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.”