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Durham University

Department of Anthropology

Academic Staff

Publication details for Dr Jamie Tehrani

Tehrani, J. & Riede, F. (2008). Towards an archaeology of pedagogy: learning, teaching and the generation of material culture traditions. World Archaeology 40(3): 316-331.

Author(s) from Durham


In this article we seek to build on efforts to apply the insights of social learning theory to interpret patterns of continuity and change in the archaeological record. This literature suggests that stable and often highly arbitrary material culture traditions are likely to be founded on our biologically-evolved capacity for imitation. However, it has recently been argued that the latter may be insufficient to explain the long-term maintenance of complex and difficult-to-master skills, such as those required to produce stone tools, pots, textiles and other cognitively opaque cultural forms. To ensure that these skills are accurately transferred to the next generation, adults must actively guide and control the learning activities of their children, a mode of transmission that can be labelled ‘pedagogy’. The importance of pedagogy has often been overlooked in the theoretical and empirical literature on craft learning, a fact that can probably be attributed to an unnecessarily narrow conception of teaching that equates it with explicit linguistic instruction. Using ethnographic data gathered from detailed case studies, we characterise pedagogy in the context of craft apprenticeships as involving the gradual scaffolding of skill in a novice through demonstration, intervention and collaboration. Although these processes cannot be directly observed in the archaeological record, they can sometimes be inferred through the detailed reconstruction of operational chains in past technologies. The evidence we present suggests that pedagogy has played an essential role in securing the faithful transmission of skills across generations, and should be regarded as the central mechanism through which long-term and stable material culture traditions are propagated and maintained.


Special Issue: Tradition