To Teach is Human?

Forty years ago, in what is now known as the Central African Republic anthropologist Barry Hewlett noticed something that would make American parents shudder.

When the nomadic Aka pygmies stopped to rest between hunts, parents would give their infants small axes, digging sticks and knives. Infants would play to learn how to use them.

Despite the inherent danger of the sharp objects, Hewlett has never seen an infant cut themselves.  But he has seen this as an example of something we were all born to do…teaching.

They may be among the world’s last hunter-gatherers, but their culture represents 99 percent of human history. And thus holds a wealth of knowledge for the rest of us.  After observing and interacting with the Aka for decades, he has concluded that: “teaching is part of the human genome.”

“It’s part of our human nature,” said Hewlett, a professor of anthropology at WSU Vancouver. “Obviously, teaching as it exists in formal education is way different than the way it exists in small-scale groups that I work with. The thing is, there does seem to be something going on there.”

(Are you a Bad Teacher? You Probably Wouldn’t Know)

While there are competing theories of why the human language developed, one of the most dominant theories comes from psycholinguist Gun Semin. Semin has studied the purpose of language for decades and his hypothesis can be distilled to this:

The main purpose of language is to direct listeners attention to a selected sector of reality[i].

That sounds an awful lot like teaching doesn’t it?

Hewlett’s observation of the Aka seems to support Semin. Hewlett documented about 170 teaching events. He would have loved to videotape more, but a Civil War had broken out and the area was unsafe.

Of the teaching events, about half lasted less than 3 seconds.  Most teaching included demonstrating activities, pointing, giving verbal instruction and “opportunity scaffolding”– providing an object like a digging stick and the chance to use it.

His biggest takeaway was how much autonomy the children were given by the adults.

In the Aka culture, “One does not coerce or tell others what to do, including children,” Hewlett and co-author Casey Roulette write in Royal Society Open Science.

Hewlett discovered the value of letting the child teach himself as much as possible. “We know learning can be very rapid when it is self-motivated,” he said.

“When you take away the autonomy of the child, that impacts the self-motivation of the child.”

If teaching is part of our human nature, how can you take advantage of that in the classroom?

You may have heard that teaching is the best way to learn. In my first few years of teaching history, I learned more than I ever did as a student. Most teachers will tell you the same thing.

However, most teachers never take advantage of this truth. But you can.

Here’s how…

Teaching to Learn

In 1980 at Yale University, John Bargh wanted to see how making students a teacher could work in the real world.

Bargh had students read “boring” SAT passages and were told to do so for one of two reasons.

The first group was told they were reading to take a test on the material.

The second group was told they were reading so they could teach it to another student shortly after finishing.

Then both groups were tested (surprise!).

And even though the though the second group did not know they were going to be tested, they strikingly outperformed the first group.[i]


Screenshot 2016-12-29 14.41.23.png


Those students who read to teach it later, scored 14 % higher on the test (that they didn’t know they would have to take).  What’s also interesting is that those students didn’t actually teach anyone! They were simply told they would have to.

But why?

Research suggests that we remember more when we are learning to teach another person about it because it is encoded in our memory differently.[ii]

The neural network used for social thinking is more powerful than the network used for memorization. And this network is activated when we believe we will have to teach what we learn.

Our brain organizes the information differently depending on learning goals.

Successful memorization utilizes the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and medial temporal lobe regions of the brain.[iii]

However, social encoding is processed through the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (DMPFC- Picture below)

Image result for dorsomedial prefrontal cortex

Most students expect that they are learning  to take a test on it later. This is a nonsocial thinking.

However, when we know that we are going to be socially responsible for communicating information, our brains do a better job of learning that information.

This happens even if no teaching occurs![iv]

So how can we use this in the classroom?

(Want to motivate someone?  Here are the 19 magic words proven to motivate)

One simple way is to use the think, pair, share activity.

  1. Students think for a minute about an answer, pair up with a partner, and share their thoughts.
  2. You can also add writing to make even more powerful. Before pairing, students write their thoughts down on paper. Then they share those thoughts with their partner.
  3. An even more advanced way is to have each partner share their partners thoughts. Doing this, students are making multiple neural connections.They are thinking, writing, sharing, and then have to actively listen to their partners to be able to share with the whole class.

Quiz Maker Quiz Taker

Another way you can utilize the social network is using the Quiz Maker/ Quiz Taker technique.

  1. Have students study the content you taught.
  2. Students select information and form quiz questions
  3. Students switch their quiz papers with a partner.
  4. Each student takes a partners quiz.
  5. Students grade each other’s quiz
  6. Students have to then find the correct answers and correct their papers.

Teaching is part of human genome, so let your students teach each other.

PS –   Many teachers (and humans) like you have benefited from reading Class Hacker and you don’t want to miss out!




[i] Cialdini, R. (2016). Presuasion: a revolutionary way to influence and persuade. New York., New York: Simon and Schuster

[i] Lieberman, M. D. (2014). Learning from others. Chronicle of Higher Education, 60, B4-B5.

[ii] Lieberman M.D. (2012). Education and the social brain. Trends in Neuroscience and Education, 1 (1).

[iii] Mars, R., & Grol, M. (2007). Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, working memory, and prospective coding for action. Journal of Neuroscience, 27(8), 1801-1802.

[iv] Nestojko, J., Bui, D., Kornell, N., & Bjork, E. (2014). Expecting to teach enhances learning and organization of knowledge in free recall of text passages. Memory & Cognition, 42 (7), 1038-1048.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s