evolutionary psychology

A new kind of school, human nature, and a re-cap


Hello, Applied Evolutionary Psychology Society! This blog is the idea-generation machine for a small group o' people who are helping found a new kind of school — a kind of school that cultivates Renaissance people: men and women who find the world interesting, develop mastery in many fields, and seek a meaningful life. 

It's grounded in our understanding that yes, there is such thing as human nature, and most approaches to schooling run roughshod over it. 

We're opening The Island Academy of Hilton Head (off the coast of South Carolina) next week, and are looking to open a second school in the Seattle area in 2017.

If you've landed here from the Applied Evolutionary Psychology Society, might I invite you to peruse this blog? And, actually, why don't I give a "best of the best", at least from an evolutionary perspective?

Near the start of this blog, I thought it possible to ground our conception of schooling in an understanding that humans are powered more by unconscious motives than by conscious (drawing on the work of Daniel Kahneman) and that this means that we're not Vulcans — thus, a serious school needs to pay attention to student emotions (drawing on the work of Jonathan Haidt).

I moved into talking about how to end bullying, exploring how we're each born with particular psychologies, but that how those blossom is in part a factor of our surroundings (here drawing on the work of David Sloan Wilson).

In this post, I propose a metaphor: schools are bridges between our ancient human nature and the needs of the future. A new kind of school, I suggest, needs to (1) look to the deep past to see what kids are like, and then (2) look to (our best guesses about) the near future to see how we need to help kids shape themselves, and finally (3) look to the best approaches that currently exist to connect those.

Perhaps the best approach, I think, to connecting human nature to the needs of the near future is "Imaginative Education". Don't let the froofy name mislead you — this is hard-core education that grounds itself in cultural evolution. Imaginative Education (IE) comes from the work of Kieran Egan (Simon Fraser University). I've developed a nutshell explanation:

  1. We're not just abstract thinkers — we're feelers, designed to think about what we find interesting. 
  2. Almost everything in the K–12 curriculum is really, really interesting, once you break through the crust.
  3. Every human culture has had to create methods to "break through the crust". Instead of re-inventing the wheel, we can use those methods: stories, metaphors, opposites, riddles, songs, theories and counter-theories... and more.

I then turned that nutshell explanation into a YouTube video. (I'm working to turn it into a TEDx talk.)

I'll write more about this soon, but I think that IE is something the evolutionary community has been looking for.

Finally, our schools have a three-part focus. As I said before, we're interested in cultivating Renaissance people, who find the world interesting, develop mastery in multiple subjects, and seek a life of meaning. Or, even briefer: we're all about love, mastery (and this note), and meaning (though initially that was called "wisdom").

Oh — as to what being in the schools will actually entail (aka "WHAT OUR IDEAS ACTUALLY LOOK LIKE"), check out the flurry of short posts in June and July of this year (2015).

Anyhoo, browse! Enjoy! And if you're interested, like us on Facebook, to get updates.

Natural vs. unnatural (and why this is a smidgen too simple)


Is this whole natural/unnatural divide simplistic? Yeah. But it's a helpful place to begin — even if we need to move beyond it.

In my last post, I cited a distinction made by cognitive (and evolutionary) psychologist David C. Geary: humans are biologically prepared to do some things, but not others. Things that we're designed to do (walking, singing, telling stories) he calls primary abilities. Things that we're not designed to do (riding unicycles, juggling, Newtonian physics) he calls secondary activities.

This distinction isn't just academic: it lies at the heart of what our schools (any schools!) see as their purpose. In fact, this distinction neatly encapsulates a major divide between two major philosophies of education.

One type of school thinks that learning is unnatural. These schools (let's call them "teacher-centered" schools) think a school's job is to instruct. If schools don't do a good job of directly instructing students (they think), the students aren't apt to learn much.

The other type of school thinks that learning is natural. These schools (let's call them "child-centered" schools) think a school's job is to provide an environment for learning, and then get out of the way. If schools succeed in doing a good job of directly instructing students (they think), the students aren't apt to learn much — because students learn best on their own!

So what is it: is learning unnatural, or natural?

This is a question of human nature. And in my last post, I suggested that, well, human nature is complex. Some things are natural for us, and other things are unnatural. Success in schooling depends (I suggested) on figuring out which is which.

But that's not so simple.

It's not (for example) that art is a primary ability, and math is a secondary activity. Entire subjects don't fall neatly into one camp or the other.

Rather, each subject demands multiple skills. For example, in an English class, students read, write, discuss, reason, empathize, and so on. Each skill may be primary or secondary. 

In fact, it's more complicated than that. Each skill is made up of sub-skills. Writing, for example, is made up of spelling, handwriting/typing, syntax, idea generation, idea organization, and so on.) Each sub-skill may be primary or secondary. 

And in fact, it's even more complicated than that! Typically, a sub-skill isn't purely natural or unnatural. Human nature doesn't usually work like that. There are a few things that we do wholly naturally: breathing, for example. A person raised on a desert island would breathe just fine.

Wel, obviously, schools don't need to teach breathing.

But other primary skills seem designed to be activated and shaped by cultures: dancing, for example. All cultures dance — but it's not clear that a person raised on a desert island would dance by themselves.

So is dancing primary or secondary? Well, it contains elements of both. The urge to shake and jump and wiggle — all in tandem with other people — may be primary. But specific elements of motion (for example, pliés in ballet, promenades in square dancing, and arials in swing dancing) may be secondary.

Why does this matter? Because we need to tap into students' primary abilities, and be prepared to systematically teach secondary abilities.

In teaching dancing, for example (as will be an important aspect of our schools), we'll need to capitalize on young students' desire to shake and jump and wiggle, and on older students' desire to touch each other. (That schools typically ban touching seems a sure sign that they're evolutionarily off-kilter.)

But we won't assume that undirected wiggling will automatically bloom into beautiful dancing. Rather, we'll be prepared to teach elements of more formal dancing from a host of cultural styles — circle and line and ballet, salsa and swing and waltz, flamenco and mambo and Bollywood.

As I said before, we'll start with abandon, and move into structure.

If we don't tap into students' primary abilities, we'll be passing up our greatest resource. This is the mistake that teacher-centered education makes.

And if we don't systematically teach secondary abilities — if we expect them to just grow up naturally — we'll be denying our students the education they're ready for. This is the mistake that child-centered education makes.

Our job — as a new kind of school that takes human nature seriously — is to draw upon primary abilities, and systematically teach secondary abilities.

Next, I hope to explore how this can look in teaching writing.

(Props to David Geary: his categories of "primary" and "secondary" abilities are designed to reflect this messy reality. They're not "pure" categories. It took an earlier debate on this blog — about whether math instruction is "natural" or "unnatural" — for me to realize that. Props, too, to Catherine Lewis, who helped me see that.)