Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty
Formal Education: A Foreign Element in the Brain’s Natural Ecology
Author: Gabrielle Principe
Source: ETVOL Exclusive
We humans are education powerhouses. We are the only species that sells educational toys, engineers early learning electronics, develops schooling curricula, and assigns homework. Other animals don’t do these things because they don’t have the cognitive and communicative goods to intentionally teach and learn. Our singular talent for deliberate teaching and learning has led to the invention of all sorts of uniquely human instructional tools, such as elementary schools, history textbooks, standardized exams, and report cards. Consequently, humankind’s achievements are considerably more impressive than those of any other animal. We build undersea tunnels, design smart phones, splice DNA, transplant organs, paint self portraits, compose symphonies, film documentaries, and fly to the moon. No other species even comes close.
Before I get too flippant about our educational prowess, I should tell you that other animals engage in some teaching and learning. Adult chimpanzees, for instance, teach juveniles how to fashion brush tipped probes from herb stems to fish for termites. They do so by demonstrating the procedure in front of an unskilled audience. But the young primates are not aware that they are learning anything new when they imitate the tool making actions of their more skilled troop members. Nor do the elder chimpanzees have any idea they are teaching their spectators anything. They’re just trying to catch a snack.
Human, in contrast, carry out intentional teaching and learning—or pedagogy. I purposefully taught my son how to tie his shoes by repeatedly demonstrating the process, narrating each step, inviting him to imitate with his own laces, and offering correctives when he made mistakes. But I’ve never seen a mother baboon call over her youngest and deliberately show him how to lace up his Air Retros. She’d never do this because she doesn’t have the cognitive wherewithal to know that her son doesn’t know how to tie his sneakers. Nor would the young primate know that his mother is fumbling with his shoelaces to show him how to make a bow.
What makes intentional teaching and learning possible in our kind is our peculiar facility at figuring out what’s going on not only in our own but also other people’s heads, all without having to open them up and look in. This mindreading capacity falls under an umbrella of skills known as theory of mind and we humans have it to the exclusion of all other animals. We are such expert telepathists that we don’t even need to be close to others’ heads to infer what’s happening inside of them. Consider the beginning of Dodie Smith’s novel, I Capture the Castle: “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining board, which I have padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea cosy. I can’t say that I am really comfortable, and there is a depressing smell of carbolic soap, but this is the only part of the kitchen where there is any daylight left. And I have found that sitting in a place where you have never sat before can be inspiring.” From these few sentences, you know that the narrator is someone who turns lemons into lemonade. She is not a whiner. You can infer these qualities about this character because of your sophisticated theory of mind.
Our ability to peer into others’ mental lives endows us with the capacity to teach intentionally because if we weren’t aware what our children didn’t know, we wouldn’t motivated to pass on our knowledge and skills to them. If you didn’t realize that Junior didn’t know how to make a baloney and cheese sandwich, you’d never show him how to do it. If adults couldn’t infer what children do not know, intentional teaching never would have emerged and formal schooling never would have come about. The same goes for children: Why is my teacher opening this book, pointing at the black squiggles on the paper, and telling me a story about a lost dog I don’t even know? She’s trying to teach me how to read. If children’s didn’t know what their teachers were up to, they’d never put up with school.
Our unique ability to deliberately instruct notwithstanding, the assured way we go about it—building classrooms, designing curricula, setting state standards, assigning homework, and grading exams—makes it seem as if we know exactly what we’re doing. That we know what the young human mind needs for success in modern society and the best way to go about it. But we don’t. We too often ignore the fact that formal education is a foreign element in the brain’s natural ecology. The young brain was not designed to learn by sitting at a desk, reciting timetables, memorizing state capitals, filling out workbooks, and taking standardized assessments. It evolved to be educated in a very different way.
For greater than ninety-nine percent of human existence, children were schooled informally in a “hands on” manner at the hands of more skilled peers and family members. They learned new skills “on the job” as they collaborated with familiar others on tasks meaningful to everyday life. New skills were taught in the very contexts in which they were practiced. And the reasons for learning each new skill were apparent. Adults didn’t show children children how to identify edible plants merely so they could demonstrate that knowledge on next Tuesday’s biology exam. Rather children learned this skill so they could forage for lunch safely.
Such was education until about ten thousand years ago when we gave up our nomadic hunting and gathering ways, established stationary communities, and domesticated plants and animals. Maintaining this new sedentary and agrarian lifestyle from one generation to the next depended on a certain amount of technological knowhow being transmitted to children. At first much of this education was still done on the job. But as the tools and technological skills needed to thrive in adulthood ratcheted up in complexity over time, instruction “out of context” emerged. Today, formal education is surely necessary for success. But the newness of this practice cannot be understated. Humans evolved some two or so million years ago, yet it’s been only within the last few hundred years that formal schooling has become part of the ecology of childhood.
Modern education would be unrecognizable to our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Today, most instruction happens “out of context” and inside a school building. We pull children out of the real world for eight hours a day and sit them down classrooms with same age peers and unfamiliar adults. Children are asked to learn new skills “for their own sake” and not to solve problems immediately relevant for their own survival. They multiply by 2s, 5s, and 10s; sort vocabulary words by vowel patterns; memorize facts about the American Revolution; identify the layers of the earth; and distinguish between potential and kinetic energy—all for reasons likely not clear to any of them and totally unrelated to their lives outside of the classroom. I’ve lost count of the number of times my daughter has asked me: “Mom, why do I need to memorize all the US presidents when I can just Google them?” “Can you even name them all?” But I doubt this same conversation went on in families 10,000 years ago: “Mom, why do I need to learn how to grind a stone ax?”
This short history reveals why formal schooling presents a formidable challenge to the young brain’s educability. We ask children to learn things that their brains never expected and in contexts that are completely foreign. Despite the fact that formal education is an evolutionary novelty, fossil evidence indicates that our human brain has not changed that much as a species over the past 250,000 years, and certainly little at all over the past 35,000 years. What this time frame means is that there simply has been far too little time for natural selection to have adapted the young brain to the conditions and challenges of modern educational settings. Children’s brains did not evolve to deal with formal schooling. Yet we sit them down in classrooms, lecture to them, assign them lists to memorize, and then test them with standardized exams. These are evolutionary novelties for which children’s brains were not designed and that hundreds of millions of years of evolution never saw coming.
Considering that formal schooling is an evolutionarily novel experience, we shouldn’t be surprised that many children have difficulties with its demands. Nor should we be surprised that many children lack the motivation for the “out of context” learning that goes on in the classroom, especially those children who don’t consistently experience the real world benefits of their developing skills. For instance, it’s likely tough for a first-grader to understand why he’s being asked to memorize the spelling of a set of unfamiliar words, write them four times each, and then sort them into alphabetical order, if no one outside of the classroom ever reads with him. But if his parents regularly read storybooks, street signs, store marquis, cupcake recipes, and restaurant menus with him, then he’s likely to understand not only why his teacher is asking him to learn new words but also that reading can be good fun. Likewise, it probably difficult for a third grader to understand why she’s being asked to estimate the length of various objects, measure the perimeter of polygons, find the volume of prisms, unless her parents show her why these sorts of skills are important outside of the classroom.
An implication of this evolutionary perspective on schooling is considering ways to put children’s learning back in context—to make it meaningful and consequently motivate learning. The motivation to read, for instance, is not motivated by the process itself. It’s motivated by the meaning of the words. It’s not driven by the thrill of sounding out isolated words, spelling them correctly, or coming up with synonyms. You already know this if you’ve ever seen a second grader toil over her terribly boring word study homework or had to bribe your fifth grader to write out definitions once again for that week’s vocabulary words. The motivation for reading is driven by being able to do meaningful things, like reading stories, writing messages, leaving notes, understanding signs, making out recipes, sending texts, and posting the day’s events on Facebook. Likewise, the motivation for learning math is not the excitement of rote counting, estimating whether 7+8 will be more than 10, identifying symmetrical shapes, or solving long division equations. It’s driven by real-world benefits like being able to figure out whether you have enough money to buy both the action figure and the spaceship, to divvy up your jellybeans equally among friends, to know how many pairs of clean underwear pack for your week at the beach, and to estimate how many bags of sand you’ll need to fill your new sandbox.
There certainly are increasing formal curricula aimed at applying learning to real-world situations, but they’re often still centered in a workbook, that goes on a desk, inside a classroom. How can we expect children to go out into the real world and solve its problems if we confine them in a classroom for the majority of their education? Imagine if your doctor never saw a patient until after he had listened to eight years of lectures about patients. Parents and teachers need to move some of the learning outside of the classroom and into the real world. Otherwise it’s really no different than sitting a blue jay down in a classroom with a bunch of other birds, giving them a textbook on nest building, asking them to memorize types of suitable construction materials, showing them a documentary on weaving techniques, and then having them work out their nest building plans in a workbook. That would be completely silly.
As Evolution: This View of Life’s Education section editor, I’ll explore the implications of an evolutionary developmental perspective for educating children, adolescents, and emerging adults in the modern world. This framework reminds us that the classroom is a species atypical environment, so we should not be surprised that formal schooling is often difficult for children and that not all of them thrive in it. I’ll make no claims that an evolutionary developmental perspective is a cure all for modern education. But I hope to raise awareness of evolutionary developmental ideas and persuade parents and teachers to consider the long-range causes of today’s children’s behavior as well as work through the consequences of their novel, modern lifestyle.
My goals for this Education section are to share a rich research literature relevant to modern education and to advocate for science based teaching practices. Much of what goes on in today’s classrooms is contrary to scientific research on children’s learning. The human brain has been designed by millions of years of evolution to learn through close observation of real phenomena, active experimental investigation, self-correcting problem solving, and a process of guided apprenticeship in meaningful contexts. But almost none of this happens in the average classroom. In many of our schools (not all, of course), there’s a focus on drills, memorization, and teaching to the test. Even in higher education, the typical college professor lectures while her students write down her words and then reproduce them on their exams.
To truly prepare our children for life in the modern world, we need to make a more effective connection between developmental science and ways in which we rear and educate them. The research I’ll share in this section will give parents and teachers some idea how to do this. Some ideas will be small, some will be provocative, some might be surprising, but many require tearing everything down and starting over.
Bjorklund, D. F., & Pellegrini, A. D. (2002). The origins of human nature: Evolutionary developmental psychology. Washington DC: American Psychological Association.
Bjorklund, D. F., & Bering, Jesse M. (2002). The evolved child: Applying evolutionary developmental psychology to modern schooling. Learning and Individual Differences, 12, 1-27.