David Geary has outlined an evolutionary perspective on education that assumes a rather clear distinction between “primary” and “secondary” abilities. He contends that children acquire primary abilities (e.g. native language and ability to make social attributions) through their natural play and exploration but do not acquire secondary abilities (e.g. reading and mathematics) in these ways. According to Geary, primary abilities are those that have been crucial to human survival and reproduction throughout our evolutionary history, and secondary abilities are those that are evolutionarily novel. Thus, according to Geary (Educational Psychologist, 42, 2008, p 187), “If our goal is universal education that accompanies a variety of evolutionarily novel academic domains (e.g. mathematics) and abilities (e.g. phonetic decoding as related to reading), then we cannot assume that an inherent curiosity or motivation to learn will be sufficient for most children and adolescents.”
My views on education are also informed by evolutionary theory but are very different from Geary’s. Through analysis of the literature on hunter-gatherer cultures and a survey of anthropologists, I have found that children in these cultures acquire, through their self-motivated play and exploration, skills that are cognitively complex and evolutionary novel. For example, hunter-gatherer groups in different climates and terrains have very different ways of tracking game, and these change over time. Learning these tracking skills requires enormous effort and focus, yet essentially all boys learn them through their self-directed play and exploration. In our culture, today, children and adolescents similarly acquire complex computer abilities that amaze the adults around them and are certainly evolutionary novel.
In a nutshell, my evolution-based education theory is this: We have been cultural animals throughout our evolutionary history. The key adaptation, which distinguishes us from other apes, is our ability to acquire the unique skills, beliefs, and values of the culture into which we are born. Until very recently, the responsibility for this always lay with children. Natural selection led children to attend to the activities around them, to be curious about those activities, and to incorporate the skills that seem crucial to success in the culture into their play so as to develop expertise in them.
One observation that runs counter to Geary’s view, concerning reading, is that some children learn to read fluently well before they start school – without any explicit instruction. Research indicates that these children do not necessarily have higher IQs than others, but instead are children who – for one reason or another – became engaged with reading at an early age.
What would happen if we didn’t force-teach reading, writing, and arithmetic to young children in schools but instead provided an environment in which children would regularly see these skills used around them and would have ample opportunity to play and explore with peers (some older than themselves) who have already acquired these skills and use them in their play? I have been studying children’s learning in precisely such contexts, both at a radically alternative school and among homeschooling families that adopt the philosophy of natural learning referred to as unschooling. I have found that essentially all children in these conditions learn to read, write, and perform whatever numerical calculations are useful to them through their own initiative and motivation with minimal, if any, formal instruction. I described these observations in my talk and have summarized them in online articles (here, here, and here).
Watch Peter Gray’s Interview here.