The First Teacher? Study Finds Teaching and Tools Evolved Together

Ask ten people where teaching originated and you will get as many contrasting answers. Most historians will tell you that Jan Amos Komensky (John Amos Comenius) (1592 – 1670 AD), the visionary Dutch philosopher, theologian, cartographer and communications master, “officially” known as “the Father of Modern Education,” was the first teacher in human history.

However, the rationalists among you will already be struggling with such a spurious term as “Father of Teaching.” Comenius himself must have had a teacher who would himself take that title, as would his teacher, and the one before that, and so, this paradoxical spiral goes on backwards into history, infinitely

This helter-skelter ride into the origins of teaching and tool development was recently jumped on by a team of scientists who have proven that teaching didn’t have a “go button,” or any one “father,” but that it emerged from the struggle to innovate and refine better survival tools.

Most historians concur that Jan Amos Komensky is the first teacher in human history and the father of modern education. (Public domain)

Most historians concur that Jan Amos Komensky is the first teacher in human history and the father of modern education. ( Public domain )

Who Was the First Teacher? The Prehistoric Emergence of Teaching

A new study suggests that our ability to teach evolved alongside our development and application of increasingly more complex tools. An August 2020 paper published in Science Direct looked at “cumulative cultural evolution” (CCE), which assigns our ecological success to our ability to selectively learn beneficial social information. It was known that over time this resulted in the accumulation of new innovations, but according to the new study while CCE is central to our success as a species, “its origins remained a mystery.”

Researchers from the University of Exeter recently published their research in The Royal Society . Their paper demonstrates how teaching emerges when tools are innovated by groups of humans tasked with solving problems. In an ancient world context, the new research suggests early humans who had developed the most complex tools and who learned how to teach their applications, were “favored by natural selection.”

This new study concludes that toolmaking and teaching evolved together, thus quashing the search for the original first teacher. (Public domain)

This new study concludes that toolmaking and teaching evolved together, thus quashing the search for the original first teacher. ( Public domain )

The Great Brain Blockchain

According to Science Daily , Dr. Alex Thornton, of the Centre for Ecology and Conservation on Exeter’s Penryn Campus in Cornwall and the study’s senior author, wrote that traditional theories have “assumed” that CCE requires teaching for the accurate transmission of information. But this doesn’t explain “why” these processes evolved in the first place. Dr. Thornton added that a primary aim of his new study was to examine the hypothesis that CCE “co-evolved,” gradually, with the increasing need for complex tools.

The researchers approach to the problem was innovative in itself and stands at the very forefront of smart thinking. You’ll probably have heard of the term “blockchain” in a computer context where it represents ever-expanding lists of records, called  blocks, that are linked together using cryptographic algorithms or timestamps from previous blocks. Returning to the new study, 600 people comprising women’s institutes, sports clubs, craft societies, museums, theatres, galleries, libraries and community gardeners formed a human “chain” that was tasked with developing a waterproof paper boat and a pipecleaner basket that could carry marbles. Like in a blockchain, every participant saw the tool that was developed by the previous “link,” or person, in the chain. Mimicking an ancient campfire learning session, each participant watched and spoke with the previous person making their alterations to the tool, allowing real-time teaching through interaction to occur.

Evolutionary Feedback Loop Between Complex Toolmaking and Teaching

Dr. Amanda Lucas of the University of Exeter said the experiment’s 600-person sample set was made up of a wide and varied range of ages, backgrounds and skillsets, rather than just testing a narrow social group of university students. The results showed that simple and complex tools “generally improved down the generations.” With complex tools it was found that teaching led to more improvement. Teaching was particularly useful in “allowing new, high-performing designs to be transmitted.” Reflecting the diversity of technologies across human societies today, the study demonstrated how simple tools converged towards a common design, while complex tools remained diverse.

Dr. Alex Thornton added that the study’s findings point to an evolutionary feedback loop between toolmaking and teaching. This suggests that our ancestors made slow cumulative improvements to simple tools, without the need for teaching. This removes the need to continue hunting for an original first teacher in the historic archives of human history. However, as tools became more complex, teaching became a far more advantageous skill to have. In other words, the more rapid the evolution of improved teaching skills, the quicker the production of complex tools.

Top image: Was there really a first teacher in history? A new study concludes that toolmaking and teaching evolved side by side. Source: Public domain

By Ashley Cowie

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