Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

What is a Learning Community?

Why Communal Learning Works

geralt / pixabay
Source: geralt / pixabay

I recently attended a meeting in which professors from all across campus briefly introduced themselves, including their research and teaching interests. I was struck when one of my colleagues, Tom, a highly respected and decorated teacher on our campus, talked about an emphasis on the classroom as a learning community. My friend Peter, another highly decorated professor at New Paltz, also conceptualizes the teaching/learning process in terms of “learning communities.” And so do I.

This post has two basic functions. First, I describe the concept of a learning community - particularly as it can be understood from an evolutionary perspective. Next, I put a face to this concept by discussing features of my own teaching that show the hallmarks of communal learning.

Education in Evolutionary Perspective

As discussed in my prior post titled Darwin’s Classroom, research on education in nomadic, pre-westernized societies across the globe has demonstrated that formal, structured education comparable to public education in the US simply does not exist in such societies (see Gray, 2013). And this fact can be extrapolated to ancestral times that surrounded our pre-agrarian, nomadic ancestors during the lion’s share of human evolutionary history. Our educational system is, in short, unnatural in many ways.

Our educational system is, specifically, unnatural, or mismatched from ancestral educational contexts, in terms of the following:

  • Modern education focuses on secondary knowledge as opposed to primary or practical knowledge (we are more likely to learn about processes and concepts that underlie government, for instance, than to participate in the actual political process).
  • Modern education includes much less unstructured time than is found in pre-westernized contexts.
  • Modern education systems focus on the individual - and while some group work exists, students are typically graded as individuals and the ultimate focus is on the individual.
  • Age stratification exists in modern educational contexts - students are surrounded all week long by others who are their same age.
  • Teachers are generally adults and are not typically other kids.

Each of these features of our modern educational systems has been demonstrated to be incongruous with our best estimates of ancestral educational systems (Gray, 2013). Further, in a recent study of academic success among American college students, My student Katie Gruskin and I (2017) found that students whose elementary school experiences were better matched to ancestral educational features generally had more positive impressions of their education at all levels and they generally demonstrated relatively strong academic performance.

The Communal Classroom and Evolutionary Psychology at SUNY New Paltz

A core feature of the ancestral classroom pertains to communal learning. In pre-westernized societies around the globe, there are often no terms for “school” or “education” - typically in these societies, kids go out each day and play with other kids - in groups that include kids from all ages. In such societies, kids learn the skills that are needed from one another. And they often particularly learn from older kids (Gray, 2013). A nine-year-old might teach a seven-year-old and a 16-year-old might teach a 12-year-old. And so forth.

The New Paltz Evolutionary Psych Lab - Carl Cox Studios - Rosendale
Source: The New Paltz Evolutionary Psych Lab - Carl Cox Studios - Rosendale

In our lab, there is an extraordinary amount of learning that takes place in a cross-generational manner. These days, if an undergraduate in my lab needs to learn how to conduct a t-test using SPSS, I can often rely on an advanced undergraduate or a graduate student to help with the process. A new student in the lab will always look to the advanced students for guidance on how things work. And you know, as far as I can tell, this system works pretty well! We publish lots of research and we present all kinds of findings at conferences. Students from the lab regularly get into advanced graduate programs, win awards for excellence, and have a long record of success. And, honestly, we have a lot of fun!

And, as much as I can, I bring members of my research team into the regular classes that I teach (such as my undergraduate Evolutionary Psychology class). In this capacity, the members of my research team will often work as course assistants, playing various roles in the class - ultimately helping the students in the class advance in their understanding of the material. My research students take the role of course assistant seriously, holding office hours, meeting with students outside of class time to help discuss the content of the class, overseeing online discussion to help the students develop their ideas, etc. They feel empowered in this role and, honestly, they consistently do above-and-beyond work when empowered in this way.

The inclusion of course assistants in this manner helps create a multi-generational and communal element to the teaching of the classes. Members of my research team hold student status and, thus, the students in the class feel that they can interact with them as peers, so the peer-to-peer learning element that is typical in pre-westernized learning environments is included in this format.

On occasion, I will also ask members of my research team to talk about their research projects to my classes. And this is always met with great success. No matter how much I try to be non-intimidating in the classroom, I’m still a 48-year-old full professor. But members of my research team are not! And when a member of my team presents research in my class, the connection with the students is palpable. It’s as if the students are thinking, “wow - look at this peer of mine doing this amazing research and presenting it in such a polished and professional way! If she can do it, then I bet I can!” And when students in my classes get excited about presentations by members of my research team, many of them will often ask how they might get more involved in my work. And yes, this is often how students end up joining the team!

As I’ve written about before, our campus’ interdisciplinary evolutionary studies (EvoS) program is similarly structured in a learning-community manner - including many opportunities for students and faculty to interact inside and outside of the classroom - with all kinds of intellectual discussion and learning taking place along the way.

Bottom Line

The idea of learning being an individualistic activity, with a focus on the intellectual development of one person in isolation is, for various reasons, problematic. If you are in the field of education, I strongly urge you to think about learning not from an individualistic perspective, but, rather, from a communal perspective. After all, during the lion’s share of human evolutionary history, communal learning was the only game in town. And in many ways, our minds evolved to best learn in such a way. Based on my work with students on my research team here at SUNY New Paltz, going back to 2000, I can confidently say that I would not have it any other way.


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.