Middle school students in Toronto are learning about the evolution of compassion by studying primate behavior. Primary school students in Madagascar visit local lemur habitats to understand the origins of these unique creatures. In Alabama, primary students learn about the origins and diversity of humans through the lens of anthropology. In Portugal, primary school students connect evolution and nutrition education by learning about the diversification of their local apple tree varieties.
It is not only possible for young children to learn about evolution, there is a global need and opportunity for empowering educators to help them do so. This was the common understanding that was passionately shared around the lab tables of the Instituto Politécnico in Porto, Portugal during a three-day collaborative workshop of evolution educators from across Europe earlier this February. The Evolutionary Knowledge for Everyone (EvoKE) project was the vision of five inspired science educators, all of whom happen to be women, who saw a need to bring together a diverse group of 80+ evolutionary thinkers to brainstorm strategic directions for international educational initiatives.
On day one, we learned about the efforts of the German language EvoKids.de project in teacher education, curriculum development and evaluation. By day two, the new global EvoKids working group emerged as a collaboration among 14 of us. We found a shared passion for an integrated understanding of the value of evolution in the educational development of children aged 3-12. At the table, we had education researchers, classroom teachers, museum and botanical garden educators, artists and science communication experts. I was amazed at both the broad diversity of ideas participants were bringing to the table, and also how connected and shared our core vision was becoming. Here are some of the core elements of how we see the role of evolution in early learning.
Evolution education is Education for Sustainable Development (ESD). EvoKids members have projects engaging students in school gardens, food diversity studies, health education, biodiversity studies, and more. Evolution sheds light on the nature of diversity in our world, and how complexity emerges and changes over time. Evolution can provide students with direct insights into core challenges of sustainable development, but evolutionary thinking also fuels ESD in another sense. Evolutionary literacy provides a common currency of language and conceptions to connect human understanding across the natural and social world. Helping young students develop age-appropriate mental models of the evolutionary dynamics around them provides a foundation for future academic and personal success in navigating the challenges that lie ahead.
Evolution education is education for Nature of Science (NOS). Evolutionary concepts pervade the history of scientific development. Science itself is a human endeavor, a product of our evolved cultural brains. Science can even be seen as an evolutionary process in its own right. Evolution science connects to the most culturally and personally meaningful narratives of what it means to be a human. For all of these reasons, evolution literacy is essential to understanding the fundamental nature of science, and therefore key to integrate early in the curriculum.
Recognizing the role of evolution education in ESD and NOS elevates the urgency for spreading effective educational practices in early learning environments. Fortunately, this recognition can also inform some strategic directions for collaborative action. Our EvoKids project group has begun to outline some promising strategies:
Focus on educator empowerment. Real learning happens when educators are empowered with a mastery of meaningful academic content and the resources for designing the classrooms they envision. From primary school teacher education programs in higher education, to professional development in schools and informal learning institutions, EvoKids members recognized the need to focus on having educators drive these innovations across diverse educational contexts. The real-world projects linked at the bottom of this article all use different means and strategies to support and empower educators to better engage evolutionary thinking. What they have in common is a respect for the difficult job of teaching and a view to connect teachers with evolution experts to help students learn.
Cultivate capacity through international teacher education collaboration. Learning about evolution with primary school students presents a landscape of theoretical and practical challenges that should be carefully navigated by academic professionals in the context of international teacher education programs. The design of effective learning environments requires a deep understanding of the nature of science elements of evolution science, as well as the nature of conceptual diversity regarding evolution among young students. EvoKids members recognized the vital and strategic role that teacher education programs play in this area, and views international collaboration among these groups as a key to effectively growing our vision.
Integrate evolution as content and context for learning across K-16 curricula. Childhood is a signature adaption of our species. Understanding the evolved, evolving nature of youth can be just as valuable as helping youth understand the other foundational content of evolution. Evolution provides a diversity of important insights into the design of early learning environments (Geary & Berch 2016), and EvoKids members recognized the value of integrating both content and context of evolutionary learning in our vision, and to view K-16 curriculum design in an integrative, holistic fashion. Teacher education programs can collaborate internationally to better understand the possible linkages between evolution as content for primary school students to learn, versus context for designing primary school learning environments.
The EvoKids working group did not stop in Portugal. We are just getting started and we welcome you to join us! You can join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter. Or feel free to email me, Dustin Eirdosh, at EvoKids.Global@Gmail.com to discuss how you can get involved directly.
You can also join the TVOL1000 group where we are starting to discuss how to best leverage the expertise of the Evolution Institute to support the vision being described by the global EvoKids network.
The EvoKids vision seeks to build on the full diversity of thinking in how to connect “this view of life” into the formal and informal learning of students aged 3-12. The projects we are inspired by provide a window into what is possible:
An educational outreach program working with schools in Toronto to teach the evolution of compassion and the human brain with local youth.
Supports teacher leadership in EvoKids programming and development through university-school collaboration in Madagascar.
An early learning center designed with evolutionary principles in mind.
(see also 10 Simple Truths about Early Childhood Education)
An educational outreach program of University of Alabama teaching evolutionary perspectives in anthropology in the primary school through undergraduate and graduate project work.
An new center for scientific research both in foundational questions of human development and applied work in community outreach. The center is a collaboration between University of Leipzig, the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, and Max Planck Institute for Cognitive Brain Sciences.
The original German language EvoKids has produced the first science textbook in evolution for upper primary school classrooms, including a review of biological evolution, evolution science history, cultural influences of evolutionary thinking, and an introduction to cultural evolution. EvoKids Global is working to get this open resource translated into English and other international languages.
A global program in which a 3-12 month old baby visits a primary school classroom 9 times over the year. Students learn about human development, the functioning of human social-emotional cognition, and the growth patterns of young human brains. Dr. Alison Gopnik outlines how this program is best seen through the lens of evolutionary developmental psychology.
Geary, D. C., & Berch, D. B. (2016). Evolutionary Perspectives on Child Development and Education. Springer.