Education isn’t working well in America, despite billions of dollars and everyone’s best intentions. Not too long ago, scientists brought together by The Evolution Institute, explored new solutions from an unusual source: Darwin’s theory of evolution. Much progress has been made in using evolution to improve the human condition, so much so that The American Education Research Association is funding a future conference called Evolutionary Perspectives on Educational Research, Policy, and Practice.
As a beginning, the pioneers in this work are offering “ten simple truths” about childhood education from an evolutionary perspective.
1) Learning is child-motivated. The premier fact about education in hunter-gatherer societies and many other traditional societies is that its onus lies within children themselves. Adults do not deliberately train children, except in the sense of answering their questions and providing help that they seek. Adults treat children protectively but do not attempt to control their learning. They assume that young people will learn what they need to know through their own self-directed play and exploration, and therefore they allow children, even teenagers, ample free time for those activities.
2) Children are biologically prepared to learn. The prolonged period of human childhood is, itself, an evolutionary adaptation. The drives and proclivities that characterize children everywhere are well designed, by natural selection, to help children survive during childhood and prepare for adulthood. Most relevant to education are children’s extraordinary curiosity, playfulness, sociability, and capacity to practice intensely the skills that are valued in their immediate social environment. Children explore all aspects of the world around them, and they practice and play not just at the skills that are important to humans everywhere, but also at those that are unique to their particular cultures. Hunter-gatherer children practice and play at such skills as hunting, gathering, and hut construction, using the same tools and techniques that are used by older, skilled members of their groups. They spend countless hours at such activities until their play turns gradually into productive use of the skills. They tell and retell the stories that they hear from older members. They rehearse the rituals, dances, art forms, and other culture-specific activities that are valued by their group. They do all this with joy, on their own initiative. It would be difficult to stop them.
3) The community is the classroom. Children in hunter-gatherer societies and other traditional societies are immersed in the activities of the whole community. They witness directly all the sustenance activities. They hear first-hand the stories, conversations, and arguments of adults, and they participate, along with adults, in their culture’s dances, games, and ceremonies. Because they are exposed to all aspects of their culture, they can incorporate all of the culture’s relevant skills into their practice and play. They attend not just to others’ actions but also to the consequences of those actions, and their observations are tinged with value judgments. Children learn what not to do from witnessing others’ failures, just as they learn what to do from witnessing others’ successes. They learn to emulate the most successful members of their culture—those who are best at solving life’s problems and most admired by others—and to avoid acting like those who are least successful.
4) Learning must be immediately reinforcing. Education has unquestionable long-term benefits, but those are generally insufficient to motivate young learners. All species, including humans, find it difficult if not impossible to learn when the costs of learning are immediate and the benefits are much delayed. In the language of behaviorists, learning requires “reinforcers”—immediate, satisfying consequences that serve as incentives. In children’s self-motivated exploration and play, the reinforcers lie in the discoveries made, the immediate sense of increased skill, the pleasures of the activities themselves, and social feedback (which may be as simple as a playmate’s smile). These all contribute to the joy of learning. In today’s world, such skills as reading and mathematics have long- term benefits, but children eagerly engage in them only if there are immediate benefits.
5) Learning occurs best in mixed-age settings. Before the existence of graded schools, children were rarely segregated from by age. Age mixing seems to be crucial for learning in hunter-gatherer and many other traditional societies. Children have more to learn from others who are older or younger than themselves than from those their same age. Young children want to emulate older children, who serve as more powerful models than adults because their skills and knowledge are closer and more attainable. In age-mixed play younger children engage in and learn from activities that would be too complex for them to do alone or just with age-mates. In the process of helping younger children, older children consolidate their own skills. As every teacher knows, we often learn more by teaching than by being taught, especially if our students freely challenge us. Older children also exercise their nurturing and leadership skills through interactions with younger ones.
6) An effective learning environment must accommodate individual differences. A species is not a uniform entity. Members of a single species often differ profoundly from one another and succeed in different ways. Some of the differences are largely genetically based, others are developmentally flexible early in life but then become relatively fixed, and still others remain flexible throughout life. These points apply to humans even more forcefully than to other species. For example, some children are more resilient than others in harsh environments, a difference that is partly genetically based. In Sweden they are referred to as “dandelion children.” Others are less resilient, more like orchids. They suffer in harsh environments but may thrive even better than dandelion children in supportive environments. Evolutionary analyses show how both types of individuals might be maintained in a population, based on different costs and benefits. As with resilience, so with other personality traits. Some children are bolder than others; some are more or less gregarious; some prefer action while others prefer reflection. Such differences are valuable not just to individuals but to the culture as a whole, which profits from the diversity of interests and abilities. When learning is child-motivated and offers sufficient choices, each person can find the educational niche that best fits his or her personality.
7) Learning is inhibited by fear and anxiety. When individuals of any species are placed in threatening situations, they direct their resources toward immediate self- protection. Open-ended exploration requires safety. To the extent that the educational environment elicits fear, it focuses learning narrowly on escaping or overcoming the fearful situation. Common sources of fear and anxiety in schools include bullying and teasing from other students, stereotypes that classify students as incapable, anxiety associated with testing and grading, and harsh criticism or threats of failure. At best, these forms of fear and anxiety focus learning on a narrow task, such as cramming for an exam. At worst, they paralyze learning altogether.
8) Learning is facilitated by choice and inhibited by coercion. People of all ages, everywhere, cherish their personal freedom. They want to make their own choices and do not gladly submit to others’ control. For example, adult workers greatly prefer jobs that give them autonomy to jobs that force them to follow the dictates of a micromanaging boss.Throughout our evolutionary history, decisions forced by others have been far more often for the benefit of the controllers than those being controlled. One way that our ancestors became so different from other primates is that they found ways to resist domination within their groups, creating a form of guarded egalitarianism that favored cooperation and teamwork. In a deep sense, we are a democratic species. Children are no different from adults in this regard; they resist being told what to do. This does not mean that they should be allowed to behave in unruly ways. Instead, it suggests that they should be allowed to participate in decision-making processes. Given the evidence that participatory governance systems are beneficial in adult organizations, it is surprising how little educational research has tested the value of student participation.
9) Departure from ancestral environments can create unanticipated problems. Species are adapted to their long-term past environments, not necessarily to their present environments. In new environments, old adaptations sometimes go spectacularly awry. As one example, the diet of many children today includes a much higher ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids than the ancestral human diet, which may adversely affect neural and cognitive development. Other examples include physical activity and touching. Schoolchildren are commonly required to sit still for extended periods, and touching is sometimes prohibited as a guard against sexual harassment. These practices have a surface logic in today’s society, but they ignore the fact that physical movement and touching among trusted associates were always part of the human ancestral environment. Children who are deprived of movement and touching become hormonally stressed, which may compromise their ability to learn. Many of the problems that schools and children experience today may be unintended consequences of educational environments that are strikingly different from ancestral conditions.
10) Some skills are acquired less spontaneously than others and require more deliberate effort. Some skills, such as walking and talking, have been essential for so many generations that we have become genetically prepared to learn them at an early age. Virtually all children practice those skills naturally in the course of their daily lives, more or less automatically. By contrast, other skills are unique to a given culture, and these may often require more conscious effort.Every culture, including every hunter-gatherer culture, has such unique skills. For example, different hunter-gatherer cultures have different, often extraordinarily sophisticated ways of tracking game, depending on the terrain and the kinds of game they hunt. They also have different sets of tools—such as blowpipes, bows and arrows, or snares for hunting—which must be crafted to perfection and require great skill to use. Reading and mathematics are examples of modern culturally valued skills that we are not specifically adapted, genetically, to acquire. Children will be naturally motivated to acquire such skills only to the degree that they observe them in successful role models or find such practice to be immediately useful and enjoyable. Even so, some amount of non-spontaneous practice and explicit instruction may be necessary for students to master these skills.
The original piece is titled Learning from Mother Nature About Teaching Our Children: Ten Simple Truths About Childhood Education. To learn more visit The Evolution Institute’s education program.