Imitation – The First Teaching Technology


We often take it for granted that technology evolves forever forward, rarely looking back to practices and procedures thought to be the latest technology in their day. Today the world of education is exploding with new technology to meet our changing understanding of how best we learn.

Yet when we read that our students and trainees learn better by watching someone perform a task than they do by simply reading how to perform the task, we are being advised to reconsider what may have been the very first teaching technology in the history of learning – imitation.

Most scientists would agree that once the brains of our ancestors grew large enough to begin to learn to use tools to initiate the gradual process that would lean to mankind’s dominance, a new challenge emerged. How do you transmit what you have learned to others in your group?

No one knows for certain, but it is easy to imagine that imitation was the very first teaching technology. Whoever discovered how to use a bone as a club simply showed other group members how to use the bone as a tool? Early teachers were in effect early “subject matter experts.”

Writing had yet to be invented so demonstration followed by imitative practice was in all probability the preferred, and perhaps the only, teaching technology of the time. We can further speculate that practice sessions continued until the expert “passed” the novice hunter as ready for the hunt. Following the hunt, did the expert provide feedback on how well the new hunter made use of the tool? Considering the fact that survival of the group as a whole was dependent on successful hunts, it is very likely that feedback was part of the learning process at the time.

As tools progressed, so did the skills required to use them. It takes more skill to handle a thrusting spear than it does to swing a club. Do you suppose those early teachers broke down the performance of the entire skill into its component parts?

Do you suppose they first taught their charges how to hold the spear properly, followed by how to thrust with maximum force? Do you suppose they showed them how best to set their legs and where on the animal was the best place to strike?

It is probable that all these things occurred again and again. If you allow yourself to reflect on that for a moment, you may agree that in some areas not that much has changed about the core of how we learn. Note that much if not all early learning was in response to problems. Today we are told to structure teaching content as best we can into problem-solving approaches.

For early humans, relevant experience was the only measure of the value of learning. Note early man did not learn to draw cave paintings before he learned to hunt. Survival was the most relevant experience of all. Today we are told older students and industrial trainees find learning difficult if they fail to see relevance between what they are learning and their own life experience.

Sometimes that which we think is new insight is nothing more than a reaffirmation of the tried and true from the past.