Darwin's Classroom

A new study reveals the big problem with modern education

Posted Nov 18, 2017

stevepb / pixabay
Source: stevepb / pixabay

Think back to elementary school. You remember, right? Practicing your cursive letters. Playing kickball on the blacktop. Being told to stop chewing gum because somehow that impedes learning ... etc.

Here’s one thing you probably don’t think about: How much your elementary school education mapped onto features that characterized the educational contexts of our ancestors across the lion’s share of human evolutionary history. You may not have thought about this before, right?

Well according to the results of a new study that just came out in Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences (yes, it happened to be conducted by my super-student Katie Gruskin and myself; Gruskin & Geher, 2017), the degree to which your elementary education mapped onto features of ancestral educational contexts relates to all kinds of important academic outcomes.

Glenn Geher (Katie Gruskin and Glenn Geher at SUNY New Paltz)
Source: Glenn Geher (Katie Gruskin and Glenn Geher at SUNY New Paltz)

Features of Ancestral Education

In an eye-opening expose of the evolution and education interface, Peter Gray (2013) studied educational systems in nomadic groups across the world. As an evolutionist, he did this using modern nomadic groups as a proxy for ancestral human groups. You see, before the advent of agriculture  about 10,000 years ago, all humans lived in nomadic groups. As such, modern nomadic groups provide insights into the kinds of groups that ancestral humans lived in during the lion’s share of human evolutionary history.

Gray’s research led to a fascinating conclusion: In not a single modern nomadic group has anything like modern education been documented. Most such groups don't even have a concept of education as an independent entity. Education happens in such societies, for sure, but it never happens in the kinds of ways that our formal educational systems in Westernized cultures are famous for.

In nomadic groups, kids tend to learn from other kids - often older kids. In fact, the kind of age-stratification that characterizes modern learning (e.g., now you are with only 10-year olds and one adult for eight hours every day - next year you will be surrounded by only 11-year olds and one adult for eight hours every day - etc.) is fully non-existent. Further, learning across a broad range of modern nomadic groups is predominantly of the hands-on variety.

The basic research question in the current study (which, by the way, was Katie’s undergraduate honors thesis) was whether current college students who had elementary educational experiences that mapped onto the kinds of experiences that our ancestors were likely to have had reported more positive experiences across their academic careers compared with students who reported having more formal elementary school experiences.

Based on an extensive examination of the features of education in nomadic contexts, Katie came up with a scale that included the following items:

Was your elementary experience characterized by ...

  • Academic interactions with different-age peers
  • Interactions with different-age peers for play
  • Academic collaboration within same-age peers
  • Free play
  • Student voice in learning
  • Hands-on learning
  • Assessment based on projects
  • Explicit real-world applications for learning
  • Use of manipulatives (i.e., place-value blocks, pattern blocks, etc.)

Over 300 college students participated. After completing this measure regarding how much their educational background matched these features of our educational past, they completed indices of how much they enjoyed school, at various levels, and they provided information regarding academic success.

Participants who reported as having elementary school experiences that matched an evolutionary framework reported enjoying school more than did others in the sample. And this was true for their ratings of elementary school on up. Further, they reported higher high school GPAs than did their counterparts who described having more formal elementary education. Finally, via a mediational analysis, it appeared that evolutionary relevance of one’s elementary education indirectly had a positive effect on college GPA.

Bottom Line

The field of evolutionary psychology has the capacity to get us to re-examine any and all aspects of modern living (see Geher, 2014). Scholarship on educational systems that uses an evolutionary lens is helping us understand educational processes in ways that were never even considered a few decades ago (see Muller, 2010).

If you’re a teacher, there are clear implications for your work here. If you utilize hands-on, group projects - and you downplay the dividing line between “work” and “play,” I suggest that you stay on that course. Further, hopefully you now have insights into human evolutionary processes that can help us understand why such techniques work. Such techniques work partly because they match the kinds of learning techniques that humans evolved to anticipate.

Care about education? Then the takeaway is this: Take some time to understand how education is part of the human evolutionary story. As is the case with all other domains of humanity, evolution matters. 


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

Gray, P. (2013). Free to learn. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Gruskin, K., & Geher, G. (2017, October 5). The Evolved Classroom: Using Evolutionary Theory to Inform Elementary Pedagogy. Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/ebs0000111

Muller, K. (2010). Evolutionary educational psychology: The disparity between how children want to learn and how they are being taught. EvoS Journal: The Journal of Evolutionary Studies Consortium, 2, 12–23.