Evolutionary Theory of Education
Joseph J. Pear
of Psychology, University of Manitoba,
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada R3T 2N2
The capacity to learn
is a product of evolution, in that it promotes survival
and the perpetuation of an individual's genetic material.
An individual that can learn can be taught. Hence, a next
step in evolution was teaching of the young by caretakers
(usually the parents). Training of the young is carried
out in many species but has evolved to its highest degree
in humans. Humans also possess language, which has enabled
them to develop complex cultures. These cultures perpetuate
themselves and compete for resources and for members. This
competition leads to the evolution of cultures similar to
the manner in which species evolve. Education is analogous
to the reproductive system; it is the mechanism by which
cultures perpetuate themselves. Eventually in cultural evolution,
education became institutionalized in some human cultures
because of the evolutionary advantages it provided to those
cultures. Educational techniques, however, have changed
very little since ancient times despite research showing
that some educational techniques are superior to others.
Despite this resistance to change, certain applications
of computer-based technology may provide the next step in
the cultural evolutionary process.
Evolutionary Theory of Education
The theory of education
with which this paper deals considers evolution of education
and culture as a natural process. Being based on learning,
the evolution of education is based in the evolution of
species. We therefore first consider the evolution of learning.
We then consider the evolution of training, which is carried
out by many species in which parental and other care of
the young is provided. We next discuss how this training
is most advanced in humans, largely because of they have
evolved a facility for complex language. It is this ability
that makes human cultures and institutionalized education
possible. The paper concludes by considering what the next
step in educational and cultural evolution might be.
evolution of learning
Along with other
properties of organism, the capacity to learn is a product
of evolution. Learning occurs because it promotes the propagation
of the genetic code of the organism that possesses the capacity
to learn (see Pear, 2001). There are several types of learning,
including sensitization, habituation, imprinting, classical
or respondent conditioning, and instrumental or operant
conditioning. Of these, it is the last with which we are
concerned here; roughly speaking, operant conditioning is
the modification of behavior by its consequences. Education
is mostly concerned with changing behavior by arranging
for favorable consequences to follow desirable behavior.
For example, when a student's excellent essay receives praise
from the teacher, we expect that the student will write
praiseworthy essays in the future.
evidently appeared quite early in evolutionary history.
It exists in the earliest vertebrates. Any one who has kept
fish knows that they swim expectantly to the sight or sound
of someone getting ready to feed them. This is operant conditioning,
because the fish receives the food faster if it is nearer
the location in which the food enters the water. Fish will
also learn to push a response key if this results in food
dropping into the fish tank (Talton, Higa & Staddon,
1999). The operant conditioning of similar responses in
rats, pigeons, and monkeys is well known to every student
in an introductory psychology course. What is perhaps not
so well know is the pervasiveness of operant conditioning;
it occurs in organisms whose evolutionary paths diverge
considerably from that of the vertebrates. For example,
it occurs in insects, such as ants (Schneirla, 1943) and
honey bees (Grossman, 1973). Since these invertebrates have
nervous systems that are quite different from those of vertebrates,
there is a suggestion that the ability to learn through
operant conditioning may have evolved independently in different
advantage of operant conditioning is fairly obvious in a
changing environment. A location that once provided food
may no longer do so; an unfamiliar potential prey item may
turn out to provide a nutritious meal or an illness-producing
toxin. Another unfamiliar animal may turn out to be relatively
harmless or a dangerous predator. An animal that is to survive
and pass on its genetic material must adjust to these diverse
circumstances, and learning obviously permits it to do so.
What may not be so obvious, however, is the connection this
all has to education. Physical survival does not usually
depend on being able, for example, to write a commendable
essay. However, the same process that enabled our ancestors
learn to how to hunt efficiently can be enlisted to enable
us to learn to write effectively. Both involve small shaping
steps punctuated by positive feedback. In the case of hunting,
the feedback was from the physical environment (a successful
kill) and from other humans (praise for performing actions
that led to a successful kill). In the case of essay writing,
the shaping steps and feedback is from the teacher, who
incidentally has been operantly conditioned to provide this
Training of the
For many species,
the parental function consists simply in reproduction. For
certain others (i.e., those unable to fend for themselves
at birth), however, there is care-giving from one or both
parents and perhaps other members of the social group, until
the young are able to make it on their own. Inevitably,
animals learn from their caretakers and other members of
their social group, but most of this learning occurs incidental
to other activities. There is no deliberate attempt to teach.
In some cases, deliberate teaching appears to occur but
can be explained as phylogenetic; e.g., a mother lion teaching
her young to hunt or a bird teaching its young to fly. Although
the teacher may employ sound pedagogical principles (e.g.,
shaping, fading, scaffolding), their utilization has been
developed by evolution rather than by learning.
Moving up the phylogenetic
scale we do not find any evidence for deliberate teaching
until we come to the apes, most notably our closest relatives,
chimpanzees. These animals engage in certain complex tool-use
behaviors, such as termite fishing (with a long stem inserted
into a termite hole) and nut cracking using a hammer-and-anvil
technique (using two stones). These are complex skills that
take many years to perfect. There is some evidence of mothers
actively teaching their young (thought physical guidance)
proper techniques in performing these skills ().
Only humans show
clear evidence of deliberate systematic teaching. The earliest
evidence of this is from between 11,000 and 15,000 years
ago. The stone chips found around certain stone-age hearths
shows that evidence a master stone chipper encircled by
learners who practiced the master's demonstration of the
proper way to chip out stone tools, such as axes and knives
(Fisher, 1990; Pigeot, 1990). Hence, humans carried out
classroom-style teaching as early as 11,000 years ago.
Although there was
no permanent record of it, these early teachers were undoubtedly
doing more than merely demonstrating and the students were
not merely imitating. The teacher undoubtedly was providing
verbal instruction and reinforcement, and the students were
responding to that instruction and reinforcement. The human
propensity for speaking and listening – for language
– probably evolved from early social bonding (Dunbar,
1991, 1993). In primates social bonding occurs though physical
contact (e.g., grooming) and vocalizations. Language developed
when humans evolved the capacity to imbed information more
complex than simple "stroking" (e.g., the equivalents of
"how are you?" and "fine, thank you") in their physical
gestures and vocalizations. Language enabled the development
of human cultures.
We may define a culture
as a set of learned practices (including laws, values, ways
of doing things) passed on from one generation to the next.
Cultures evolve in a manner similar to the way in which
species evolve (for discussions of cultural evolution and
values, see Handy, 1960; Pepper, 1958, 1960; Skinner, 1953,
1971). Some cultures are well adapted to their environments
and survive. Others are not well adapted and perish. Part
of a culture’s environment includes other cultures.
Hence cultures compete in a manner similar to that in which
species compete. A culture survives only if it has members
that survive and perpetuate it. Hence, cultures compete
for resources and for members.
The practices of
a culture may promote or hinder its survival. Some practices
are more successful in promoting a culture's survival than
others are. Some practices are harmful, and may lead to
the demise of a culture. Some practices are not beneficial,
or may even be harmful, but the culture may nevertheless
survive for a long time because other practices counteract
them or because no competing culture is present to exploit
If a culture is analogous
to a species, then education is the reproductive system
of a culture. Just as the reproductive system is responsible
for transmitting traits from one generation to the next,
education replicates or transmits cultural practices, including
values, rules, laws, customs, and skills. Also included
in the practices of a culture is its social structure.
the culture in which it occurs. If the technology and social
structure of a culture is relatively simple, education is
simple. In a "simple" culture, education consists of the
young learning from other members simply by participating
in the activities of the culture. As the technology and
social structure become more complex, special instruction
becomes necessary. Chipping stone tools is a difficult skill
but vital to a stone-age culture, hence classes apparently
were required to facilitate members learning it.
A number of cultures
developed a degree of complexity in which members are stratified
into several strata or classes. These might include slaves
(e.g., ancient Greece, ancient Rome, the United States before
the Civil War), and lower, middle, and upper classes. Slaves
received virtually no education, the lower classes might
receive some sort of vocational training (often in the form
of apprenticeships), the middle classes received training
needed to be merchants, government administrators, and teachers,
while the upper classes received training that enabled them
to rule more effectively. Simplifying somewhat, universities
developed to fulfill these last-two mentioned functions
(Barzunm 2000, pp. 228-229). Complex verbal behavior, including
the ability to discuss, reason, and argue are always useful
to the governing and ruling classes. Even in the upper classes,
women throughout all complex (stratified) societies, up
until recent times, received only enough education to enable
them fulfill the roles of mothers and homemakers. It is
clear that education served to maintain the social structure
of these cultures.
As described above,
a culture may perpetuate itself by spreading its practices
to succeeding generations. Another way it may perpetuate
itself is by invading other cultures and attempting to transform
them into replicas of itself (the analogy of a virus invading
a cell comes to mind here). This is imperialism, which has
been practiced so successfully by Western countries. True
to its function as a replicator, education has been critical
in the success of imperialism. The transplanting of the
invaders’ educational systems into other countries
(or, alternatively, sending members of the "host" country
to be educated in the invading country) is analogous to
the transplanting of viral DNA into host cells. That is,
largely as a result of the transplantation of the invader's
educational system into the host, the host country becomes
more like the invader. It is interesting to note that this
ultimately works to the disadvantage of the invader, because
once the ruling members of the host are sufficiently educated
in the practices of the invader, the host country tends
to declare its independence. Similarly, the transfer of
genetic material through sexual reproduction does not necessarily
work to the advantage of the individual making the transfer.
In some cases the
educational system of an invading country has been used
to obliterate (or come close to obliterating) an indigenous
culture. A prime example is the forcible removal of Native
children from their parents and the placement of these children
in residential schools, which occurred in Canada. Forced
to learn the language and practices of the dominant culture,
the children in these schools were severely punished for
speaking their own language and were kept from learning
anything about their own culture.
dominant and subordinate groups over education
Since education tend
to preserve the social order, members below the ruling class
strive to obtain educational opportunities that would allow
them to move into a higher class. The middle class presses
for access to universities. The lower class presses to obtain
basic education such as instruction in reading. And women
press to obtain the same educational privileges men enjoy.
also help to bring about changes in the availability of
education. By promoting the idea that each individual should
be able to interpret the Bible for him or herself, leaders
of the reformation successfully diminished the power of
the Catholic Church. However, this idea makes sense only
if everyone can read the Bible. The logical consequence
of the change in the culture brought about through the reformation
was that education in reading should be available to all.
For the first time, therefore, government was in the position
of having to provide universal education.
With the industrial
revolution, a skilled labor force was needed. In addition,
to protect the upper classes from social disruption and
mayhem, youthful industrial workers needed to be occupied
during the times that they were not at work. Hence, universal
education was implemented on Sundays, and gradually extended
to other days of week.
In more recent times,
members of minority cultures have successfully petitioned
to right to educate their members in their own culture.
Politicians have responded favorably to this as means of
winning votes and diffusing tensions.
educators and the state
The state –
i.e., the governing or ruling body of a culture –
attempts to use the educational system to preserve itself.
Dissidence is not to be tolerated if the ruling body has
any say in the matter. This can bring the educational system
into conflict with the state, and with the education administration
– the representatives of the state within the educational
system. One way in which this conflict appears is in the
struggle within the educational system between those who
favor restrictions on what can be taught and those who advocate
academic freedom. Two important activities of education,
at least as it exists today, are examining new ideas and
questioning the status quo. These activities, however, can
threaten the stability of the culture, and therefore tend
to be resisted by those outside the educational institution
(and often by some within). In the long run, similar to
favorable mutations, the new ideas that are developed and
promulgated in the educational institutions may lead to
changes in cultural practices that strengthen the culture.
This is why academic freedom has become a firmly entrenched
value in some cultures, although it is still suspect in
Role of Educators
Ever since the printing
press was invented and books became widely available, lectures
have been largely redundant. This is not to say that lectures
have no value. In many cases they can be very beneficial.
But they are not of equal value for everyone; and there
are some who are able to learn quite well just by reading.
Suppose, however, that a student went to the president of
a university and said, "I have read every book in your library;
please have your faculty test me and if I pass give me a
degree." It is highly unlikely that such a student would
have his or her request granted. At best the student might
be granted an exemption from a few classes, but would have
to sit through many more. Educators can rationalize this
requirement in a number of ways; however, a case can be
made that the underlying reason for it is that such a student
is seen as a threat. It represents a loss of power. If you
can learn without having to sit in our classrooms and listen
to our lectures, then we have no power over you.
Some educators may
also see the new technology of web-based instruction as
a threat. Students on line do not have to be in the classroom.
Some educators have attempted to adapt the lecture method
to the new technology. In this format, students "meet" at
a specified time, read a text-based "lecture" prepared by
the instructor, and engage in online discussion by typing
in comments on the lecture and comments on other students
comments. This approach has the advantage that students
do not have to be physically present on campus in order
to take a course. This results in an increase in the number
of people who can take courses and receive the benefits
More could be done
for students by taking advantage of research findings on
different educational techniques. The data are quite consistent
in indicating that mastery learning methods and cooperative
learning work far better than lectures (Kulik, Kulik, &
Bangert-Drowns, 1990). Real advances in education may occur
when these methods are combined with web-based technology
(for perhaps a start in this direction, see (Crone-Todd,
Pear & Read, 2000; Pear & Crone-Todd, 1999; Pear
& Novak, 1996). Given that educational practices have
changed very little since the days of Socrates, despite
many attempts to improve them over the centuries, it is
probably unwise to predict that fundamental change will
occur anytime soon. However, although educators have been
strongly conditioned to preserve their traditional practices,
they have also been conditioned to work for the betterment
of their culture. The advances in technology that rapidly
are making all forms of information widely available to
everyone may demand new approaches to education. The next
large evolutionary jump in education may be at hand.
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