What Today’s Classrooms Can Learn From Ancient Cultures

When Michaeleen Doucleff, an American science reporter, visited a preschool in an Arctic town, she was surprised by one of the regularly-scheduled activities. . “Some days, a parent will bring a seal to butcher inside the classroom,” the teacher told her. “Then the kids can run over and watch if they want.” At the end, he offered all the children a piece of seal meat. It was a real task that all the children might execute when they were old enough, reinforced here in school.

Doucleff’s presence there was no accident. She was on a three-legged journey to ancient cultures around the globe as a way to learn more about how non-Western peoples rear and teach children. Along with her young daughter, she spent time with Maya families in the Yucatan Peninsula, Hadzabe families in Tanzania, as well as Inuit families in the Arctic. Her new book, Hunt, Gather, Parent: What Ancient Cultures Teach Us About the Lost Art of Raising Happy, Helpful Little Humans, captures the essence of that experience.

What can American teachers, some of them instructing via Zoom to students who exist only on screens, learn from these traditions? “For the vast majority of time, human children were raised by hunter-gatherers,” Doucleff told me. The instincts cultivated during those thousands of years may be illuminating for schools, and teachers here could learn from the tried-and-true methods that have worked in many cultures around the globe throughout human history — with necessitating a lesson in butchery. Worn out educators and frustrated students trapped on Zoom might be served by a new perspective that’s grounded in tradition.

Doucleff observed several distinctive principles among the groups that children responded to in the classroom. Among the Maya, adult interference is minimal. During a class with 8-year-olds on hieroglyphs, for example, the teacher simply said, “we’re going to write our names.” He handed out paper and a chart showing the Maya hieroglyphs. Then he watched the children as they struggled with the task. He responded to their questions and guided them from time to time on their work. But he didn’t lecture or present himself as the authority on handwriting or give regular updates on the day’s schedule. It was the students’ responsibility to grapple with the assignment [and choose their own way of tackling the problem], which they seemed to understand.

“Teachers want children to be internally driven to work,” Doucleff said. “They’re teaching initiative.”

Connectedness is another core value among Maya families, and teachers seek to cultivate it. The bond between a teacher and student, and among the students themselves, fuels intrinsic motivation. While many American teachers also value relationships with their students, that effort is undermined by the competitive environment seen in many Western classrooms. Vying over grades or class standing erodes connection and cooperation among students.

Maya teachers also reject the top-down style that’s common in modern schools, preferring a “side-by-side” approach to their work. Rather than present themselves as authorities, adults believe children have something to teach adults. Adults aren’t omniscient, but rather partners in learning. And learning goes both ways.

Among Inuit, the very definition of learning differs from the Western understanding of it. There, “learning” often involves “watching”—and schools emphasize observation as the path to understanding. The Inuit also value calm and quiet, and rear their children in hushed tones. Doucleff learned that parents there won’t raise their voices at their children, believing that yelling at kids encourages them to tune out or respond with anger of their own. This emphasis on peacefulness and quiet extends to the classroom, where the emotional control and patience they’ve learned at home carries over. The last thing a parent or any adult will do with a bossy or disrespectful child is get angry or argue back. They view infractions as inevitable and signs of immaturity; the child simply has to learn the proper way to behave. When children act out or disobey, adults ignore the behavior, say nothing, and walk away if necessary.

Adults in many hunter-gatherer cultures, Doucleff learned, rely on encouragement to prompt children’s cooperation. Forcing, scolding, and punishing are rejected as ineffective ways to teach and corrosive to intrinsic motivation. Instead, when children misbehave—as all children will—the adult speaks to them calmly and gently, letting the child know in simple terms and few words what the natural consequence will be: if you fall off the ledge, you will get hurt. Adults don’t over-explain, or ask thousands of questions, or narrate kids’ activities to stimulate their brains. The emphasis is on learning through observation versus instruction, and children absorb that mentality.

Like in many hunter-gatherer cultures, families in Hadzabe communities encourage self-governance. Children occupy their own time, and adults generally don’t intrude (except to ask for help every now and then). The thinking is that children learn best when they direct themselves. It’s not that the young are left alone without an adult present; rather, children are permitted to follow their natural instincts, without adult’s swooping in to offer a different way or ask questions or impose punishment. And rather than foster selfishness among the children, Doucleff learned, this hands-off approach seemed to generate consideration and curiosity. It also minimizes conflict and bolsters kids’ self-control.

The Maya, Inuit, and Hadzabe communities that Doucleff visited are as “contemporary” as communities in the U.S., with smart phones and too much time on social media. Indeed, Doucleff found that schools in these communities often adopt a hybrid approach to education—part traditional, part Western. Anthropologists estimate that about 5 million hunter-gatherers span the globe in diverse cultures. In many cases, the communities carry on traditions out of choice, not because they lack exposure to other ways, but because they believe these approaches work and work well.

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