The Human Nature of Teaching I: Ways of Teaching That We Share With Other Animals

What can we learn from animals by watching them teach?

Posted Apr 14, 2011

So far, through more than 60 posts in this blog about learning and education, I've said almost nothing about teaching. That has been deliberate. In our culture we do  too much teaching, or too much of what we call "teaching;" and much of that activity interferes with education more than it helps. Some readers have wondered if I'm just plain dead set against all forms of teaching. The answer to that, of course, is no. I'm just against teaching that is forced upon or foisted upon learners--teaching that is not a response to the learners' own desires to learn. I think forced or foisted teaching creates more harm than good; it blunts curiosity, promotes helplessness, and in some cases induces hatred and avoidance of the subject taught and even of the teacher. But teaching that is wanted by the learner is great. It's laudable, like any behavior that really succeeds in helping others achieve their goals.

My goal in this new series of essays is to examine teaching from the ground up. I start, here, with a definition of teaching and with evidence that teaching occurs in at least some non-human animals. An examination of teaching in other species may lead to insights that will be useful for understanding teaching in our species.

Definition of Teaching

Teaching is behavior that is conducted by one individual (the teacher) for the purpose of helping another individual (the pupil) to learn something.

That's a simple definition, but it may need just a bit of elaboration. Notice that teaching, by this definition, is always a form of assistance. The key actor in any instance of learning is the learner; the teacher just helps.

The phrase for the purpose of, in the definition, rules out the great majority of cases in which one individual's actions help another individual to learn. We all learn an enormous amount by watching others do things, but that doesn't mean that those others are teaching us. They are teaching us, according to the definition, only if their actions are done for the purpose of helping us learn. I may learn to use a new coffee machine by watching you use it, but you taught me only if you used the machine primarily or at least partly for the purpose of enabling me to learn. An outside observer might judge that you were teaching me by noting that you beckoned me to watch, that you performed the actions with slow, exaggerated motions, or that you didn't drink the coffee you made.

I should add also that by purpose I mean function and do not mean to imply anything about consciousness of function. The function of teaching is to promote another's learning, just as the function of digestion is to get food molecules into the bloodstream and the function of the blink reflex is to prevent eye injury. When I say that ants teach other ants, I mean only that they engage in behaviors that came about (in this case through natural selection) for the function of helping other ants learn something, not that the ants are conscious of that function. We have no idea if other species of animals are conscious of teaching in the sense that you were conscious of teaching me to use the coffee machine.

Learning can be divided roughly into two categories--skill learning (learning how) and informational learning (learning that). Since teaching is always tied to learning, teaching comes in those same two categories--skill and informational. Both categories have been documented in nonhuman animals as well as in humans. Here are a few examples of both skill teaching and informational teaching in animals.

How Animals Help Their Young to Develop Skills

Providing materials and conditions for practice

Skill development, especially in mammals, often requires a great deal of practice. Young mammals come into the world highly motivated to practice the skills they need to survive, but in some cases they are unable, by themselves, to create the conditions necessary for practice. In these cases, teaching may occur simply by providing those conditions. Perhaps the best examples are found in cases of carnivores learning to hunt.

Kits, cubs, and pups, who must become good hunters in order to survive, spend endless hours practicing. They playfully chase and pounce on leaves blowing in the wind, and on each other, as ways of practice. But they also need practice with real prey, and to provide that practice the mother brings them real prey. In a groundbreaking series of field studies, Timothy Caro documented this for wild cheetahs.[1] At first, when the cubs are young, the mother cheetah brings them dead hares and gazelles, which they attack and eat. As they get older, however, she begins to bring back live hares and gazelles, which the cubs eagerly chase and attempt to capture. When the cubs fail to capture the live prey, as they almost always do at first, the mother chases it down and brings it back, so they can try again. She might do this several times before killing it so the cubs can eat. Eventually, after much of this practice, the young cheetahs became skilled at killing the prey themselves, and then they are ready to begin hunting on their own.

The mother cheetah's teaching is costly. It would be easier and less time-consuming for her to kill the game herself and give it dead to her cubs than to bring it back kicking and struggling and then to keep chasing it down as her cubs lose it. Moreover, Caro observed that sometimes the live prey gets away from the mother as well as from the cubs, resulting in loss of meat. Apparently, the gain to the cubs, in the development of their hunting skills, more than compensates for these costs.

Similar behavior is shown by mothers in many other predatory species. For example, mother meerkats (small mammals in the mongoose family) help their pups learn to kill and eat dangerous, stinging scorpions.[2] First the mother brings them dead scorpions, which they attack and eat. Then she brings them live scorpions with the stingers removed, until the pups are good at catching and killing them. Then, finally, she begins to bring them intact scorpions to kill.

We don't usually think of providing materials for practice as teaching, but it is one of the most valuable ways by which we humans help our children to learn, and it meets the criteria for teaching established by the definition above. By providing access to toys, tools, and other equipment, or by other means of altering their environment, we, like mother cheetahs and meerkats, enable our young to practice valuable skills. Children can't learn skills that they have no opportunity to practice.


We humans are natural imitators. We learn most new skills by watching how others do them and then imitating what we saw. In his coauthored book The Anthropology of Education, David Lancy contends, with good evidence, that watching others is, worldwide, the primary means by which people, especially children, learn what they need to know. Most such learning doesn't require teaching; we learn from watching others who are just going about their daily business, oblivious of us. However, in some cases a helpful person takes the trouble to show us how to do something by performing it, directly in front of us, specifically for that purpose. That is one of the most important human ways of teaching.

Demonstrating is very rare in the nonhuman world. In fact, the only nonhuman animals that appear to demonstrate at all are chimpanzees, and even for them it is a rare occurrence. The only clearly documented instances of it so far involve mother chimps teaching their offspring how to crack nuts.

Chimpanzee nut cracking is fascinating, because it is among the rare examples of a culturally learned and culturally transmitted tradition among nonhumans. This behavior has only been observed among certain groups of chimpanzees in West Africa, and in those groups the behavior is passed along from generation to generation. Groups of chimps elsewhere don't treat hard-shelled nuts as food, because they have no way of opening them. In certain parts of West Africa, however, chimpanzees crack nuts by the technique of placing the nut on a large flat rock (the anvil) and striking it repeatedly with an appropriately shaped stone or heavy stick (the hammer). The woody shells of the nuts are very hard, and cracking them is difficult. The anvil, the hammer, and the means of striking have to be just right. Young chimpanzees require years of practice before they become skilled, and--as researchers Cristophe and Hedwige Boesch have documented---their mothers assist them.[3]

The mothers help mostly by providing the young with materials for practice--an appropriate anvil and hammer and nuts to crack. But occasionally, when a young chimp has been trying really hard and is becoming frustrated, the mother will step in and show the youngster how to do it. In one case, which you can view on You Tube, the mother took the stick hammer from her daughter and then very slowly and deliberately, right in front of the daughter, turned the stick around so that the better surface was facing downward, and then proceeded to crack several nuts, using this correct orientation, while the daughter watched. After that the daughter held the stick just as her mother had and succeeded in cracking several nuts.

Demonstrating may be especially valuable for culturally acquired skills as opposed to skills that are heavily based in instinct. Young cheetahs may be born knowing the general movements required for hunting, so all they need is practice in order to perfect those movements; but young chimps have no instinctive knowledge at all of nut cracking, so that is hard to learn and demonstrations can help. We humans have taken cultural transmission to the extreme level, so it is no wonder that demonstrating is a major means of human teaching.

How Animals Provide One Another With Useful Information

Much animal learning, in the informational as well as skill category, has to do with food.  What is food and what isn't, and where is food to be found? Many animals learn these things by attending to others of their species who already know them. For example, given a choice of what to eat, young rats will eat whatever it is that the older rats in the colony are eating; and kittens learn the locations of food by following their mothers around. For the most part no teaching is involved in any of this; the knowledgeable individuals are just doing what they would normally do and the naïve ones learn by paying attention. In some cases, however, the knowledgeable individuals help out by directing the attention of the learners or by leading them to food.

Directing Attention

Examples of directing attention as a means of teaching are seen in chickens and other birds in the fowl family. The young learn what is food by seeing what their mothers' peck at on the ground. In some cases, hens perform a distinctive feeding display, only when their chicks are present, which apparently serves to attract the chicks' attention to a particularly nutritious type of food she has found [2]. This serves not just to promote the chicks' immediate eating of that food, but also helps them to learn that this is an especially valued food, so they seek it in the future.

Leading to Show Where

When a naïve individual follows a knowledgeable one to learn the location of food, the knowledgeable one might help out by making itself easy to follow. Such behavior has been documented most clearly in species of ants called tandem-runners.[4] These ants are regularly seen running in pairs, with one following directly behind the other and prodding it with its antennae. Researchers have shown that in such pairs the leader is always the one who knows where a new source of food is located and the follower, by following, learns where that source of food is and can then become a leader for another ant. The leader's behavior here is considered teaching, not just getting food, because the leader runs differently when being followed in his way than when not. It moves at only a quarter of the speed that it normally would, which allows the follower to keep up and gives it time to attend to landmarks along the way and learn the route. The slower movement is a cost to the leader, as it means that it takes more time to get to the food, but is a benefit to the learner and to the whole colony of ants, which regularly cooperate in this and other ways to survive.


All of these ways of teaching, observed in animals, are among the most common ways of teaching among human beings. None of these examples of teaching involve reward or punishment or any attempt to manipulate the learner's motivation to learn. The learner is already highly motivated and trying to learn; the teacher just helps out. As I will argue in future essays in this series, we would all be more effective teachers if we took that lesson from animals to heart. I should add, however, that there are certain well-delineated cases in which animals do use punishment in order to teach a lesson--and the lesson, in every such case, is "stay away from me." More on that in a future post.

If you have thoughts or questions about animal teaching and its relation to human teaching, please post them in the comments section below. I do read all comments and attempt to answer all questions. In my next post I'll discuss human teaching as it occurs in hunter-gatherer cultures.


Update. The next post in this series is now on line:  The Human Nature of Teaching II: What Can We Learn from Hunter-Gatherers about Teaching Our Children?


[1] Timothy M. Caro & M. D. Hauser (1992). Is there teaching in nonhuman animals? The Quarterly Review of Biology, 67,151-174.
[2] Alex Thornton & Nichola J. Raihani (2010). Identifying teaching in wild animals. Learning and Behavior, 38, 297-209.
[3] Christophe Boesch (1991), Teaching among wild chimpanzees. Animal Behaviour, 41, 530-532.
[4] Hoppitt, Brown, Kendal, Rendell, Thornton, Webster, & Laland (2008). Lessons from animal teaching. Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 23, 486-493.

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