Foundations of an Evolutionary Pedagogy

December 21, 2019

I have been a teacher for 20 years now despite having been confronted with a lot of pedagogical and methodological ideas and theories none of those had an evolutionary approach to teaching. Peter Gray’s book Free to Learn is a notable exception. Gray’s ideas are based on learning in hunter-gatherer societies, in which there is no formal learning, no coercion, little extrinsic motivation for learning (grades, “stars”, praise, etc.” and still children become fully functioning members of their groups due to their inborn instincts to survive, play and learn form older children and adults.

Formal teaching and schooling is basically an invention of agricultural societies as agriculture made a certain degree of coercion necessary. Modern hunter-gatherers consistently refuse to become farmers as it is too much trouble and work for them.

I have argued before that modern people are more or less the descendants of either early farmers or hunter-gatherers, genetically kept partially apart by assortative mating through the past 12 millennia since the origin of agriculture. This distinction corresponds roughly to the distinction between intutitives and sensors in the Myers-Briggs/Jungian personality framework.

In pedagogy, I have often encountered opposing ideas that correspond to “farmer” vs “hunter-gatherer” (HG) “instincts” or values in education. Here are some of them:

Peter Gray is optimistic that in the near future the trends will shift towards hunter-gatherer values and traditional schooling will be perceived as barbaric soon. Unfortunately, this is not what I am experiencing as a teacher, the trends are more towards “farmer values”, i.e. crammed curricula, more schooling and more (international) competitive thinking.

Apart from the fact that most students lose their curiosity, motivation and interest in the subject matters themselves and study for grades and credits instead of developing a passion for learning. This trend seriously hurts the “hunter-gatherer” kids, in particular, the highly creative ones. These kids get filtered out by our school system because have difficulties with the sequential learning, rote memorization and are often considered disorganized and lazy by their teachers.

One can imagine that children who are programmed to learn freely struggle with the coerciveness of elementary school. My gifted son who was able to read at age two and who had been a highly curious child until elementary school suddenly became defiant and even aggressive in first grade. He would rather cry an hour over homework that would have taken him five minutes to do. This seemingly irrational behaviour can only be explained by inborn instincts.

My research into personality types has led me to assume that the majority of children with ODD (oppositional defiant disorder), ADHD and ASD children are probably among the hunter-gatherer personality type and can therefore often be found in special ed. HG kids might seem slow, lazy, dreamy and unmotivated in elementary school.

On the flip side also the majority of the gifted kids I have taught belong to the hunter-gatherer group, which leads me to assume that hunter-gatherer children are very much the same as “orchid children”, who might thrive or fade depending on their environment. They might be hyperlexic (or at least early readers — pretty much all people I know who taught themselves to read before school are HG people) or dyslexic. If my son hadn’t been able to read fluently at age two, he might have easily turned out dyslexic. His teacher only saw a slow, dreamy and sloppy kid in him and given his inattentive ADHD and defiant behaviour this might easily have turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The objective of an evolutionary pedagogy should have as a scope an evolutionary perspective on learning styles, not just categorizing them by three different types of sensory input or eight different kinds of intelligence. Sequential learning vs. pattern learning style might be a more meaningful category or rule-based vs explorative learning styles, as well as a preference for being taught vs self-directed learning.

HG children are different from “farmer” children in the following traits:

  • Relatively immune to extrinsic motivation like grades
  • High performers when intrinsically motivated
  • Special interests/passions way beyond the ordinary (e.g. knowing the names of 300 instead of 30 dinosaurs)
  • they are quicker to adopt digital media for their learning
  • Criticism can be absolutely detrimental to learning motivation
  • Coercion most likely causes defiant rather than compliant behaviour
  • May appear physically younger and emotionally less mature than their peers
  • Preference for self-directed learning
  • Highly sensitive to noise, light and other physical stimuli
  • Less stress-resistent or resilient

HG children suffer more from stress and react with higher cortisol levels, which can often lead to physical illness such as allergies, asthma or anaemia (especially high in children with ADHD). I am afraid that schools actually might be partly to blame for their ailments and hope that scientists and polygenic scores will be able to shed more light on the matter.

In middle and high schools, HG children are much more likely to be among the students who drop out, get bullied (they are generally non-violent and frequently loners), self-harm or even commit suicide. On the other hand, they are also among the high performers and highly creative (a trait that hardly matters in many schools) children. As HG children are big pictures thinkers it should be in the interest of schools, the economy and society that education for them is an empowering experience rather than an obstacle in their lives.

teacher