The educable animal

Peter Gray describes humans as ‘the educable animal’ (p.112) and I found this really interesting, because humans are also described as the storytelling animal… but storytelling is one way in which we meet our educational needs (in terms of education as Gray defines it –Education and hunter-gatherer children). This is a logical twist on that understanding of what makes us human and I like it! He writes:

“From an evolutionary perspective it is reasonable to say that we humans are, first and foremost, the educable animal. We are educable to a degree that goes way, way beyond that of any other species. Education… is cultural transmission. It is the set of processes by which each new generation of humans acquires and builds upon the skills, knowledge, rituals, beliefs, and values of the previous generation. Education, thus defined has to do with a special category of learning. All animals learn, but only humans learn to a significant degree from others of their species and thereby create, transmit, and build upon culture, from one generation to the next.
At least two million years ago, our human genetic line began moving along an evolutionary track that made us ever more reliant on cultural transmission. Over time we developed means of hunting, gathering, processing foods, protecting ourselves from predators, birthing, caring for infants, and combating diseases that depended on detailed knowledge and well-honed skills. Such knowledge and skills went way beyond what any individual or any group of individuals living together could discover on their own. Our survival came to depend on the accumulated achievements of prior generations, each building on the accomplishments of their ancestors. We also became increasingly dependent on our ability to cooperate and share with others of our kind, within and across bands, which required the transmission of social mores, rules, rituals, stories, and shared cultural beliefs and values. In short, we came to depend on education.” (p.112-113)

Just as children come into the world with instinctive drives to eat and drink what they must to survive, they come into the world with instinctive drives to educate themselves – to learn what they must to become effective members of the culture around them and thereby to survive. Those instinctive drives, broadly construed, are curiosity, playfulness, and sociability.” (pp.113-114)

“Aristotle, writing in the fourth century BC, began his great treatise on the origin of scientific thought with the words, “Human beings are naturally curious about things.” Nothing could be more obvious. Within hours of their births, infants begin to look longer at novel objects than at those they have already seen. On their deathbeds, people sometimes make heroic efforts to remain alive a little longer, sometimes in great pain, because they are curious to see what will happen next. During all of our waking time between birth and death, our senses are alert to changes in the world around us – our curiosity is continuously provoked. To confine a person to an unchanging environment (to the degree that that is possible), in which there is nothing new to explore, nothing new to learn, is everywhere considered cruel punishment, even if all other drives are satisfied. In a healthy human being, the thirst for knowledge is never quenched.” (p.114)

“Playfulness (the drive to play) serves educative purposes complementary to those of curiosity. While curiosity motivates children to seek new knowledge and understanding, playfulness motivates them to practice new skills and use those skills creatively.” (p.118)

“Play is not as widespread among animals as is exploration, but it does appear to occur in all species of mammals and in some species of birds. From a biological, evolutionary perspective, play is nature’s way of ensuring that young mammals, including young humans, will practice and become good at the skills they need to develop to survive and thrive in their environments.” (p.119)

“Young mammals come into the world with biological drives and tendencies (instincts) to behave in certain ways, but to be effective such behaviors must be practiced and refined. Play in animals, according to [Karl] Groos, is essentially an instinct to practice other instincts. He wrote, “Animals cannot be said to play because they are young and frolicsome, but rather they have a period of youth in order to play; for only by doing so can they supplement the insufficient hereditary endowment with individual experience, in view of the coming tasks of life.” Consistent with his theory, Groos divided animal play into categories related to the types of skills the play promotes, including movement play (running, leaping, climbing, swinging in trees, and so on), hunting play, fighting play, and nursing play (playful care of infants).” (p.120)

“The idea that play’s purpose is to promote skill learning also helps us to understand why different species of animals play in different ways. To a considerable degree, you can predict what an animal will play at by knowing what skills it must develop to survive and reproduce.” (p.121)

“In The Play of Man, [Karl] Groos extended his insights about animal play to humans. He pointed out that human beings, having much more to learn than do other animals, play much more than do other animals. Indeed, young humans everywhere, when left to their own devices, play at the kinds of skills that people must develop to thrive as adults. He also pointed out that human beings, much more so than the young of any species, must learn different skills depending on the unique culture in which they develop. Therefore, he argued, natural selection led to a strong drive, in human children, to observe the activities of their elders and incorporate those activities into their play. Children in every culture play at the general categories of activities that are essential to [-p.122] people everywhere, and they also play at the specific variations of those activities that are unique to their native culture.” (pp.121-122)

However, … “Children in school are not free to pursue their own interests, or to pursue those interests in their self-chosen ways. Children in school are more or less continuously evaluated, and the concern for evaluation and pleasing the teacher (or, for some, rebellion against pleasing the teacher) often overrides and subverts the possibility of developing genuine interests. Children in school are often shown one and only one way to solve a problem and are led to believe that other ways are incorrect, squelching the potential for exciting discoveries. And as [Sugata] Mitra [of the so-called hole-in-the-wall experiments] himself has pointed out, the segregation of children by age in schools prevents the diversity in preexisting skills and knowledge that seems to be a key to self-directed learning from others.
Curiosity, playfulness, and meaningful conversation are all thwarted in school, because they require freedom. Psychologist Susan Engel and her colleagues conducted an obsrvational study of kindergarten and fifth-grade classrooms in the United States and found that children in neither grade expressed much curiosity relevant to anything that they were required to study. When children asked questions, they asked about rules and requirements, such as how much time they had to finish a task, not about the subject itself. Questions about the subject were asked almost entirely by teachers, and the students’ task was to guess at the answers the teachers were looking for. When students did seem to show a spark of interest, the teacher often cut the interest off, so as not to fall behind on the assignment.” (p.130)

Ref: (italics in original; emphases in blue bold mine) Peter Gray (c2013) Free to LearnWhy unleashing the instinct to play will make our children happier, more self-reliant, and better students for life. Basic Books: New York


About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
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