GREENBERG (2007) Ethology of Teaching





Neil Greenberg

Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

University of Tennessee, Knoxville


Understanding learning should be in lock-step with understanding teaching.  “TEACHING” is too often a catch-all term for a variety of related behavioral patterns that differ in important ways in their biological causes and consequences.   They are related in that they transmit information from one individual to another, but different in that their motivations range from unintentional or nonconscious actions through highly intentional actions.   The critical processes that we cumulatively term “teaching” may be more profitably understood if we more fully consider the fixed and the flexible unintended or intended aspects of a teacher’s behavior.  At each level of action—  instinctive, automatized, and intentional— motives relative to needs converge in varying proportion depending on an assortment of internal and external biologically relevant factors.  

This presentation will attempt a first approximation of a remedy for the imprecision with which teaching is often regarded.  I will apply the idea of “DEEP ETHOLOGY” to teaching as a suite of adaptive behavioral patterns.  The idea of depth is an appealing and romantic concept, but in scientific application the term is an acronym for the four major influences on any behavioral pattern that should be considered conjointly for the fullest possible insight: Development, Evolution, Ecology, and Physiology.  But first, as always in ethology, the most  reasonable valid definitions of distinctive behavioral patterns must be formally identified in an “ethogram.”

Since this approach includes a cultural evolutionary perspective, examples will be chosen from various species including our own.  Appropriately arrayed, they provide progressively more complex descriptions of the distinctive behavioral patterns of transindividual information transfer that cumulatively form ourselves our students and our culture. 


Keywords: ethology;  teaching; imitation; learning;  mediated learning


[i] The Ethology of Teaching.  Greenberg, Neil (1993)  Lecture invited for the Fourth Conference of the International Association of Cognitive Education. Nof Ginossar Israel, 5 July 1993. (read by K.H. Greenberg) and From Unintentional Modeling to Intentional Mediation: An Ethological View of TeachingGreenberg, Neil (2007)   Lecture invited for Presentation at the XI Biennial International Conference of the International Association for Cognitive Education and Psychology (IACEP). The University of Tennessee, Knoxville.  July 3, 2007.    Published on-line at Neilgreenberg,com