Fishing for termites

Chimps have a culture. Watch them fish for termites with twigs that they have fashioned for the purpose:

This behaviour was first scientifically observed in the chimps of Gombe National Park in Tanzania by Jane Goodall. At the time, this was a remarkable discovery because tool use was considered a defining characteristic of humans. We now know that chimps use a variety of tools in different ways. However, of most interest to me as a teacher is the fact that this tool use is cultural; different groups of chimps use tools in different ways and they pass these uses on through the generations, seemingly via imitation. This is not a genetically programmed behaviour.

So a nascent form of education is at work here.

How would you describe the skill that the chimps are learning through this process? I’ll give you two options and you decide which you think fits best:

  1. The skill of stripping a twig of leaves and then using it to ‘fish’ for termites
  2. The skill of acquiring food

Clearly, the first description is more specific. But what of the second one? Does it have any value? It implies that ‘acquiring food’ is something that can be learnt in a general sense. It implies that learning how to collect fruit might, in some way, help you learn how to fish for termites. And yet it is clear that these are two quite distinct activities.

This is what I mean when I suggest that there is no such thing as a skill of ‘analysis’. It’s too general an idea. In order for chimps to learn to fish for termites, they need to be shown how to fish for termites. If we want students to learn how to analyse a poem then we need to show them how to analyse a poem. And that’s it.


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