What Today’s Classrooms Can Learn From Ancient Cultures


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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