Benign Neglect

An anthropologist looks at contemporary parenting.

The Reluctant Teacher

Of course “good” teaching is rare, why should we expect otherwise?

This is the fourth and last in a series of posts offering an anthropological perspective on our on-going “crisis” in public education. In spite of half a century or more of well-funded research, steadily growing school budgets, earlier and earlier onset of schooling, heightened monitoring of teacher and student performance, indications of failure are legion. In previous posts I reviewed some of the less-well-known origins of our contemporary crisis. In “The Reluctant Scholar,” I pointed out that Matses boys would far (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/benign-neglect/201312/the-reluctant-scholar) rather “go fishing” than sit in a classroom listening to a teacher. I reviewed evidence to show that children—likely from the onset of the species—have actively learned on their own. Very little of what they need to learn to survive can be articulated verbally or transmitted formally by a third party. Children learn virtually everything through the doing of it, through play when younger and then, through “doing chores” when older.

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In a book that will appear in October (2), I point out that the Reluctant Scholar also characterizes the behavior of many children in school today—perhaps the majority. Even students who claim to “love school” may, in fact love socializing, playing on a team, performing in the school band or play—all primarily active, hands-on experiences. They may also declare that they love their teachers but they willingly confess hatred of Algebra…and English…and Chemistry—learning experiences that tax the brain and not the body.

In a second post, “The Roots of Schooling” (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/benign-neglect/201312/the-roots-schooling) I looked at the origins of formal education—starting with the precursors of our modern schools. We now see institutions like the initiation rite, apprenticeship and the first scribal schools all contributing to the birth of mass schooling. Yet, the “pedagogy” of such institutions clearly reveals an underlying assumption that, as soon as you introduce teachers, and a set, language-based (vs. task-based) curriculum, you can also expect that students will resist. The atmosphere of these early schools and school-like institutions is one of students looking for any means to relieve the tedium, the abuse, onerous work and officious oversight of teachers. On the one hand, students “act up” and, on the other, teachers punish. In the Renaissance as today: “The professional class included lawyers, notaries, governmental secretaries, university professors, physicians, and teachers in no clear order except for teachers at the bottom.” (3) Not a promising foundation.

It stands to reason that, if children prefer to learn on their own initiative and that this approach is successful—at least in adapting to pre-modern society—then parents may not see themselves as anything other than role models.  Adults can, then, be characterized also as “Reluctant”—at least as teachers.  Teaching is not only considered unnecessary. It may, in fact, be seen as counter-productive, as these statements (2) show:

  • Deciding what another person should do, no matter what his age, is outside the Yequana vocabulary of behaviors. There is great interest in what everyone does, but no impulse to influence—let alone coerce—anyone. The child’s will is his motive force.
  • “Equality” may be said to be the paramount value of the Asabano and it is thus the mediating principle in interpersonal relations. Individuals both attempt to avoid infringing upon others, and are keen to ensure that their autonomy is not violated.
  • [Aka] respect for an individual’s autonomy is also a core cultural value…one does not impose his/her will, beliefs, or actions on others [including children].
  • In a learning situation [in rural Tahiti]…to tell anybody what to do, is intrusive and taken as a sign of unjustified adult mood–driven irritability and impatience.
  • The relatively few restrictions placed on the young Okinawan child are an important basis for learning. By being able to participate freely, children learn what is going on in their village from day to day.

The contrast between these traditional views and our own is starkly illustrated in this comment by Alan Howard. “American parents seem to feel that knowledge is something like medicine—it’s good for the child and must be crammed down his throat even if he does not like it—Rotuman parents act as if learning were inevitable because the child wants to learn.” (4)

In the third installment, “Coercive Pedagogy” (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/benign-neglect/201401/coercive-pedagogy), I showed that, while children may be eager learners, they aren’t always eager workers. That is, on the rare occasions when we see adults or older siblings intervening in the otherwise largely autonomous behavior of children (5) it is usually to chastise them for sins of omission or commission. That is, if we define teaching very broadly as attempting to change the behavior of others, we see that reluctant teachers rely almost entirely on various forms of coercion. This would include subtle forms of correction like using a pithy saying or proverb to gentle teasing to scare tactics to corporal punishment and food denial. I’m not suggesting that “primitive” peoples enjoy “abusing” their children. Rather, I’m arguing that, because teaching is so rarely required in raising children, the traditional pedagogical repertoire is quite limited.  Carefully designed, patient, child-centered lessons are very rarely reported either in community or school contexts until quite recently.

A Bovine Lesson
A Bovine Lesson
Leslie Moore, used by permission.
The virtual absence of teaching in the ethnographic record has not deterred a number of scholars from making very ambitious claims re the universality of teaching and it’s likely that most people would agree that it is the “parent’s most important job.” (6) But evidence to refute the notion that humans are all competent teachers is, actually, much closer at hand. For example, I created a simulation in an annex of an Elementary School in Phoenix of a bedtime story episode. The stage was set with a comfy couch and a coffee table strewn with a sampling (from basic “readers” to Caldecott winners) of age-appropriate books. Working with the school, I constructed a sample of 32 K-1st graders who ranged from extremely fluent to non-readers. I invited a parent to come in to school and spend a half hour reading to their child—“as they would at home.” I video-taped these sessions. The results were as predicted: in sessions where the parent (mostly mothers) effectively played a supportive teaching role, the child displayed precocity as a reader and vice-versa. Parents who were clueless actually placed obstacles in the path of their aspirant reader who would, in all likelihood, struggle to become fully literate. (7)

David Bjorklund carried out a very similar study but the goal was to teach children to play Chutes and Ladders. Many parents were very good at this, carefully scaffolding the child’s gradual learning. “Others parents were less supportive. Some provided no instruction, other than to correct children when they were wrong. Others did the computation for their children. Some insisted that children use a strategy, that they were not capable of using.” (8) Even a sample of highly educated middle-class American mothers displayed considerable variability in their effectiveness as teachers of their 4-year-olds. (9)

In conclusion, I would argue that our contemporary crisis arises, at least in part, due to two mistaken assumptions. First, that children’s eagerness to learn and acquire mastery means they’re somehow hard-wired to assume the role of student. On the contrary, children have, rather, escaped or avoided being cast in the role of scholar. The second mistaken assumption is that parents are “born teachers,” eager and willing to educate their children. Again, it is far more likely that parents are no more eager or confident to teach than are children to be taught.  But, once again, we have turned “nurture into nature” (10) and generalized about the nature of humankind from a single rarefied sample (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich or WEIRD) of the world’s societies. (11) We would be on far firmer ground assuming that future parents need to be trained to teach their children who will, in turn, need to be painstakingly trained to become scholars.   

1. See also Mel Konner “Is ADHD a Disease of Civilization?” PT Blog Post 9.13.2010 http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-tangled-wing/201009/is-adhd-disease-civilization

2. Lancy, D.F. (2014) The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings

Second edition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

3. Grendler, P. R. (1989) Schooling in Renaissance Italy. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press. (p. 37)

4. Howard, A. (1970) Learning to be Rotuman. New York: Teachers College Press

5. Lancy, D. F. and Grove, M. A. (2010) The role of adults in children’s learning.  In Lancy, David F., Gaskins, Suzanne and Bock, John (Eds) The Anthropology of Learning in Childhood. (pp 145-180) Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press.

6. Goldman, S. and Booker, A. (2009) Making math a definition of the situation: Families as sites for mathematical practices. Anthropology and Education Quarterly 40(4), 369–87.

7.  Lancy, D. F., Draper, K., & Boyce, G. (1989) Parental influence on children's acquisition of reading. Contemporary Issues in Reading, 4, 83-93.

Bergin, C., Lancy, D.F. and Draper, K.D.  Parents’ interactions with beginning readers.  In Lancy, D. F. (Ed)(1994) Children’s Emergent Literacy: From Research to Practice. (pp. 53-78), Westport, CT: Praeger.

8. Bjorklund, D. F. (2007) Why Youth is Not Wasted on the Young. Malden, MA: Blackwell. (p. 158)

9. Vandermaas–Peeler, M., Nelson, J., von der Heide, M. and  Kelly, E. 2009. Parental guidance with four–year–olds in literacy and play activities at home, (pp. 93–112) in Kuschner, D. (ed.), From Children to Red Hatters. Lanham: University Press of America.

10. Lancy, D. F. (2010). When nurture becomes nature: Ethnocentrism in studies of human development. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 33, 99-100.

11. Henrich, J. , Heine, S. J., and Norenzayan, A. (2010) The weirdest people in the world? Behavioural And Brain Sciences 33: 61–81.

David Lancy, Ph.D., is a professor of anthropology at Utah State University and author of The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings.

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