(HOST) Among what creatures on earth does true teaching occur – not just copycatting, but learning from a teacher? Commentator Ruth Page has the answer.
(PAGE) Now that we’ve all become accustomed to comparisons of humans with fruit flies, not always to our advantage, guess what’s next? Fruit flies may be fast learners, but so far I’ve never heard that they can become true teachers, like humans.
Ants can, though. They can’t draw maps, except by leaving scent trails which some followers lose track of; but they can teach one-on-one. There are ants that deliberately teach other ants the way to a food source. An experienced Temnothorax albipennis ant carefully leads a more ignorant ant to the spot. A research team in England says this is the first clear demonstration of true teaching among animals.
Brain size seems to be irrelevant; obviously no ant can have a large brain, there isn’t enough room in his tiny little head. Certainly many other animals learn from others by copying what they do; but true teachers make sure their pupils learn faster than they could all by themselves. The British scientists say teaching isn’t the real thing unless there is feedback between the teacher and the student.
Right; so the ants give each other exams? No, they can’t do that, but they can be sure the pupils are learning properly.
The knowledgeable ant takes the lead; its eager nest-mate follows, keeping in touch by tapping its teacher with its antenna as they move along. Thus the pupil learns faster than it would on its own, seeking a food source.
The experimenters proved this is true in laboratory tests. Personally, I sometimes think scientists go out of their way to take us down a peg; they love to show you don’t have to be as big-brained as we are, to have something similar to our brain-power. In teaching power, ants beat lab rats all hollow. Rat moms don’t even teach their offspring the difference between good food and bad.
These Temnothorax ants don’t just lead to food; they also teach nest-mates how to get to a chosen new home. An ant familiar with the suburban address either carries a pal to the chosen home, or shows her the way by galumphing along in front of her.
Scientists say they have seen similar behavior in other ants. An ant that can move swiftly when alone or carrying one buddy is repeatedly slowed down when leading others. The follower, apparently wanting to be sure she’ll remember the path, slows down now and then, turning in a circle to memorize the surroundings. Teachers patiently wait. Tests showed that guided tours helped ants find food in just two-thirds of the time it would normally take.
This is Ruth Page facing more facts that show our closeness to supposedly lesser organisms of tiny size and brain.