Monday, March 04, 2019

What Humans Are Born To Do




The majority view is that the first human writing system was developed by the Sumerians some 5400 years ago. But it seems highly unlikely that a written language just appeared overnight. There must have been some precursor from which it evolved, no matter how rudimentary, something that was like writing, even if it didn't exactly match our contemporary definition.

Paleoanthropologist Genevieve von Petzinger has been studying symbols carved and painted onto cave walls and believes that she is seeing evidence of early systems of communication through abstract signs that go back much farther into prehistory, some 40,000 years ago, in fact. She has discovered a few dozen signs that appear to have been consistently used by our distant ancestors over the course of tens of thousands of years, some of which regularly appear in caves on every continent (excepting Antarctica). In other words, if von Petzinger's theories prove correct, humans have been literate for most of our existence. That would suggest that literacy, the ability to communicate over time and space, is central to our evolutionary survival as a species. We are born to it.



As a play-based educator, perhaps the most common pushback question I hear is, "But how do they learn to read?" the idea being that literacy is such a complex, "unnatural" thing that of course we must  teach it, that it certainly cannot simply emerge through play. It's a perspective shared by many, if not most, educators. Indeed, this belief has caused our elementary schools (and even some of our preschools) to become little more than reading factories, places dedicated almost exclusively to compelling children to learn to read and write at younger and younger ages, despite evidence indicating that this approach is actually making children less literate. This belief has spawned an entire industry of charlatans and snake oil hucksters who have developed an array of "products" designed to "teach" children something they are, in most cases, destined to learn without any more intervention than being read to by their parents.

I've written about it before and I assume I'll write about it again, but increasingly the evidence tends toward the conclusion that humans have evolved to learn to read, just as most of us will learn to walk and talk, without intervention. We have always been literate: it's part of what our species does. Homeschoolers who have had the courage to allow their children to learn to read at their own pace find that it often emerges later than our schools would have it, sometimes much later, but it does emerge. And when it does, those children grow up to read with greater comprehension and more often for pleasure than do their peers who received formal literacy instruction in preschool. In other words, our current obsession with "teaching" reading is actually doing harm.

I do not try to teach preschoolers how to read. I do not introduce the alphabet. I do not drill them on phonics. All I do is read to them as part of their play. I am confident that for most kids, most of the time, literacy will emerge when the time is right because that's what humans are born to do.

Here is a TED Talk from Genevieve von Petzinger:



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