Sunday, April 10, 2016

Curiosity Challenge: Who Taught the First Teacher?

Great question Onasis. The most straight forward answer I can give is: their parents.

Teaching and learning in its earliest form would have occurred by imitation.  Our early ancestors would have imitated their parents, just like animals on nature TV shows imitate their parents' hunting and survival skills.  The acquisition of language and the generation and use of tools enabled the initial advancement of the human species from small groups of nomadic hunter-gatherers to larger agricultural communities, in what is termed the Neolithic Revolution. The benefit of agricultural food production to the individual health in these communities is not entirely clear.  But, ultimately, these communities supported larger populations. The development of larger communities led to the specialization of skills and roles within the community, for example farming, building, and trade. These communities developed into sophisticated societies with governmental structures, formalized ideology, and religion. The ancient Greeks and Egyptians are excellent examples of early human societies and how they were organized via class systems. The generation of writing within these societies drove the need for and development of a formalized education system.

In ancient societies most learning and teaching activities were between parents and children. Children would learn the trade of their parents and there wasn’t much opportunity to progress to different professions. The invention of writing (firstly from pictographic forms to the use of symbols in logographic forms) initiated the development of formalized learning environments. Archaeological evidence suggests that the Sumerians developed the first schools in what was Mesopotamia (an area that relates to present day Iraq, Syria, and Kuwait). The schools were associated with temples and were used to educate boys to become scribes and priests. A couple of centuries later, writing appeared in ancient Egypt, followed by the need for educated scribes. Scribes often followed their fathers into the profession, but there is evidence that boys from lower classes and girls could also become scribes. Formalized schooling of scribes was attached to religion and the temples. In both Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt, a student who made a mistake was physically beaten.

To find out more about how writing and the use of numbers developed, see the Cambridge Science Festival Blog - who created numbers and letters. 
You can also read more about the evolution of intelligence on the Cambridge Science Festival Blog - how did intelligence evolve over time.

Plato (left) pointing to the heavens and the realm of forms,
Aristotle (right) pointing to the realm of things.
From Encyclopaedia Britannica.
But who were the first teachers? Confucius (551-479 BC) is credited as being the first teacher. He was a philosopher, politician, and teacher in China. He wanted education to be broadly available and for teaching to be recognized as a profession. His philosophical ideas revolved around respect for family and ancestor worship, and are the founding principles of Confucianism, which is still influential in Chinese culture to this day. The ancient Greek philosophers Socrates (died 399 BC), Plato (approx 424-348 BC), and Aristotle (384-322 BC) are probably more famously recognizable as early teachers. Plato was a student of Socrates and founded what may have been the first higher education facility of the western world (Akademia). Aristotle attended Plato’s Akademia and, following Plato’s death, left to tutor Alexander the Great. He also founded a school called the Lyceum. All three men contributed greatly to western philosophy and Aristotle has been credited as being the founder of logical theory and the scientific method.

In America, it was the Pilgrims who established schools and introduced formal education in the 1600s. The Boston Latin School was the first public school in America (founded in 1635), and is the oldest existing school in the US.  Elementary schooling was not made compulsory in all states until 1918.

Karen Featherstone is a research scientist specializing in molecular and cell biology. Karen enjoys mentoring early career scientists, but finds teaching tricky as she always has more questions than answers.

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