The education science landscape, from mainstream to alternative perspectives, has long been influenced by evolution science in a diversity of significant ways, yet this fact remains largely obscured from most teacher education programs, as well as the public understanding of why schools teach in the myriad ways that they do. Teachers — let alone students — are rarely if ever afforded an opportunity to engage with this fascinating historical and contemporary thinking that informs so much of what we do in schools. We argue that it is high time to change that, and instead, directly teach education as the evolutionary science that it is. Doing so may change both how we view evolution education, and how school communities empower students as scientists of their own learning. This article clarifies what it means to claim that education is an evolutionary science, and outlines how and why the education science community should explicitly embrace this fact. To do this, we will briefly contextualize the origins of modern educational psychology within the evolutionary thinking of the 20th century. Then, we offer four summary perspectives on viewing education through an evolutionary lens. Finally, we offer three suggestions for how educators and students can learn better, together, by more explicitly engaging education as an evolutionary science.
On the origin of educational psychology
Perhaps one of the most influential early modern educational philosophers, John Dewey, was born in the year Darwin first published On the Origin of Species (1859) and died one year prior to Watson & Crick’s (1953) historical publication on the structure of DNA. Thus, Dewey grew up intellectually in the fascinating conceptual milieu of evolution science that existed prior to the so-called “Modern Synthesis.” Dewey was deeply influenced by the evolutionary thinking of the time, and yet this influence tends to get abstracted out from the historical narrative of education science (see Popp 2012). For example, Dewey was especially captivated by the works of James Mark Baldwin, who initiated early thinking about the role of learning within evolutionary systems. Despite lacking the modern conceptual tools of cognitive science, Dewey approximately extended Baldwin’s logic to an educational philosophy viewing the habits and learning processes of humans as requiring active engagement with the environment (Niedermeyer 2015). Such pioneering work in the early 20th century still significantly informs thinking about experiential learning today, yet the connection to evolutionary theory tends to be absent from modern discourse.
We would argue that this conceptual absence of evolution in some lines of modern educational discourse is more an issue of historical trends and happenstance than of proper scientific development. To understand this, we must look at Dewey’s contemporary educational scholars. Compared with Dewey’s somewhat subtle evolutionary influence, was the far more pronounced direction in education of the so-called “Social Darwinists” of the time. Popular school textbooks such as Hunter’s (1914) A Civic Biology, sought to use evolutionary thinking to advance a healthier society, yet relied on unfounded and ill-conceived assumptions about the heritability of social and intellectual traits. Despite Dewey and Hunter working in close proximity to each other within New York City’s thriving academic and educational publishing communities, their conceptualization of evolution science as it could or should inform educational practice could not have been more different.
A multitude of subsequent historical developments in both science and education conspired to essentially make evolution a rare if not a taboo subject in mainstream popular discourse about the design of educational systems. The causes of this historical division of popular discourse on evolution and education are complex and interdependent, ranging from the (painfully slow) recognition of the ethical horrors of “Social Darwinism”, to the rise of genetics in conceptualizing evolution, and perhaps most especially, the rise of social constructivism as a theoretical foundation in educational research. Notably, while popular views within social constructivism are sometimes popularly framed as in opposition to evolutionary understandings, in fact, the intellectual fathers of constructivist schools of thought, Dewey, Piaget, Vygotsky, and Bruner, were all significantly influenced by the evolutionary thinking of their times, albeit with varying and sometimes questionable interpretations, as it relates to education (see e.g., Popp 2012; Piaget 1978; Wertsch 1985).
This short article is not a review of evolutionary thinking in education history, rather, we merely want to highlight that, no matter how you cut it, the origins of modern schooling reflect that education and evolution science have a rich history of exchange and mutual enrichment. This history, however, does not tell us precisely how evolution and education science should be intertwined in today’s world.
Evolution science yields a diversity of educational perspectives
In modern education discourse, there is no question that education science is, in fact, an evolutionary science. Critically, however, an evolutionarily informed education science is not a monolith, in fact, quite the opposite. As with historical discourse, modern education and evolution science are rich in diversity – both as it relates to how evolutionary explanations of humans should be constructed, and how such explanations should be interpreted and applied to the design of modern learning environments. We point here to four broad claims, each of which may be variously embraced or rejected by diverse communities of scholars, to contextualize the untapped learning opportunities presented by recognizing education as an evolutionary science.
Human learning involves cognitive processes that are both older and newer in origin. The most simple of single-cell organisms are engaged in significant information processing tasks of self-regulation (Lyon 2015; Baluška & Levin 2016; LeDoux 2019). All animals containing neurons are capable of some degree of sensitization and habituation to their environments (Razran 1971 in Sanford & Hayes 2014), yet this basic form of learning still does not seem to dramatically alter behavior within the lifetime of individuals. Starting some ~540 million years ago, around the time of the Cambrian explosion, our deep ancestral capacities for minimal learning likely got elaborated to radically diversify the adaptive capacity of organisms within their own lives. New capacities for learning drove novel behaviors, leading organisms to novel environments, and thus, learning became a dominant driver of evolution within the animal kingdom. Compared with the ancient origins of these complex associative learning capacities, the ~200,000-year history of our own species could seem insignificant, were it not for the emergence of entirely novel capacities within this ‘blink of the eye’. While the timeline for the origins of language is speculative and complex, there is little doubt that the rise of our human capacity for symbolic thinking, and the accumulation of cultural knowledge that co-evolved with it, has added unique ripples onto our learning patterns compared to that of other species. All prominent learning scientists we know of agree with some formulation of the idea that modern human learning is the result of the interactions among these older and newer processes of learning.
Humans are social creatures, and thus, social learners. Compared to our cousins within the great apes, humans are the only primate species that has evolved a global network of material and symbolic exchange. Human infants and children display strong social motivations and prosocial tendencies (Tomasello 2009), and the socio-cultural creations of adults tend to define us as societies and as a species. There is no doubt that humans are social creatures, and there is no doubt among most modern schools of educational science that humans are social learners. Despite this, there remains widespread debate on how this insight should inform the specific social organization of schools (see Eirdosh & Hanisch 2020a).
The human mind has limited renewable resources. The human mind is emergent from and embedded within our brain and body. As such, there are physical, energetic limitations to human cognition. Thinking takes energy, so we can only do so much of it at one time. This simple fact has shaped the evolution of our brain, and, as cognitive load theorist John Sweller has described, has resulted in our cognitive information processing system having an analogical structure to the natural information processing systems of genetic evolution within an ecological context (Sweller 2004; 2016). Both gene expression networks and the symbolic networks of our minds store information that has evolved to be selectively expressed in particular ways in particular environments in ways that were previously adaptive. Most prominent educational scientists agree with some formulation of cognitive load theory. Despite this, there remains widespread debate regarding how this insight should inform the instructional practices of schools as it relates to the social organization of schools.
Humans continue to accumulate knowledge within our collective brain. Many species are capable of evolving culture (socially produced and transmitted information that influences individual behavior), and some species have even accumulated cultural information over generations. Yet no other species seems to have done so on a social scale and intensity anywhere near comparable to that of humans. Indeed, while the genius of individuals is often praised in history books and popular culture, many scholars believe it is access to our ever-growing collective brain (Muthukrishna & Henrich 2016) that truly allows individual humans to create such valuable innovations. Most education scientists agree that humans continue to accumulate an ever-growing store of cultural knowledge, yet there remains widespread debate regarding how this insight should inform how we structure and engage students in connecting to this creative commons of collective knowledge.
Taken together, we can see that these four broad claims about human learning simultaneously unite a wide swath of modern education scientists (and practicing educators), and yet there remains widespread debate as to the practical implications of this science. So much so that it can feel like there is actually little consensus about how any particular curriculum, school, or classroom practice should, in fact, be developed based on current scientific understanding. From educational movements like Self-Directed Education and Unschooling (Gray 2013) to popular manifestations of evidence-informed practice like Visible Learning (Hattie & Yates 2013) and Direct Instruction (Kirschner & Hendrick 2020), potentially incongruent models for teaching and learning all seem to emerge from this relatively shared understanding of core educational science. This fact may appear to suggest that perhaps evolution science isn’t even all that helpful in informing education. We want to suggest we haven’t even begun to really explore the potential.
Evolving schools by linking the content and context of evolutionary learning
An adequate science of education should empower teachers with an understanding of human learning that enables them to predict and influence the student outcomes emergent from their school contexts and classroom practices. Such a science must be powerful enough to reduce unhealthy variation in the system. That is, an adequate science of education should inform the practical design of school systems that empower all students to achieve their highest potential, regardless of the socio-economic or educational background of their family or surrounding communities. We will end here with a few suggestions that could help move educational systems of all kinds in such a direction.
Teach the deep history of learning. The evolution of cognition is a complex and still evolving field of science, yet it may still offer a wealth of learning opportunities from the standpoint of curriculum design. As Hattie & Yates (2013) describe, developing in students the metacognitive skills to become investigators of their own learning is essential to developing effective school environments. Many schools now adopt “learning how to learn” programs, which may be effective in their own right, but tend to lack an aim of developing in students a conceptual understanding of what learning is, where this capacity came from, how it differs across the tree of life, and how this deep history influences how each of us learns in the modern world.
Teach evolution as a learning process, and learning as an evolutionary process. Evolution itself can be conceptualized as a learning process, and learning can be equally viewed as an evolutionary process in its own right (Watson & Szathmáry 2016; see Eirdosh & Hanisch 2020b). In addition to teaching about the deep history of learning, students can be engaged in the core conceptual transferability of the principles of natural information processing systems that are common to ecological and neuronal evolution (i.e. learning). Understanding the systemic limits of our minds can facilitate a better understanding of a wealth of effective learning strategies, and a deeper appreciation for the role of knowledge in the learning process. Helping students understand that, in many ways, learning is a process of evolving their own minds in valued directions can be a practical and inspiring view of the purpose of schools and education writ large.
Empower communities to evolve their own school systems. The two suggestions above frame a novel direction for teaching the conceptual content of evolutionary perspectives in education but do not account for the critical facts of humans as social and cultural creatures. There exists in much of educational discourse a recurrent dialectic between valuing student autonomy and agency on the one hand, and the need to create structured and standardized learning environments grounded in evidence-based instructional practices on the other. We suggest that a core foundational curriculum rooted in explicit instruction about the evolution of learning and educational systems can itself be a platform for elevating student autonomy and agency as drivers of cultural evolution within their own school communities. Our Evolving Schools project (Eirdosh & Hanisch 2020a) has begun doing just that, and our diverse partners within the Prosocial Schools network are advancing a range of tools to similarly empower whole school communities in this direction. Students can work together with their peers, teachers, and community partners to grow their understanding of what effective education might look like, develop evidence-driven innovation experiments in their own schools. We suggest that such an approach, combined with the broader knowledge synthesis occurring in regards to the evolution of more nurturing societies (Biglan et al. 2020) could support the emergence of a healthy diversity of educational models unified in their capacity to support students and school communities in addressing the adaptive challenges of the 21st century and beyond.
Education is an evolutionary science, yet few educators and the majority of the educated public are rarely empowered to understand this fact or the implications of this fact for the design of modern education systems. This situation need not be the case. The growing scientific content and educational development tools available suggest an inspiring new direction in which the evolutionary science of education can be engaged as a platform for the empowerment of youth and whole school communities. The conversation is just getting started, and so we invite you to join us in thinking about how we all can work together to learn together to make this potential a reality for a growing number of students around the world.
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