Sunday, April 23, 2017

Oral storytelling is the old way of teaching

Lately I am trying to come up with four more speeches for the advanced Toastmasters International manual on Storytelling. I just looked up storytelling at PubMed Central, and found a long, interesting magazine article by Michelle Scalise Sugiyama at Frontiers in Psychology titled Oral Storytelling as Evidence of Pedagogy in Forager Societies. The abstract contained an unfamiliar word to me: ostension, which according to the Oxford dictionary means:

“The action of showing, exhibiting, or making manifest; exhibition, display, manifestation; an instance of this.”

The article abstract (broken by me into two paragraphs) says:

“Teaching is reportedly rare in hunter-gatherer societies, raising the question of whether it is a species-typical trait in humans. A problem with past studies is that they tend to conceptualize teaching in terms of Western pedagogical practices. In contrast, this study proceeds from the premise that teaching requires the ostensive manifestation of generalizable knowledge: the teacher must signal intent to share information, indicate the intended recipient, and transmit knowledge that is applicable beyond the present context. Certain features of human communication appear to be ostensive in function (e.g., eye contact, pointing, contingency, prosodic variation), and collectively serve as ‘natural pedagogy.’

Tellingly, oral storytelling in forager societies typically employs these and other ostensive behaviors, and is widely reported to be an important source of generalizable ecological and social knowledge. Despite this, oral storytelling has been conspicuously overlooked in studies of teaching in preliterate societies. Accordingly, this study presents evidence that oral storytelling involves the use of ostension and the transmission of generic knowledge, thereby meeting the criteria of pedagogy.”

In 2011 Michelle wrote a longer review article for the same magazine titled The Forager Oral Tradition and the Evolution of Prolonged Juvenility. The abstract (broken by me into four paragraphs) says:

"The foraging niche is characterized by the exploitation of nutrient-rich resources using complex extraction techniques that take a long time to acquire. This costly period of development is supported by intensive parental investment. Although human life history theory tends to characterize this investment in terms of food and care, ethnographic research on foraging skill transmission suggests that the flow of resources from old-to-young also includes knowledge.

Given the adaptive value of information, parents may have been under selection pressure to invest knowledge – e.g., warnings, advice – in children: proactive provisioning of reliable information would have increased offspring survival rates and, hence, parental fitness. One way that foragers acquire subsistence knowledge is through symbolic communication, including narrative.

Tellingly, oral traditions are characterized by an old-to-young transmission pattern, which suggests that, in forager groups, storytelling might be an important means by which adults transfer knowledge to juveniles. In particular, by providing juveniles with vicarious experience, storytelling may expand episodic memory, which is believed to be integral to the generation of possible future scenarios (i.e., planning).

In support of this hypothesis, this essay reviews evidence that: mastery of foraging knowledge and skill sets takes a long time to acquire; foraging knowledge is transmitted from parent to child; the human mind contains adaptations specific to social learning; full assembly of learning mechanisms is not complete in early childhood; and forager oral traditions contain a wide range of information integral to occupation of the foraging niche. It concludes with suggestions for tests of the proposed hypothesis."

 An 1866 painting by Carl Gessler titled Spannende Geschichten (Exciting Stories) was cropped from a version at Wikimedia Commons.  

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