actually do use tools (like a stick to pick up a horde of termites, apparently a major chimpanzee delicacy). Saxe notes though that apparently chimps and our other primate cousins are really not very good teachers.

She then goes on to explain the cognitive process of both learning (student) and instruction (teacher) as well as noting that cultural development also requires innovation. First you learn to make chili, you think to tweak with some extra oregano and cumin, and then you teach it to someone else.

But the trick to teaching, according to Saxe, is for the instructor to be able to reflect on what he or she is doing. As we all know, that is much easier said than done. Saxe then discusses what she calls the “magic triangle” – social/cognitive coordination between instructor, learner and “object” (maybe even an abstract object). The first evidence in children, she says, is when a child points out something to show their parents, something chimps don’t do.

Maybe you’ve heard all of this before, but have you heard in comparison to what chimps aren’t doing? What a great twist on the old innateness debate. Our ability to learn may be innate, but what we learn is still all environment.

If nothing else, it’s a great introduction to many aspects of learning theory in a way any “chimp” can relate to.

This entry was posted in Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Teaching at the Primate Level

  1. I’m glad to see researchers are monkeying around with learning theory from a primate perspective.

Leave a Reply