Professor Greg Downey with Year 10 students from Pymble Ladies' College.
Caragh Warth shares her experience of Professor Greg Downey's discussion on Anthropology with high school students.
As part of the Big History Project students are invited to learn and engage with new disciplines that they may have not encountered before in their learning. Whilst I have a grasp of each of the disciplines, an opportunity presented itself to investigate anthropology with an anthropologist.
To deliver the course, we have established an accelerated group from Year 10 to complete the Year 11 Preliminary Big History Course at Pymble Ladies' College and as a result the students are keen to engage with these new disciplines beyond the classroom setting as they think about their own university journeys ahead. A student who has a particular interest in the development of human languages was keen when I mentioned the possibility of an expert who could explain it in further depth and I contacted Tracy Sullivan, Education Leader of the Big History Institute to aid me in this search. Professor Greg Downey of the Anthropology Department of Macquarie University came and presented a lecture to the Big History class in May 2017.
His brief was simply how did we as humans learn to speak using symbolic language and how did it develop into the diversity of languages that we use today?
Professor Downey presented a most engaging lecture that introduced how anthropologists investigate languages when there is no remaining physical evidence. He explored proto-languages, the anatomical changes that allow for language development, the many theories and debates about when language first appears to be used and finally how it enhances collective learning. This got the students thinking from the outset and armed with numerous questions the session commenced. It turned into a Q and A session rather than a lecture with students almost jumping out of their seats to ask questions from sign language to the comparison of human and animal communication (I believe they secretly hoped their dogs would talk to them one day).
Below are a selection of student responses to the lecture:
I found the Anthropology lecture extremely interesting because it was about something that I knew almost nothing about before. - Isabelle
What I enjoyed about the lecture was that it was very interactive and any questions we had were answered in depth. Something interesting I found was the origins of human language and other species as well as how it has influenced how we interact today. - Anhiti
The lecture was very enjoyable and interesting because we were able to ask many questions about the evolution of language and why dogs could not be able to communicate with humans. - Eugenie
I really enjoyed the lecture because I found it really interesting. I didn't realise how many languages there actually are and how they have changed over time. I also learnt that there is a lot more under the topic of anthropology than I thought before. - Becky
Having a real live expert in the room certainly helped students to broaden their knowledge and understand the interdisciplinary nature of the course but also ask the burning questions they have about the discipline. A parting note from Professor Downey was that he wished his undergraduates asked as many questions as my Big History students! We will definitely have him back.