Essentially, the child’s mind comes with built-in scaffolding that prepares them to learn about other people, plants and animals in their local ecology. . . . There are, however, no built-in scaffolds for learning how to read, write, and do arithmetic, much less algebra, calculus, science or many other complex topics children will encounter in school and in the modern world outside of school.
Schools are the interface between culture and evolution. They are the primary contexts within which children learn the knowledge and skills necessary to be successful in the modern world, but this is a world that differs in many ways from the world in which the mind evolved.
Essentially, the child’s mind comes with built-in scaffolding that prepares them to learn about other people, plants and animals in their local ecology, how to navigate from one place to another, and how to use tools. The scaffolding is fleshed out as children engage in self-initiated play, exploration, and social activities. There are, however, no built-in scaffolds for learning how to read, write, and do arithmetic, much less algebra, calculus, science, or many other complex topics children will encounter in school and in the modern world outside of school. Nor are children inherently motivated to learn to read or to solve arithmetic problems in the same way they are motivated to play with their friends. Evolutionary educational psychology is the study of how the evolved mind is adapted through schooling to meet the demands of the modern world, and how children’s evolved motivations (e.g., to play with peers) influence their engagement with this schooling.
Language, for instance, is an evolved and universal cognitive ability. Children are prepared to learn the language to which they are exposed and do so implicitly and automatically, that is, without conscious thought or effort, as they engage in social activities. But, learning the evolutionarily-novel competencies of reading and writing does not come as easily to the vast majority of children. It is known that the same brain and cognitive systems that support language (e.g., that allow one to discriminate the sounds ba and pa) are engaged during the act of reading, suggesting that schooling modifies built-in scaffolds, at least to some extent, in ways that allow children to acquire skills and knowledge that were not common during our evolutionary history. Building onto evolved scaffolds in these novel ways, however, requires effortful attentional focus and explicit, conscious problem solving. Children easily learn the difference between bat and pat when expressed in natural speech, but associating these sounds with strings of arbitrary symbols (letters and words) when learning how to read does not come as naturally nor as easily.
From a motivational perspective, it is not surprising that children like to play with their friends. These activities automatically and effortlessly flesh out their social-cognitive scaffolds; these activities help them to learn about themselves and other people and how to negotiate relationships. There is no reason to believe that children have a corresponding inherent motivation to write or to solve algebra problems, for instance. For many children, the motivation to learn these skills will require social and cultural supports (e.g., highlighting accomplishments of engineers) and encouragement (e.g., focus on the payoffs to effort and hard work). Evolutionarily-novel learning requires, to some extent, disengagement from natural ways of learning (e.g., play).