Once you’ve got a good handle on the evolutionary perspective applied to humanity, you can start to examine any and all aspects of the human condition from this angle, often leading to novel, totally out-of-the-box ideas on important aspects of who we are. One of the greatest scholars in the field of evolutionary psychology, who also happens to be a prolific Psychology Today blogger, Peter Gray, has taken this approach and applied it to the all-important field of education—with extremely provocative results.

Gray’s basic approach, which fits quite well with the theme of this blog series (Evolutionary Psychology and the Human Condition), rests on the idea of evolutionary mismatch. In questioning the nature of modern educational systems, Gray posed the following question: Is our modern, Westernized educational system similar to how education transpires in non-Westernized societies, which are our best models for what all ancestral, pre-agrarian human societies were like? In other words, do our modern educational structures match—or mismatch—traditional educational structures? And if there is a mismatch, what is the nature of it?

To get a full sense of this area of evolutionary educational psychology, you really should read Gray’s work directly! In short, he finds that modern educational structures mis-match traditional educational structures in many systematic, consistent, and significant ways. For instance, in examinations of traditional educational structures found across varied non-Westernized societies, Gray found that in traditional societies:

  • Nothing such as “school” or a formal context for educational activities exists.
  • Rarely are children found in age-stratified contexts; being surrounded by only other children who are their own age is not something that happens regularly in traditional societies.
  • Most skills taught to children are transmitted by other children (who are often slightly older); adults provide much less in the way of direct teaching children in such societies than in modern societies.
  • No distinction between learning and play exists.
  • Boys are not penalized for running around rambunctiously for hours on end.

Gray’s landmark work, summarized in his book Free to Learn, has clear and important implications for understanding the nature of modern education. When it comes to our most substantial and influential societal structures, such as our educational system, we'd do well to step back and consider just how natural such structures are.

We are, after all, products of biological evolutionary forces shaped by selective pressures that existed in very specific environmental conditions—conditions that, in many ways, have little bearing on what your world may be like today. Perhaps this point can shed significant light on how we educate our young.

This blog entry is part of a series of blogs titled Evolutionary Psychology and the Human Condition.

References and Further Reading

Geher, G. (2014). Evolutionary Psychology 101. New York: Springer.

Gray, P. (2011). Free to Learn. New York: Basic Books.


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