Essentially, the child’s mind comes with built-in scaffolding that prepares them to learn about other people, plants and animals in their local ecology. . . . There are, however, no built-in scaffolds for learning how to read, write, and do arithmetic, much less algebra, calculus, science or many other complex topics children will encounter in school and in the modern world outside of school.

Schools are the interface between culture and evolution. They are the primary contexts within which children learn the knowledge and skills necessary to be successful in the modern world, but this is a world that differs in many ways from the world in which the mind evolved.

Essentially, the child’s mind comes with built-in scaffolding that prepares them to learn about other people, plants and animals in their local ecology, how to navigate from one place to another, and how to use tools. The scaffolding is fleshed out as children engage in self-initiated play, exploration, and social activities. There are, however, no built-in scaffolds for learning how to read, write, and do arithmetic, much less algebra, calculus, science, or many other complex topics children will encounter in school and in the modern world outside of school. Nor are children inherently motivated to learn to read or to solve arithmetic problems in the same way they are motivated to play with their friends. Evolutionary educational psychology is the study of how the evolved mind is adapted through schooling to meet the demands of the modern world, and how children’s evolved motivations (e.g., to play with peers) influence their engagement with this schooling.

Language, for instance, is an evolved and universal cognitive ability. Children are prepared to learn the language to which they are exposed and do so implicitly and automatically, that is, without conscious thought or effort, as they engage in social activities. But, learning the evolutionarily-novel competencies of reading and writing does not come as easily to the vast majority of children. It is known that the same brain and cognitive systems that support language (e.g., that allow one to discriminate the sounds ba and pa) are engaged during the act of reading, suggesting that schooling modifies built-in scaffolds, at least to some extent, in ways that allow children to acquire skills and knowledge that were not common during our evolutionary history. Building onto evolved scaffolds in these novel ways, however, requires effortful attentional focus and explicit, conscious problem solving. Children easily learn the difference between bat and pat when expressed in natural speech, but associating these sounds with strings of arbitrary symbols (letters and words) when learning how to read does not come as naturally nor as easily.

From a motivational perspective, it is not surprising that children like to play with their friends. These activities automatically and effortlessly flesh out their social-cognitive scaffolds; these activities help them to learn about themselves and other people and how to negotiate relationships. There is no reason to believe that children have a corresponding inherent motivation to write or to solve algebra problems, for instance. For many children, the motivation to learn these skills will require social and cultural supports (e.g., highlighting accomplishments of engineers) and encouragement (e.g., focus on the payoffs to effort and hard work). Evolutionarily-novel learning requires, to some extent, disengagement from natural ways of learning (e.g., play).

Published On: May 1, 2014

David Geary

David Geary

David C. Geary received his Ph.D. in developmental psychology in 1986 from the University of California at Riverside and from there held faculty positions at the University of Texas at El Paso and the University of Missouri, first at the Rolla campus and then in Columbia. Dr. Geary served as chair of the Department of Psychological Sciences from 2002 to 2005, as the University of Missouri’s Middlebush Professor of Psychological Sciences from 2000 to 2003, and is now a Curators’ Professor and Thomas Jefferson Fellow. He has published more than 230 articles and chapters across a wide range of topics, including three sole-authored books; Children’s mathematical development, Male, female: The evolution of human sex differences (now in second edition), and The origin of mind: Evolution of brain, cognition, and general intelligence as well as one co-authored book, Sex differences: Summarizing more than a century of scientific research. He served as a member of the President’s National (U.S.) Mathematics Advisory Panel and Chaired the Learning Processes subcommittee, is a recipient of a MERIT award from the National Institutes of Health, and was appointed by President G. W. Bush to the National Board of Directors for the Institute for Education Sciences, among other activities and distinctions.

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