Standing up on two hind legs, the little meerkat scans the African desert for food. Spotting a scorpion a short distance away, the prairie-dog-like mammal jumps on its prey and skillfully rips off the stinger. It drags the stunned scorpion through the sand and then starts to chow down on lunch.
Animals are always intriguing us with the amazing things they can do. Many learn by observation, such as the killer whale calf who constantly follows his mother and mimics everything she does. Others learn by play, like the tiger pup that pounces on everything that moves in order to learn the intricacies of hunting. Meerkats, however, learn how to hunt by a more advanced technique: they are taught by older meerkats.
The fact that these mammals teach their young, gives us insight into the very nature of learning. Without the ability to use higher-level thinking skills and overthink the philosophy of educating their pups, they end up doing what works.
Meerkats, being the social creatures that they are, live in clans of 20 - 50 other meerkats who groom, protect and even babysit for one another. This close community provides many opportunities for young pups to learn the art of hunting. It is not just the parent who teaches their young, but any older meerkats in the clan who want to help.
The helpers teach in a series of stages. At first, young meerkats who can’t hunt at all are given dead scorpions to eat. Later, a helper meerkat might give the young learner a live scorpion that he has disabled by removing its stinger. As the young meerkat becomes more skillful, the helper will increase the challenge, perhaps disabling the scorpion and leaving on the stinger, or removing the stinger, but not disabling it so the pup will have to chase it down before eating it. Eventually, just before the young meerkat is ready to hunt on its own, the helper might toss him a live scorpion, hoping that the learning pup will know what to do.
But that’s not all! Through all of these stages, the helper meerkat will observe the young to see how well they handle the prey. If a young pup is having trouble with a scorpion, the helper might disable it further. If the scorpion gets away, the helper will go fetch it for the pup, so he can try again. If the young pup is reluctant to handle the prey, the older one will encourage him, by giving a gentle nudge. By adjusting his help according to his observations, the older meerkats can offer appropriate aide to the younger ones and eventually eliminate the need for aide altogether.
A 19th century Soviet educational psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, named this type of teaching in humans “scaffolded instruction.” In scaffolded instruction, the teacher gives support to the learner, according to the learner’s needs, abilities and interests. As the learner grows, the type of support changes and lessens, until eventually the learner can complete the task on his own. It is a very natural way to learn, depending heavily on the relationship between teacher and learner.
Although we humans are certainly more capable of higher level thinking than the meerkat, it might do us some good to learn from what they do so well. By paying attention to individual needs, meerkats successfully teach their young a vital life skill. Scaffolded instruction is just one technique we can use in classrooms to move from the standardized education that is so prevalent in schools today, to a more individualized approach. With personalized education, no one ever falls “behind.” No one is ever “ahead.” Instead each child is right where they are. Teachers support them from that very point, and guide them forward at just the right pace.
New schools are popping up all over the country with this idea in mind. In our own community, MindSpark Learning Community uses personalized instruction to help each child follow their own individual learning path. Passionate teachers there help their students reach learning goals by understanding each child’s needs and using techniques like scaffolded instruction.
Like the meerkats who learn to skillfully hunt and eat a scorpion, children who learn with this kind of purposeful guidance from trusted adults have the advantages of self-pacing, exploration and interest-based learning. They gain the self-confidence and motivation to become passionate lifelong learners, because learning is engaging, meaningful and it sticks.