Tomasello and Watkins

Michael Tomasello is Co-Director of the Max Planck institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. He is a developmental psychologist who has challenged Noam Chomsky’s hypothesis that language is an innate structure in the human brain. Tomasello has studied the social cognition of the great apes and found a crucial difference between their apprehension of the world and ours as human beings.*

The communication of the great apes is what he calls diadic: that is, an ape interacts EITHER with another ape – grooming, threat, sex etc. – OR with the world – finding food, reacting to danger etc.

By contrast, human interactions are triadic: we communicate WITH other humans ABOUT the world. Interestingly, apes do not point to things in the world; human beings do.Chris Watkins

Chris Watkins is Reader in Education at the London Institute of Education.

He  describes three theories of how pupils learn in classrooms**:

1. The transmission model: the teacher is the source of information and controls the activities of the student (This is the traditional model, the only one available before the invention of printing.)

2. The construction model: the learner works as an individual, making sense of the world for himself. (Opportunities for this kind of learning have proliferated with self access courses on computer.)

3. The co-construction model: learning is creating knowledge as part of doing things with others.

Theoretical support for theory number 3, which Watkins himself recommends, can, I believe, be found in Tomasello’s triadic  description of human cognition.


That pupils learn best when working in pairs or small groups is one of the principles underlying the learning programme at MMHS.

One of the reasons why Breakthrough to Learning fits well into the school is that it is written for pupils working in pairs through the materials. The computer programme for older students,  The Language of Ideas, has been used successfully by some hundreds of post-16 students working through the interactive programme in pairs.

*Tomasello, Michael: Constructing language: a usage-based theory of language acquisition

** Watkins, Chris: Classrooms as Learning Communities



Comments are closed.