Berch argues an evolutionary perspective may eventually be able to inform the design of a useful diagnostic tool for hiring the most qualified teachers, for selecting prospectively high-quality teacher candidates, and perhaps even for designing more effective professional development programs.

The preponderance of educational research on teaching to date has been concerned with the immediate psychological and environmental factors that influence teachers’ knowledge and beliefs, their classroom management and organizational skills, their acquisition of effective instructional strategies, and their ability to successfully implement these techniques. This kind of work is of substantial value to the field in that it can clarify the mechanisms that underlie the learning and manifestation of sound pedagogical practices.

From an evolutionary perspective, these types of explanations are considered proximate in that they address “how” teaching works, that is, the immediate internal processes (e.g., teachers’ knowledge) and external influences (e.g., financial incentives) that lead to improvements in pedagogical practices. However, research aimed solely at determining the important role that these kinds of causal factors play is unable to explain “why” natural selection favored teaching skills. In other words, evolutionary approaches to pedagogy are concerned with tracing the functionally adaptive origins and aims of engaging in teaching behaviors. For example, one of the most basic questions growing out of the adoption of an evolutionary perspective on teaching is “What kinds of fitness benefits accrue to those who teach others that would outweigh its costs to these individuals?”

Naturally, answers to such questions will depend at least in part on how one defines teaching. My review of the scholarly literature from relevant disciplines that include anthropology, archaeology, animal behavior, and evolutionary psychology, reveals that researchers and scholars who view pedagogy through an evolutionary lens define teaching in ways that share some common features but differ in other important ways. For example, virtually all of these scientists agree that teaching is a distinct form of cooperation aimed at facilitating learning in others.

Some have focused on delineating the behaviors that serve to signify instances of teaching by specifying its purported component features in ways that can be measured. This type of definition has been particularly important for studying teaching in non-human animals. In contrast, definitions developed with the goal of understanding teaching exclusively in humans tend to focus on its motivational and cognitive components, characterizing it as an activity that is intended to promote understanding in another, which of course requires the recognition of a lack of knowledge or possession of false beliefs in the first place. These kinds of distinctions have led some scholars to claim that teaching in humans should be considered as distinct from teaching in nonhuman animals.

Coupled with our understanding of proximate mechanisms, an evolutionary perspective may eventually be able to inform the design of a useful diagnostic tool for hiring the most qualified teachers, for selecting prospectively high-quality teacher candidates, and perhaps even for designing more effective professional development programs. Although the scientific study of teaching from an evolutionary perspective is a comparatively young domain of inquiry, the kinds of questions currently being explored suggest that this rapidly developing area holds significant promise for advancing our understanding of teaching and its value for improving learning in children and youth.

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Daniel Berch

Daniel Berch

Daniel B. Berch, Ph.D., is Professor of Educational Psychology and Applied Developmental Science at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education. He has authored assorted articles and book chapters on children’s numerical cognition and mathematical learning disabilities, has co-edited a special issue of Learning and Individual Differences on the topic of math difficulties and disabilities, and is senior editor of the book, Why is Math So Hard For Some Children? The Nature and Origins of Mathematical Learning Difficulties and Disabilities. For the past several years, Dr. Berch has been working on the implications of evolutionary theory for educational research and practice, publishing a book chapter on instructing evolved minds and giving an invited talk on the emerging field of “EvoEdu” at The Evolution Institute’s 2008 workshop on childhood education. Among other honors, he has received the NIH Award of Merit, was elected Fellow of the American Psychological Association’s Division of Experimental Psychology, and served as an ex officio member of the U.S. Department of Education’s National Mathematics Advisory Panel.

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