The Dangers of Not Knowing how to Talk About Education

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Evren Çakır

Brain, Education, and Inquiry

Paper 3


How to Talk About Learning and Teaching


     Through the class "Brain, Education, and Inquiry," we have taught ourselves, through co-constructive inquiry, that there are myriad ways one can learn and teach. These go beyond teaching and learning in the classroom, which in itself has enormous variety. We have discussed how one can teach and learn through observation, the power of stories, repetition, inquiry, exploration, experimentation, instruction, and more. Within each (and in combinations) of these ways of learning, there are myriad varieties, making teaching and learning broadly defined terms that have more applications than one can fathom. To speak simply, education comes in many shapes and forms. Additionally, we have learned to notice commonalities where differences are obvious and vice versa. Through the different ways of teaching, we have searched for a common goal, and when students share a class in common, we have decided the importance of understanding the differences in how each student learns best. We have learned that no two nervous systems are the same, despite the high percentage of DNA shared in humans. We have learned that the nervous system, a classroom, and a flock of geese have no puppet master, but instead have small pieces that form a whole.

     It is with this knowledge of education, differences, and similarities that we can enter the world outside of "Brain, Education, and Inquiry" to first come to a common understanding of how to talk about education, and then proceed to make the necessary changes to improve how we educate and how we become educated. With the former in mind, I will critique David F. Lancy's article "Learning from Nobody": The Limited Role of Teaching in Folk Models of Children's Development. In his abstract, Lancy states:


Among the Western intelligentsia, parenting is synonymous with teaching. We are cajoled into beginning our child's education in the womb and feel guilty whenever a "teaching moment" is squandered. This paper will argue that this reliance on teaching, generally and especially on parents as teachers is quite recent historically and localized culturally. The majority follow a laissez faire attitude towards development that relies heavily on children's natural curiosity and motivation to emulate those who're more expert.


Lancy has an impressive list of references at his disposal, and plenty of research, which he draws his conclusions from. However, Lancy either doesn't understand, or more likely doesn't know how to talk about, teaching and learning, and as a result does not acknowledge the different ways people teach as forms of teaching. Most commonly, Lancy thinks of teaching only as the most overt and active forms of teaching, when a lot of teaching can come from covert forms. In his introduction Lancy asserts, "raising children has become synonymous with teaching them," to which I contend that raising children is, and always has been, synonymous with teaching them. How could one define "raising children" without using words such as "preparing," "encouraging growth" and other phrases that are associated with teaching and education? Through this inability to talk about education, Lancy struggles to acknowledge the commonalities within the differences between the "Western intelligentsia," and the "laissez faire attitude" that he notes in the way children learn in cultures he contrasts with the former.

     The first incident where Lancy confuses covert teaching as the absence of teaching occurs when he first discusses the Kpelle (West African swidden farmers). Lancy mentions "cultural routines," without describing these routines or giving examples of them, as a way of raising children without teaching them. However, cultural routines in all cultures are some of the most prominent ways children learn about their culture. Lancy believes that because no one is explicitly telling the child how to participate in these cultural routines means there is no teacher. On the contrary, the teacher is anyone who is part of the cultural routine. For example, a child learns how to greet people by observing people greet each other. Thus, society is the teacher. Furthermore, in this example the child is likely to observe his/her parents greeting others the most, and thus the parents are doing the most teaching. Another example of Lancy neglecting covert teaching is in his discussion of the Kako; "from weaning, children get used to a hierarchical relationship with their mother ... no play, no talk, no cuddle; the relationship is one of authority and obedience ... children learn ... to fit in a wider network of kin who care for them." (2) While Lancy believes this is an example of learning without teaching, one can see the similarities between this example given and the "tough love" technique of teaching through what, in harshest terms, may be called neglect. The parent teaches the child to become more self-dependent by not appeasing the child whenever the child has a want. The parent may not be sitting down with the child and explaining explicitly, "look, sonny, you can't get everything you want in life, and you're have to learn to live without always being satisfied, so I'm not going to cuddle you or give you milk right now," however, that does not mean that the parent is not teaching the child.

     In general, Lancy gives examples of very specific ages of the children of each culture he discusses where covert teaching is most prominent. However, he does not discuss the whole process of growing up for any one culture. Every culture has times when covert teaching is employed more than overt teaching, and times when explicit explanation is used to raise children. While making his argument that overt teaching is relatively new and western, he actually gives examples of overt teaching in non-western cultures. Lancy notes, "Samoan toddlers were fed facing others and prompted to notice and call out to people," (3) a very explicit way of teaching social skills, similar, if not identical, to an American child being prompted to recognize family at a gathering. ("Who is that? Is that Aunt Christine? Can you say, 'Hi Aunt Christine!'?"). Perhaps if he discussed more than just how toddlers are treated, Lancy would find times when covert teaching is used more, just as he would find more overt teaching if he were to have further discussed the growth process of a Kpelle child.

Regardless of culture, children are taught in a manner that will best integrate them into their culture. Lancy mentions that for the Nuer, "transformation of the child from observer to participant, from dependent to contributor occurs smoothly. Children are eager to be useful and self-reliant, but some children may require a degree of persuasion." Certainly the "persuasion" used is more explicit direction on how to act and become a member of society. In America, children are eager to become useful and self-reliant, and this is seen at a young age when children mimic their parents, or when children act stubborn and refuse help (even when it may be necessary). Lancy mentions that in non-American cultures, it is common for children to act in "a preliminary/play stage in the child's acquisition of skill. The child-in company with peers-initially engages in a carefully constructed make-believe replication of scenes of adult work," a scene that is analogous to American children "playing house."

     When discussing how one learns in an apprenticeship in non-Western cultures, Lancy does acknowledge a difference between "active teaching" and the way a mentor teaches, thus acknowledging that teaching is present in the relationship between mentor and pupil. However, there is no difference between the learning in apprenticeships and that which Lancy has discussed throughout his paper, except that in an apprenticeship one learns a specific, uncommon skill. Furthermore, when Lancy describes how, in an apprenticeship, "any failure is attributed to [the pupil's] inattention, clumsiness, laziness, or immature skill level," (4) he is describing a (quite active) way of teaching how to overcome those flaws. Being attentive, diligent, and careful makes one a better learner. Apprenticeships not only teach a skill, they actively teach how to learn. Lancy's contention that apprenticeship hardly resembles contemporary teaching is erroneous. In contemporary teaching, students listen to lecture and must absorb what is being presented to them. Of course, the forms of punishment for a student who does not act as he/she is suppose to are quite different: beatings in apprenticeship are replaced with poor grades in contemporary schooling, but the ways a student learns aren't significantly different.

     At the end of his paper, Lancy asserts, "teaching-even if defined, minimally, as self-conscious demonstration-is rare in the accounts of anthropologists and historians," but this "minimal" definition of teaching is not basic enough. Teaching need not be self-conscious. Wherever there is a learner, a student, there is a teacher. A child can watch a professional athlete play a sport, and learn from that athlete by studying moves, style, attitude, etc. While the athlete is not aware of it, and thus certainly not self-conscious as a teacher, he is still teaching the child. Thus, one can teach without being self-aware. This example is an extreme, and in the examples given throughout Lancy's paper, the teachers are generally much more aware of their roles as teachers for children. Because Lancy is unable to talk about this as a form of teaching, he is forced to conclude that the similarities in raising children between Americans and non-Western cultures are minimal to nonexistent, when in fact they are quite obviously present. Thus it is important to know how to talk about education in a broad way. When we accomplish this we will be able to consolidate the different ways of teaching present in each culture, find commonalities that work, and create structured forms of education that will be more efficient and effective means of teaching.














David F. Lancy, “Learning from Nobody:” The Limited Role of Teaching in Folk Models of Children’s Development (2010)

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trajectories. Ethos 37(4), 391-413.

Wallaert, H. 2008. The way of the potter's mother: Apprenticeship strategies among Dii

potters from Cameroon, West Africa. pp. 178-98 in Stark, M. T., Bowser, R. J. and

Horne, L (eds.), Cultural Transmission and Material Culture: Breaking down

Boundaries. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.


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