This article is reproduced with permission from the Mercer Advisors quarterly client newsletter, Optimizer, Winter 2016 edition.
Jerry Lieberman has worn many hats over the course of his lifetime. Among these hats include husband, father, grandfather, political science professor, investment banker, researcher, community advocate, fundraiser, global thinker, life-long learner, and academic/theoretical visionary.
In 2010 – eight years after officially retiring from his ‘day job’ – Jerry co-founded Evolution Institute (EI), a non-profit think tank that does far more than conduct “meetings of the mind”. EI uses evolutionary science to address real-world problems by providing evolutionary context for a better understanding of the issues we encounter in everyday life. EI’s objective is to use biological and social sciences to both inform and improve the communities in which we live and interact with one another.
Any topic relevant to human welfare and quality of life is fair game for support from and collaboration with the principals at EI. Together with its advisory board, EI provides framework and expertise to address specific areas of focus from an evolutionary perspective in the following ways:
- Assemble appropriate thought leadership experts (scientists, scholars, industry professionals) for a number of brainstorming workshop sessions;
- Assess the topic’s current knowledge status from an evolutionary standpoint;
- Make recommendations for the types of scientific research that would be most relevant for the topic in question;
- Summarize ways in which current knowledge and future research findings can address real-world needs;
- Publicize findings and implement recommendations over the longer term and across broader disciplines, as appropriate.
Some pretty ‘heady’ content, right? To get a better feel for what EI is able to accomplish, let’s take a closer look at childhood education – a topic to which we all can easily relate. Childhood education was EI’s first area of considerable focus and therefore, offers the most insight into the organization’s collaborative (and ongoing) support process.
How do children learn most effectively?
Jerry, his Evolution Institute co-founder David Sloan Wilson, and seven renowned childhood education and development specialists met at a conference in 2008 to examine modern education environments through the lens of biological evolution. What they discovered is that while the concept of education is as old as time itself, the manner and process in which we educate today is extremely removed from the learning and teaching environments of our ancestors. To better convey the significance tied to a solid understanding of how we are ‘wired’ to learn, this group of thought leaders co-authored the article/white paper, “Ten Simple Truths about Childhood Education from an Evolutionary Perspective.” In essence, the authors’ overall message is this: in order to design and deliver the most effective learning environments for children today, it is paramount that we work with – not against – Mother Nature.
A brief recap of these simple truths is included at the end of this article. EI’s belief is that by better understanding the stumbling blocks that can impede today’s learning process, we can further inspire solutions that minimize such barriers.
Of particular interest is the fact that Jerry and his Evolution Institute peers have found that no matter the topic at hand or the audience, “the recommendations we present are sensible and benign enough that most people find themselves nodding in agreement when we share our suggestions.”
Case in point: one of the K-12 schools that has benefitted greatly from its work with EI is Bible Truth Ministries Academy in Tampa, Florida. Indeed, a strong testament to our ability as a species to work together to build a bridge when the common denominator is a shared goal – in this particular instance, to understand and remove obstacles that might limit a child’s capacity for learning.
We salute Jerry and his lifelong commitment to collaboration, community, empowerment, and positive purpose.
Ten Simple Truths about Childhood Education from an Evolutionary Perspective:
- Learning is child-motivated – through self-directed play and exploration
- Kids are biologically predisposed to learn – curiosity, playfulness, sociability
- Community as classroom – in life, children are exposed to others’ successes and failures; they learn equally from both
- Learning must be immediately reinforcing – learning is inhibited when benefits are delayed. ‘Reinforcers’ that contribute to the joy of learning include discoveries made, an immediate sense of increased skill or accomplishment, the pleasure of the activity itself, and social feedback.
- Learning occurs best in mixed-age settings – younger kids want to emulate older kids, who serve as more powerful role models than adults. Older kids hone their own skills, gaining confidence by helping the younger ones. A win-win.
- Effective learning environments must accommodate individual differences – learning styles vary greatly. Action/reflection. Visual/auditory. We all profit from the diversity of interests and abilities – but the environment must be open to them – offering sufficient choices to be all encompassing.
- Learning is inhibited by fear and anxiety – open-ended exploration requires safety. If threatened – learner will focus on narrow task only(cramming), or worst case scenario, will shut down entirely – stunting learning altogether. Important to create a safe and rewarding learning environment.
- Learning is facilitated by choice; inhibited by coercion – provide autonomy to even the youngest learners. Cooperation and teamwork should be encouraged and modeled. Allow participation in the decision-making process.
- Ancestral learning environments vary drastically from today’s – Children by nature are active, not passive; they’re ‘wired’ for physical movement and mutual interaction, not for prolonged periods of sitting still and listening. Today’s issues may be the unintended consequence of today’s surface logic being applied to markedly different settings than those of our ancestors.
- Some skills are acquired spontaneously; others require more concentrated effort – while kids are genetically predisposed to walk and talk at an early age, the aptitude for reading and math (‘modern’ attributes) requires greater effort.
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