Darwin’s Tips for Kindergarten Teachers
Ten ways evolutionary psychology informs early education.
Posted May 24, 2018
For the past week, I have been teaching a course in evolutionary psychology to 80 bright and eager early education students at China’s renowned Chongqing University of Education. This experience has made me a true believer in the fact that people are people wherever you go.
The students in this class are future educators in the most populous nation on the planet. The next generation of leaders is in their hands. So I have been taking this job seriously.
Today, I put together a presentation for them that focused on how the work from evolutionary psychology can help inform their futures as educators of young children. Here are 10 ways that Darwin’s big idea can help make improvements to childhood education. Across all reaches of the globe.
1. Emotions level the educational playing field
The experience and expression of emotions are universal across human cultures (see Ekman & Friesen, 1986; Darwin, 1871). If you are a teacher, at some point, you will run into a student who is not a native speaker of your language. You will encounter a student who is from a culture that is dramatically different from your own. That’s OK. If you and your student are both willing to work, you’ll find a common bond in the world of emotional communication. The expression of emotions in humans is remarkably powerful and communicative. And it plays a major role in the transmission of ideas. Emotion-based communication has the potential to level the playing field when it comes to education.
2. We are an altricial species
Humans are, in the language of evolutionary scholars, an “altricial” species. Our young develop slowly and needs lots of attention and care. This all is the result of such happenstances as bipedal locomotion and a small birth canal. And it is, ultimately, the reason that intensive early education matters in our species.
3. Modern education is evolutionarily mismatched
Prior to the evolutionarily recent dawn of agriculture and “civilization,” all humans were nomads, living in small groups (see Gruskin & Geher, 2017; Gray, 2013). Under such conditions, education was never a formal enterprise. Under ancestral conditions, children learned largely from other children—and they learned while engaged in play. Formal modern education, across all reaches of the globe, is, in many ways, removed from this kind of educational environment. If we want to improve education, we’d be wise to look to our ancestral past.
4. Reciprocal altruism matters
One of the foundational aspects of being human is this: We are members of a species that has engaged in reciprocal altruism, the helping of others with an expectation of help in return, for millennia (see Trivers, 1971). Sharing and helping others is a basic feature of what it means to be human. Understanding the evolutionary roots of reciprocal altruism can go a long way in helping a teacher get kids to understand why the helping of others matters.
5. Kids come from backgrounds that differ in terms of life history
If public education ever nosedives, we are all pretty much done for. Education in most countries is compulsory. For good reason. This said, it is important to note that while humans are generally a slow-developing species, with parents devoting special attention to offspring, some people (from all cultures) come from unstable and harsh environments. In such contexts, people are more likely to develop a “fast life history strategy”—having lots of kids and providing less support to each individual kid. And that fact has implications for child development. Understanding the evolutionary roots of life-history differences in humans can be crucial for public school teachers in grasping the diversity of conditions their students come from.
6. Humans evolved for small-scale societies
Under ancestral conditions, humans lived in small-scale societies, rarely exceeding 150 individuals (see Dunbar, 1993). In such contexts, simply, people benefited from being nice to each other. After all, if you only have 149 others to work with—for the rest of your life—you can’t really afford to be a diva! Teaching kids about the importance of putting the interests of the group ahead of the interests of oneself is a basic part of early education. Our evolutionary history of being part of a species shaped for small-scale social living helps explain us why.
7. Parental investment and early education
Human beings spend an awful lot of their time investing in their young (see Trivers, 1972). This fact is particularly true of women, who spend a disproportionately large amount of time with kids relative to what is found in men (see Geher, 2014). This gender difference owes largely to the fact that women invest more in children biologically as a result of pregnancy and childbirth. In combination, this all can help us understand why women are so disproportionately represented in the field of education. Gender differences in parental investment sheds light on the issue of who is educating our children—and why.
8. Strategic pluralism and early education
Evolutionists are keen on the concept of strategic pluralism - the fact that multiple strategies can, independently, lead to success in the living world (see Gangestad & Simpson, 2000). When it comes to educating the next generation of leaders, we often focus on developing academic success and “book smarts.” Sure, this stuff matters, but it is not the only route to success. Some kids are natural leaders in the world of social and emotional interactions, while lagging in their academics. That’s OK. That is strategic pluralism playing out in the human experience. There is a place in the world for these kids too. There are multiple routes to success in life. And teachers need to understand this fact.
9. Why parents care so much
If you are a teacher-in-the-making, then you better expect to be dealing with lots of parents in your career.
- They will tell you that their kid is special.
- They will tell you that you are doing something wrong.
- They will tell you that their kid has been treated wrongly and that you need to act.
- They will tell you that their kid is the best!
- And so on …
Parents care a ton about their own kids. And the evolutionary perspective can tell us why (see Dawkins, 1976). Evolution has shaped humans in the same way that it has shaped all living things: To increase one’s own genetic footprint in the next generation. Our kids are, at the end of the day, the primary vehicle for this process. Plan to be a teacher? Get ready to deal with parents! Lots of parents!!
10. When it comes to education, question everything!
The evolutionary perspective encourages people to step back. If you are a student in an education program, then you need to realize that you will soon be charged with the task of building the future leaders of this world. And there is no higher calling.
As part of this, you need to realize that human beings are part of the evolution of life. And understanding evolution, and its effects on human psychology, is critical to understanding how to best educate our children. So when it comes to thinking about education, note that you need to always consider evolutionary forces. And don’t be afraid to question everything that you have already learned. Remember, building critical thinkers is part of our job as educators!
Evolutionary psychology has emerged as a powerful force in explaining all kinds of human-related phenomena. And when it comes to the human condition, early education is as important as anything. What is the next step in the field of early education? While there are several possible contenders to this question, I think that integrating evolutionary principles into our understanding of early childhood education is the next great path forward in scholarship in the field of early childhood education.
Darwin, C. (1872). The expression of the emotions in man and animals. London, UK: John Murray.
Dawkins, R. (1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Dunbar, R. I. M. (1992). Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates. Journal of Human Evolution, 22(6), 469–493.
Ekman, P., & Friesen, W.V. (1986). A new pan cultural facial expression of emotion. Motivation and Emotion, 10, 159-168.
Gangestad, S.W., & Simpson, J. A. (2000). The evolution of human mating: Trade-offs and strategic pluralism. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 23, 573–644.
Geher, G. (2014). Evolutionary Psychology 101. New York: Springer.
Gray, P. (2013). Free to learn. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Gruskin, K., & Geher, G. (2018). The Evolved Classroom: Using Evolutionary Theory to Inform Elementary Pedagogy. Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, 12, 1-13.
Trivers, R. L. (1971). The evolution of reciprocal altruism. Quarterly Review of Biology, 46, 35–57.
Trivers, R. (1972). Parental investment and sexual selection. In B. Campbell (Ed.), Sexual selection and the descent of man: 1871-1971 (pp. 136-179). Chicago: Aldine.