We watched a superb NOVA special from February 2007 this evening (via Netflix) titled “America’s Stone Age Explorers.” The PBS website accompanying the special includes terrific resources for additional learning on the topics addressed in the program.

Remember studying in school the Bering land bridge which scientists hypothesize became the transit highway for the first native Americans migrating from Asia to the Western hemisphere, approximately 13,000 years ago? I listened to an interesting Science Friday podcast questioning this traditional theory awhile back (this may be the link to the episode I heard, but I’m not sure.) This NOVA special provided a great deal of additional information about competing theories which challenge several of the fundamental ideas forming the basis of the land bridge migration theory. We learned more about the Clovis point, the Genographic Project (genetic tests using mitochondrial DNA of people around the world pointing to common ancestral beginnings), a theory that Solutreans who lived in ice age France may have migrated across the Atlantic to North America, and several other fascinating theories.

map of Bering land bridge

As with many issues faced by REAL scientists, this is a complex conversation with many competing viewpoints! Watching this PBS special, I was struck again by how we too often “infantilize” learning for students in School and seem to protect them from the engaging complexities of real life either because:

1. That is the way we learned in School, and we permit ourselves and our students to remain prisoners of our past educational experiences. (A paraphrase from Papert.)
2. It is easier to just simplify things and ignore complexities.
3. As teachers we are often not comfortable with the messy complexities of real life outside the classroom and the textbook.

My own son, in his 3rd grade social studies curriculum last year, learned about the Bering land bridge in more-or-less absolutist terms. The current paradigm in his classroom (as well as many others) held that the first immigrants to the Western hemisphere DID come over the land bridge between Asia and North America– case closed. I don’t think anyone mentioned the discoveries at Monte Verde. I’m not sure anyone suggested the theory immigrants may have followed a land route along the western coast of North America, rather than following the fortuitous (and entirely hypothesized, I think) melted valley in the center of the enormous continental ice sheet down into the present-day areas of the United States. And what about hypotheses of the ancient Polynesians navigating to the Americas? I don’t think these theories were mentioned to my son.

I am not writing this to simply criticize an element of the Oklahoma 3rd grade social studies curriculum, but rather to highlight a more general tendency we have in much of formal education to oversimplify life and therefore learning opportunities– as well as suggest a remedy. To be fair, I am also not wanting to criticize his teacher directly for this… I was not in the classroom to hear everything that was discussed, and simply heard his version of what was taught after school in discussions we had at home. My point in writing this is to highlight a general tendency which is present in many classrooms to over-simplify, and suggest a remedy.

One remedy is to embrace blended education, and forgo the predominant pedagogical pattern of the 20th century of allowing the contents of the textbook and the naturally limited knowledge-base of the teacher to limit the potential avenues for learning in the classroom. This hour-long NOVA special was fantastic, and was chock-full of additional topics for students to research and delve into with greater depth. Rather than simply memorizing a now highly-questioned theory of original migration of people from Asia to the Americas via the Bering land bridge, I think students as well as teachers would be better off exploring the various theories and complexities being hotly debated by archeologists as well as other scientists presented in this video. Teachers do not need to be experts in genetic testing or alternate theories of transcontinental migration to facilitate student learning on these topics. The open door we now have to content experts, via the Internet as well as videos like this NOVA special, are phenomenal in their quality, depth and breadth of ideas.

Many thanks to PBS and the producers of this excellent NOVA film for opening my eyes to many more possibilities on the subject of the origins of native peoples in the Western hemisphere. We need to use more media resources like this in our classrooms to invite and provoke investigations by students of current, complex issues that would have been impossible to study in previous decades because of the limited access learners had at that time to the world of ideas.

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9 Responses to Reconsidering the Bering land bridge theory

  1. When I was in school studying the land bridge theory I was lucky enough to have Thor Heyerdahl (of Kon Tiki fame) experimenting with the Ra, a reed boat that would sail to the Americas from ancient Egypt. There was a lot of coverage, and I followed the story pretty closely, and so never did think of the land bridge theory as an absolute,

    The Voyage of the Ra

  2. Shelly Fryer says:

    When I was teaching first grade we had a GT unit on the Voyage of the Kon Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl and I have often since then wanted to track down that book for my son to read. It was full of sea monsters, adventure, and “real” adventure, as well as being historical. Thanks for reminding me of it again. I’m going to see if I can locate the book now.

  3. Diana says:

    I think what you are describing is indicative of the need to have a right and wrong answer, which is pervasive in education. I teach history in the middle school and we often look at the story of history from different perspectives and evaluate different theories of how history happened. When looking at the stories of history it is important to remember that we ‘know’ only a fraction of what actually happened and how it happened. I love discussing with students WHY it is that we don’t have a more complete record, talk about the differing and changing types of primary source documents and HOW those primary source documents change the way in which we ‘know’ history.

  4. Trever McFaddon says:

    I agree, my kids are in school right now and I sometimes wonder just what they are “learning” when they come home and don’t have any homework. I’m lucky that I have a big library from my graduate years (that I also keep adding to) and encourage my kids to read from. My son, Jason, for example, is reading a fairly academic book on the Bering Land Bridge and other issues concerning the peopling of the Americas. Called Respect for the Ancestors: American Indian Cultural Affiliation in the American Westthis book puts to task all the old theories using the latest scientific data. It’s great when we have a conversation over dinner, something that does not happen based on his usual homework.

  5. […] one came into focus while flicking through my feeds on the train home and finding this post. Much of the best activities, the best thinking, that was demonstrated and talked about seemed to […]

  6. tom says:

    I think part of this also comes from the ‘professionalization’ of teaching, as described by Ivan Illich. Society allows a particular class of people to have an unchallenged monopoly on certain kinds of knowledge (see his books “Deschooling Society” and “Tools for Conviviality”).

    I remember when my children had a long unit on Latin American geography in elementary school. Since I have a degree in Latin American studies, traveled extensively, and worked in Central America for 7 years, I wanted to check out what they were learning. Their textbook was chock full of errors and stereotypes, which I warned my kids about. I made several offers to their teacher to come and talk to the class, but she asked us to back off: the textbook was good enough, thank you, and to please teach our children to show respect and stop asking questions. The scary part was she had an Ed.D. from a university in the U.S.

  7. Wesley Fryer says:

    Stories like this can certainly be depressing. This reminds me of a story about Pluto and it’s official “planetary” and “non-planetary” status. My cousin has a little brother who was in 3rd grade, his teacher marked off his research project because he explained Pluto was no longer considered a planet. The teacher defended herself by saying “we have to go by what is in the textbook.” My cousin had to meet and have a private conference with the teacher, and eventually convinced her to give him credit since he actually WAS correct and using more updated information. Access to dynamic information sources, or just DIFFERENT information sources, can be seen as a threat and “unwanted help” by some educators. When the person is teaching your own children you generally want to avoid an adversarial relationship, but things like this can be maddening. I think greater transparency into the classroom via student blogs, class wikis, etc might be able to help address this, as “disruptive technologies.” Ultimately what we are discussing here is a PEOPLE issue not a technology one, of course. So conversations are ultimately going to be more powerful than technology in helping people move beyond these “statist” views of knowledge and learning.

  8. tom says:

    You’re right. In our IB program I’ve resorted to tools like wikis and del.icio.us to channel information to students that otherwise was being filtered and misrepresented (or sometimes just printed on paper that gets tossed). The students are catching on pretty quickly and there’s something of a del.icio.us network underground happening.Almost makes me want to be a teacher again!

  9. Ruth Notestine says:

    I found your web site because I, an Oklahoma High School Social Studies teacher, just finished reviewing the first chapter
    of our new World History text book and discovered that it endorsed, without reservations, the land bridge theory. Sadly,
    this is just the kind of issue that could (and I hope in my classroom, will) result in that all-too-rare and highly
    desirable higher order critical thinking. It is the responsibility of teachers to educate themselves on an on-going basis
    about new theories and ideas. A good teacher always does more than just follow the text book. I can tell you from
    experience, the books are often wrong.

    Thanks for the info, it is a great starting point for me.

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