Cave Man DidnT Have Classrooms

I got this post by Roger Schank via Stephen Downes and share Stephen’s concern with some of its polemical conclusions. The following counterpoint to Schank’s article may be a bit silly, but no more so than the original.

Yes, indeed, biologically, we are still cave men. And, mentally we are cave men as well. As we were evolving to live off the land by noticing and taking advantage of every opportunity, so were we evolving to think and learn in ways similar to how we now think and learn in the modern world.

It is a silly question to ask whether cave men had classrooms, but surely they did something very similar to giving and listening to lectures. Why does it matter that cave men did not have classrooms? We imagine that nonetheless they learned by being told the truth by experts and practicing to see if their minds could retain that truth and use it so solve practical problems.

What about the mind of the cave man? Is it reasonable to assume that a cave man was in the habit of sitting quietly and listening to someone who was trying to teach him to know something?
Actually, yes. Because that is how our young children very naturally behave, and it must, like the rest of what we do, be an evolved behaviour.

We can well imagine that cave men taught their children by telling stories and then acting out benign versions of dangerous experiences in games to test the learning. It would be foolish to imagine that they took children along on the hunt before they were ready, rather it makes more sense that they first explained and then practiced by playing, before facing the dangers of the actual hunt. Even prior to the idea of mass compulsory education, like that of mass feeding, we knew how to educate children properly, that is in the way that their minds were set up to work after 1,000,000 years of evolution. Instruction in cave man society, indeed in all societies, has always been by long-term apprenticeships at the foot of an acknowledged master whose knowledge was valued as the necessary foundation of effective action.

To put this another way, the cave man’s mind was evolved to implement the uniquely human attribute of knowledge-based action. There were no game shows. There was no Nobel Prize. But there was a “high stakes” test much more extreme than any in our modern schools. The winner was the person who brought down the elk or buffalo; the loser often got gored or trampled. In order to succeed against a much larger prey the caveman had to have a clear plan based on conscious knowledge of the behaviour of his prey and of the many factors which affect it. He didn’t just have to be able to act. He had to be able to participate in, or lead, a coordinated plan of action involving a whole team of collaborators. The leader in particular needed conscious theoretical knowledge in order to explain to his teammates not just what to do but what principles to apply when circumstances changed – as they so often did in the midst of a desperate and dangerous hunt. He had to be able to say what he knew that helped him manipulate the prey into a trap. He couldn’t just do it. He had to be able to pass on that skill to others.

Why does this matter? It explains in part why the cave man evolved the abilities that we now use to listen to a lecture. But it didn’t start there. His mind was already ready to absorb information in that way as a result of evolution over many generations of pre-human species which depended more and more on their ability to quietly and closely observe the world around them – as well as on the concurrent evolutionary pressure to closely observe their peers in order to maintain their status in a complex social network. Our minds were thus set up to be attentive in this way long before we knew any words.

And when there finally were words, there were stories. Man has had language, but not reading and writing for hundreds of thousands of years. Hundreds of thousands of years of telling and hearing stories has set us up to be able to tell and hear stories and relate them to experience. We like it. We are good at it. We crave stories. And a good lecture is in many ways like a story.

Modern man needs stories, but he doesn’t always get them. Or, if he gets them they are too trivial to justify his attention. Modern man is not set up to listen to anyone talk for an hour without new and interesting content. So when airlines blather on about safety precautions we can safely assume that people don’t listen because they have all heard it all a thousand times before.

What about books? People read books and remember what they read don’t they? Well… no. That would be silly. People remember the important parts of what they read. They certainly don’t remember the words. If they think about what they read they can remember the key ideas, or the gist of story. But much is forgotten. As it should be.

Reading was not a cave man activity. In other words, we do not have hundreds of thousands of years of mental evolution in support of the ability to gain information from books. And yet we do it. This brings up the question of how we evolved the capacity for that kind of mental activity.

Cave men needed to know the roles they played in their society. They needed to know how to perform the actions associated with those roles. They needed to have the concept of a goal and they needed to be able to figure out a course of action that might achieve that goal. At some point they evolved a capacity for using marks or tokens to record key information needed for their planning, and perhaps this was a precursor to the identification of marks with all spoken words that enabled the recording of stories, theories, and instructions.

Of course, in reality, there probably was not all that much ‘figuring out’ of completely new strategies going on. There isn’t now and it has probably always been thus. Most roles and associated actions, and most of the goals and associated plans needed to achieve them, would have been thought out for ages by their ancestors. All the average individual needed was to be able to understand the rules enough to apply them in a variety of situations. But the survival of our species has always been dependent not only on the ability of most of us to apply existing strategies and rules with some flexibility, but also on the presence of a small but significant proportion of truly original thinkers, and one of the purposes of education for understanding has always been to provide those thinkers with the foundations on which to build our next level of understanding.

The mental apparatus used by the cave man and thus inherited by modern man would have to be all about roles, tasks, goals, plans, and learning by watching and learning by doing. Just in time storytelling would also have a big role to play. Modern man is equipped to do this kind of mental functioning in the same way as he is equipped to absorb the nutrients from fruits and nuts. And similarly, he is equipped to absorb tightly packed information about what he might need to know in the future when heading into a risky or opportunistic situation.

Cave Men didn’t calculate the surface area of a potato chip, nor did they know F=MA. Cave men didn’t need to know any physics in order to effectively use a spear or any other weapon. They did that instinctively, but they did need to be able to analyse complex contingent situations – more likely based on theories of human and animal behaviour than those of physics. They also acquired the capacity for language, and mathematics is just that, a language – one which provides a useful model for understanding how the mind works as well as for protecting against some of the ways that it can work badly.

The cave man may well have been in many ways as conscious as we are long before he was articulate. If we don’t teach to the conscious, if we merely show how to do something rather than teach the theory of how something works, then we insult the student by denying the capacity for understanding which his mind evolved so many eons ago. If experience is separated from knowledge, if what we teach is not about knowledge at all, then we are not teaching but merely programming – and people are not just machines. In fact research has shown that students taught mathematical procedures exhibit less useful retention of problem solving capacity than those taught concepts, so not only is it insulting, it is just plain not productive to focus only on showing people how rather than showing them why. Unconscious people may sometimes make good automatons, but often they don’t even achieve that as it is against the nature of a fully evolved human to act without reason and often they rebel against the boring task where a mere machine would carry on without suffering.

Call me crazy but I think we need plenty of intellectuals and the ability to train more. Teaching people to work together, reason about new situations, achieve their goals, just as cave men did, is what education should be about.

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