Equity & Diversity Commentary

Teaching Evolution and Using Evolution to Teach

By David Sloan Wilson — December 22, 2011 5 min read

Whenever evolution and education are mentioned together in my circles, it is usually to discuss teaching evolution and keeping creationism out of public school classrooms. But evolution has an even more important role to play in education as a theory that can inform the design of more effective school programs and improve the teaching of all subjects.

Schools and classrooms are first and foremost social groups whose members must cooperate to achieve certain goals. If they fail as cooperative units in general terms, then they will fail to meet their specific objectives. The last few decades have witnessed a renaissance of theory and research on how groups function as cooperative units, based on general evolutionary principles that apply to all species and on our own evolutionary history. This knowledge can be used to enhance cooperation in real-world settings, such as educating our children. There is nothing static about cooperation. It succeeds under some environmental conditions and fails under others. We, therefore, evolved to be highly conditional in our willingness to cooperate with others. Since we are a cultural species that lives largely in a world of our own making, we have tremendous latitude to construct social environments that favor cooperation as an evolutionarily successful strategy, but only if we make use of our knowledge.

I recently had the opportunity to put these ideas into practice by advising a new program for at-risk high school students in Binghamton, N.Y., called the Regents Academy, or RA. It would be a self-contained school, with its own principal and teaching staff, for 9th and 10th graders who had failed three or more courses during their previous year and were unlikely to complete high school without an intervention. Working with my graduate student, Rick Kauffman; the academy principal, Miriam S. Purdy; and a dedicated staff of four teachers we designed a social environment that, according to theory, would be maximally conducive to cooperation and learning, as outlined in more detail below. To assess the program, we identified 117 qualifying 9th and 10th graders and randomly selected 56 to enter the program; the remaining 61 students were tracked as they experienced the normal routine at Binghamton High School. We also compared both groups to the performance of the average Binghamton High student.

Since we are a cultural species that lives largely in a world of our own making, we have tremendous latitude to construct social environments that favor cooperation as an evolutionarily successful strategy, but only if we make use of our knowledge."

What happened? Not only did the RA students greatly outperform the comparison group on the state-mandated exams at the end of the year, but they also performed on par with the average Binghamton High School student. The dropout rate plummeted (3.5 percent for the RA students versus 16 percent for the comparison group). The RA students responded to their new social environment quickly; the improvement in their grades, relative to the comparison group, occurred during the first quarter and held steady for the rest of the year. Male, female, black, white, and Hispanic students benefited equally. These results have recently been published in the Public Library of Science’s open-access journal, PLoS ONE. The RA also resulted in nonacademic benefits, including greater family support as perceived by the students and an improved sense of well-being, according to data that we are working up for publication.

These results are surprising, given the difficulty of the problem. Improving the academic performance of at-risk students is difficult at any age, but especially for teenagers, whose life challenges, personal habits, and social networks are firmly established. Most other successful programs require extreme efforts and additional funding, such as extending the school day and year, yet the RA was created and supported with resources that are available to most public school districts.

What are the ingredients that make the Regents Academy work so well, and how are they informed by evolutionary science? The PLoS ONE article should be consulted for additional details, but the elements include design features that enable any human group to function as a cooperative unit, such as a strong group identity and sense of purpose, consensus decisionmaking, monitoring good behavior, graduated sanctions, and conflict resolution that is quick and seen as fair by all group members. This is the kind of social environment that most adults wish for themselves, and children are no different. In addition, learning requires an atmosphere of safety and trust and needs to be rewarding over the short term in addition to its long-term benefits.

None of the ingredients that make up the RA are unusual, but the RA brings them together into an unusual package. A well-functioning group is like an organism. Just as an organism has many organs and will die if any one of them is removed, a group requires many moving parts to its design and can become severely compromised if any one is missing. Advances in the study of human social behavior have clarified the package of design features required for human groups to function as adaptive units. Although many academic disciplines have contributed, evolutionary theory provides the overarching theoretical framework, enabling advances from fields as disparate as political science and prevention science to be combined and applied to a novel setting: a program for at-risk high school students.

Time will tell whether the Regents Academy continues to succeed as well as—or better than—its first year, but its initial success makes one wonder why so many other well-meaning efforts to educate our children fail. All educational policies have a surface logic based on background assumptions; otherwise, no one would be tempted to implement them. Yet, like the wishes that are granted to people in folk tales, policies frequently have unintended consequences. Unlike with the characters in folk tales who end up realizing their mistakes, the unforeseen consequences of our educational policies are often diffuse, indirect, and difficult to trace back to their source. Additionally, even successful policies have difficulty spreading beyond their particular disciplinary boundaries. A general theoretical framework and proper validation methods can help to solve some of these problems by providing new and workable solutions to problems that previously seemed difficult or impossible to solve.

Using evolution to teach can even help to solve the problem of teaching evolution. In my experience, people of all ages are much more inclined to accept evolution when it is taught not only as a biological subject, but as a practical toolkit for increasing the quality of our everyday lives.


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