The question of whether and how information is actively transferred from knowledgeable to ignorant individuals has received much attention in psychology and evolutionary biology. Research in these fields has proceeded largely independently, with studies of nonhuman animals focusing on knowledgeable individuals and whether or not they meet a functional definition of teaching, while studies of children focus on the learner’s assumptions and inferences. We argue that a comprehensive theory of teaching will benefit from integrating perspectives and empirical phenomena from evolutionary and developmental disciplines. In this review, we identify cases of seemingly purposeful information transfer (i.e. teaching) in human and nonhuman animals, discuss what is known about the cognitive processes that support teaching in different species, and highlight ways in which each discipline might be informed by extant theories and empirical tools from the other.
We propose that continued research on teaching across phylogeny and ontogeny will be crucial to understanding the diverse forms social learning can take, and the possible mechanisms that can support effective transmission of different types of information. With respect to humans, it may be crucial to understanding our species-specific ability to maintain a rich, cumulative cultural inheritance. Humans inhabit dynamic, complex, and richly diverse environments, constructing intellectual, political, and cultural institutions that massively outstrip the achievements of even closely related species, and exhibit ratcheting over time. A central problem for evolutionary and developmental researchers is to characterize the key cognitive ingredients that drive these vast, undeniable differences. The study of teaching, along with other forms of social transmission, has the potential to yield progress on this question by characterizing how changes occurring over phylogenetic timescales support forms of learning that widen this gulf over ontogeny.