Sudbury, evolution and education

When you think of education you probably don’t think about evolution, about names and things like Charles Darwin, descent with modification, genes, survival of the fittest, natural selection, origin of species, mutation, diversity, genetic drift, or any other of hundreds of similar words.

For education is not now tightly tied to evolution, or evolutionary science. It should be. If ever education were to become a branch of evolutionary science this would be the mother of all educational reforms. Why then we might even start turning out knowledgeable and skillful graduates from our “schools.” In quotation marks because we don’t yet know what these “schools” would look like.

While not widely recognized as such education is, no less than evolution, what happens over time. Education is change over time, over our lifetimes rather than our years in school (which may or may not be educational), as we learn and become, at best, what we were meant to be, free and independent beings, people able to live and survive as well as to leave others like ourselves behind to carry on in our places.

If we were to look at education through evolutionary glasses what would it look like? Well it should have fundamental and recognizable characteristics of what has worked up until now, just how men have succeeded, when they have succeeded, in providing the young with the knowledge and skills needed to take on the responsibilities of the old, of those who came, and how to replace them in the vital business of individual and group survival and growth.

When Horace Mann fashioned our very first public school what was he looking at for as a model from the past? Good question. Was he looking at anything from our evolutionary past, which at the time was tens of thousands of years at least. What he did was put children of the same age, as many as 20 or more, in the same room with the same teacher whose job it was to give the children an education in everything, how to count, read, write, how to sing, play, and draw, no end of things then, and still today no end of things the children had to learn. Try doing it yourself sometime, and even without the other 19 kids, all different from your kid, and you’ll see just how impossible is the educational task we have set for ourselves….

This is a “long read.” It’s almost the entire Chapter 14, “Learning from Mother Nature about Teaching Our Children” from evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson’s book, The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time.

ONLY A YEAR AFTER the Evolution Institute was conceived, Jerry Lieberman and I held our inaugural workshop at the University of Miami.

I was amazed by how fast it came together. We quickly decided to focus on the topic of childhood education, an issue highly relevant to Binghamton and all other cities, as a proof of concept for how any public-policy issue can be approached from an evolutionary perspective. Jerry quickly raised the funds. I quickly located the evolutionary expertise. Now the dream of an evolutionary think tank was about to become a reality.

We all desire a quality education for our children and our nation as a whole. Billions of dollars are spent to achieve it, including millions of research dollars for scientists to study it. There are more theories of education than flavors of ice cream. Despite all of this goodwill, expense, and expertise, many schools flunk on the basis of their performance, and few earn an A+. Wasn’t it presumptuous to claim that evolutionary theory could succeed when so many previous efforts had failed?

To make matters less certain, I had studied religion long enough to have a strong sense of how it could be approached from an evolutionary perspective, but I had not studied education with the same thoroughness and had to rely on the experts I had convened…

The seventh participant in our workshop was Peter Gray, a psychologist who wrote the first introductory psychology textbook that prominently featured evolution. The other participants might have known about Peter’s textbook, but they didn’t know about his interest in childhood education. For most of his career, Peter conducted research on the neuroendocrine system of rats. He didn’t start thinking about childhood education until his son Scott began to experience problems in elementary school. At first, Peter was merely trying to help his son, but the solution that he found caused him to appreciate just how much we can learn from Mother Nature about teaching our children….

In the sixth edition of Peter’s textbook (Psychology), there is a section titled “The Idea That the Machinery of the Mind Evolved through Natural Selection” begins on page 8. Placing evolution at the forefront was so radical in the late 1980s, when he was writing the first edition, that he had to fight with his publisher to retain it.

Peter was sailing through life on an even keel until his son Scott began to develop problems in elementary school. Scott had a voracious mind, as one might expect with his father and equally intellectual mother. Yet when Scott started school, he began to rebel almost immediately. He didn’t necessarily do things that the other children were doing or the way the teacher said to do them. He would solve math problems in a different way from how the teacher instructed, which would be marked wrong even though he got the right answer. He wouldn’t do an assignment assignment at all if he thought it was silly. He began to write in all lower-case letters. like poet e. e. cummings, just to rebel. The school started testing him for psychopathology, and the other students started to peg him as weird.

The problem culminated in a meeting when Scott was in fourth grade. One little boy was surrounded by a circle of adults—his parents, the principal, his teacher, the school guidance counselor, an external guidance counselor—all telling him to behave.

“Go to hell!” the defiant boy replied.

Peter and his wife burst into tears. At that moment, Peter realized that the school, not his son, might be the problem and that he needed to take his son’s side. But what was the alternative? Homeschooling had not yet become common, and private school didn’t seem much different from public school.

BY SHEER CHANCE, Peter lived close to an alternative school called the Sudbury Valley School, which was founded in 1968 by physicist Daniel A. Greenberg. In an odd intertwining of fate, at about the same time that Peter was becoming tired of classes at Columbia University, Greenberg was becoming disillusioned with academic life as a professor. His students were interested primarily in their grades, and his colleagues seemed like rats pressing a bar in their incessant quest for grants and publications. Aristotle said that “the human being is by nature curious,” but this motive seemed to have been beaten out of students by the time they arrived at college. Greenberg felt so strongly about this that he walked away from his job at Columbia and moved to Sudbury, a relative wilderness at the time, to indulge his own curiosity about human nature, human history, democratic values, and education. He started the Sudbury Valley School with like-minded associates when his own children reached school age.

The Sudbury Valley School is located on an old farmstead with a big house, a barn, and lots of land. Students make their own choices and have the liberty (and responsibility) to do what they wish with their time, as long as it is not disruptive to others or to the school community. The rules of the community arise from the democratic institutions of the school, described in this way on its Web site:

The school is governed on the model of a traditional New England Town Meeting. The daily affairs of the school are managed by the weekly School Meeting, at which each student and staff member has one vote. Rules of behavior, use of facilities, expenditures, staff hiring, and all the routines of running an institution are determined by debate and vote at the School Meeting. At Sudbury Valley, students share fully the responsibility for effective operation of the school and for the quality of life at school.

Infractions of the rules are dealt with through the School Meeting’s judicial system, in which all members of the school community participate. The fair administration of justice is a key feature of Sudbury Valley and contributes much to the students’ confidence in the school. Parents participate in setting school policies.

Legally, the school is a non-profit corporation, and every parent becomes a voting member of the Assembly, as the corporate membership is called. The Assembly also includes students, staff, and other elected members. It meets at least once a year to decide all questions of broad operational and fiscal policy.

That’s right, everyone in the school has an equal vote, from a four-year-old on up, and every major decision is voted on, including the hiring and firing of the teachers. Rules must be obeyed, but they are agreed on by consensus, and the judicial process is as fair as the decision-making process. The governance of the Sudbury Valley School is like an extreme version of the Good Behavior Game.

Apart from the rules of conduct passed democratically by the school community, the school does not structure the lives of the students in any way. Instead, the school relies on students to structure their own lives in their own time and to develop self-discipline. Students are left free to develop as they will, as full members of the community, living, working, and playing according to their own wishes—as if on a summer day in Minnesota. The adult staff is primarily responsible for caring for the institution, like the professionals hired by a town to care for the town. They manage the school’s building and plant, respond to emergencies, tend to scraped knees, and oversee the purchase of equipment that the School Meeting has decided on. To the degree that they teach, they do so by responding to students’ questions and requests. Partly because the students learn from one another in this age-mixed setting and partly because the School Meeting is very careful about expenditures, the school can operate at a fraction of the cost of traditional schools, with a tuition in 2011 of less than $7000 per student. That’s less than half the cost of a public-school education, not to speak of the $40,000 price tag of an elite boarding school.

Scott was wild to attend this school, and Peter reluctantly agreed. Despite his own liberal leanings, it sounded too good to be true. What would prevent the students from goofing off? They might learn the fun stuff, such as computer games, but how about the tough stuff, such as math? How could they get into college without grades? What kinds of careers would they have?

Peter began to study the school out of concern for his son. He did a comprehensive survey of the alumni and discovered that their college admission rate and adult careers compared very favorably with those of other schools. As his concern for his son subsided, his intellectual interest in the school grew.

He began to think more deeply about the nature of education. We are a cultural species. Our capacity for culture evolved by genetic evolution. Given that capacity, most of our behaviors come from our cultures, not directly from our genes. We are such a cultural species that our life cycle is stretched out. We remain immature until our late teens and live into our eighties to give children extra time to learn and adults extra time to teach. How does education take place in other cultures? How does it take place in hunter-gatherer cultures, which was the lifestyle of all humans before the advent of agriculture?

When Peter consulted the anthropological literature, what he found looked a lot like the Sudbury Valley School. There was very little that resembled formal education. Kids ran around in mixed-age groups. The older kids were strongly motivated to become adults, and the younger kids were strongly motivated to be like the older kids. Most learning took place in the context of play and practice. Adults provided instruction when asked, just like the adult staff of the Sudbury Valley School. Against the background of the anthropological literature, it was our system of formal education that seemed weird.

Mixed-age interactions seemed especially important for this kind of spontaneous education. Learning is a step-by-step process. Learning the next step is easy, but learning ten steps ahead is impossible. Adults are many steps ahead of small children, but slightly older children are a single step ahead. Kids love to be in the company of slightly older kids, whereas adults can be threatening. And every teacher knows that the most effective way to learn something is by teaching it, so older kids gain by teaching younger kids.

You might think that bullying would be a problem, but it turns out that mixed-age interactions tend to moderate bullying. A fourteen-year-old might try to bully other fourteen-year-olds to take their stuff, establish dominance, or impress the girls, but he’s not going to bully an eighteen-year-old. Eighteen-year-olds aren’t going to bully other eighteen-year-olds when eight-year-olds are in the vicinity. Same-age interactions bring out the competition, and mixed- age interactions bring out the nurturance in kids. Mixed-age interactions also accommodate individual differences. Slow learners can proceed at their own pace without being stigmatized. There is elbowroom to make the most of one’s strengths and avoid exposing one’s weaknesses.

THE INSIGHT THAT MOST CULTURALLY acquired information is transmitted across generations spontaneously, without requiring a formal system of education, stunned me when I first heard Peter tell his story. My mind flooded with questions that never would have occurred to me otherwise. I found it difficult to shake the conviction that it was too good to be true. Yet the more I thought about it, the more it accorded with my own experience. I hated formal classes, and everything I did well had been learned in the context of play or practice at something I really wanted to do. Oddly enough, while K-12 and college education departed from the hunter-gatherer mode, graduate education returned to it. Most of what I learned in graduate school was acquired not from lectures but from older graduate students and other people who knew the next thing I needed to learn. I was always guiding the process. No one knew my next step better than I.

This was true even for the most difficult subjects, such as mathematics. I took only one math course in college—freshman calculus—and it almost killed me. In graduate school, I had a strong reason to learn math, so I did. I purchased Calculus for Dummies, practiced hard, and pestered more knowledgeable graduate students when I got stuck. It wasn’t exactly fun, but every time I figured something out, I had a feeling of triumph that motivated me to take the next step. I published my first theoretical paper while still a graduate student, and now I’m a well-known theoretical biologist. Peter received the most elite graduate education possible, and it came closer to the hunter-gatherer mode than his less advanced education. Whenever my evolutionist colleagues and I decide to study a new subject or organism, which is often, we learn in hunter-gatherer mode, not by taking formal courses.

When I learned more about the Sudbury Valley School, I realized that it was essentially making graduate-style education available to younger kids. Here’s a story that appeared in a 2006 article on the Sudbury Valley School published in Psychology Today:

Outsiders commonly choke upon hearing that no one even teaches reading. Sometimes insiders get a bit antsy, too. When Ben was in the second or third grade, anxiety temporarily overtook his well-read father, who offered the boy a dime for every 15 minutes he’d spend reading at home. Ben accepted the bribe long enough to prove that he could do it. But true to the Sudbury spirit, his reading proficiency took a huge leap forward only after he began playing with airplanes and then an electronic flight simulator—because that led him to read the flight manual. And that led to the discovery of flight simulator communities on the internet, which led to mock airplane battles, which led to communicating communicating with squadron leaders, which led to spelling and writing, which ultimately got Ben into Swarthmore, where he is now finishing his freshman year.

Is this any different from the way I learned math or Peter learned advanced experimental techniques?

Once I began to accept the possibility that education at all levels can be this spontaneous, another mystery confronted me: How can our formal educational system go so wrong? For example, why do we segregate kids by age when mixed-age interactions are so beneficial? The answer, I quickly realized, is that age segregation has a surface logic, and the negative consequences are not easily traced to the cause. Let’s say that you’re a school administrator who decides to segregate kids into classes by age because it makes the bookkeeping easier. That’s an obvious benefit. After several months, you learn to your dismay that academic performance has declined and an epidemic of bullying has broken out. The connection between those problems and your age-segregation policy is not obvious. You might well decide to continue the policy on the strength of the obvious benefit, oblivious to its hidden costs.

Policies are like wishes. You make one, and poof! It comes true, and the consequences might not be what you had in mind. Suppose that your policy for increasing academic performance is to cut back on recess so that the kids spend more time in class. Poof! Your wish has come true, but in fact you made things worse, because kids need to move, and learning takes place best in the context of play. Now that some kids are squirming uncontrollably in their chairs, suppose your policy is to medicate them. Poof! Your wish has come true, but now you are meddling with extremely complicated brain processes to solve a problem that could have been solved environmentally. Suppose that you implement a no-touch rule to avoid sexual harassment. Poof! Your wish has come true, but you didn’t reckon on the fact that people, like other social primates, become physiologically stressed when they aren’t touched. Suppose you decide that student progress must be monitored and implement a system of standardized tests. Poof! Your wish has come true, but the entire educational system becomes selected by consequences to focus on test scores, to the detriment of other forms of learning. Poof! Poof! Poof! Our educational system is like a folktale about wishes gone horribly wrong.

How can we find our way out of this maze of unforeseen consequences? It might seem that the best practices would prevail over the long run. Isn’t that what cultural evolution is all about? Perhaps, but cultural evolution must be managed to function properly in modern society, as we have seen. The Sudbury Valley School has become a model for about thirty-five other schools worldwide since its inception in 1968. That’s pretty good, but centuries will be required for it to become truly widespread at that rate. Montessori schools feature mixed-aged interactions, child-directed learning, and learning in the context of movement and play. That’s pretty good, but why aren’t these practices more widespread since Maria Montessori developed them more than 100 years ago? Experienced public-school teachers might arrange to have fifth-grade students read to the first-graders. That’s pretty good, but why aren’t child-mentoring programs implemented more widely in public schools or the problems of same-age interactions more generally appreciated? Once again, we are faced with the paradox of practices that work but don’t spread.

This is where a theory becomes useful. Peter’s story demonstrates the usefulness of a theory that shows how good practices work, rather than just knowing that they work. When his son was experiencing problems, Peter was lost in a maze of unforeseen consequences. He didn’t know if the problem was caused by his son, his own parenting skills, the school, something in the water, or an infinitude of other potential potential causes. The Sudbury Valley School provided a solution. Peter demonstrated that the school worked when he carefully studied the alumni, but he still didn’t know how it worked. Daniel Greenberg, the school’s founder and principal architect, designed the school and therefore had strong ideas about how it worked.

Greenberg had a theory that he developed on the basis of his deep reading and reflection, which emphasized the principle of democracy and Aristotle’s belief that “the human being is by nature curious.”

Greenberg’s theory was good enough to design a great school, but Peter took theorizing to a new level. Philosophers such as Aristotle, political theorists such as the American forefathers, and educational theorists such as John Dewey based their ideas on their understanding of human nature. Peter was providing an potential causes. The Sudbury Valley School provided a solution. Peter demonstrated that the school worked when he carefully studied the alumni, but he still didn’t know how it worked. Daniel Greenberg, the school’s founder and principal architect, designed the school and therefore had strong ideas about how it worked. Greenberg had a theory that he developed on the basis of his deep reading and reflection, which emphasized the principle of democracy and Aristotle’s belief that “the human being is by nature curious.” Greenberg’s theory was good enough to design a great school, but Peter took theorizing to a new level. Philosophers such as Aristotle, political theorists such as the American forefathers, and educational theorists such as John Dewey based their ideas on their understanding of human nature. Peter was providing an updated conception of human nature, based on current scientific knowledge. Peter could go beyond Aristotle’s observation that human beings are by nature curious. Peter could say that we are designed in a more complex way to learn as individuals and to acquire information from others. Political theorists traced democracy to the Greeks. Peter traced democracy to fiercely egalitarian instincts that evolved by genetic evolution. The wise people of the past would have made use of this information had it been available to them. So should we.

Peter was able to show that our instincts for learning and teaching functioned spontaneously for most of human existence, without requiring a formal system of education. How they work today depends on the environment that we construct. The Sudbury Valley School constructs a benign environment, enabling us to do what comes naturally to us. Our current educational system constructs a hostile environment in many respects, resulting in the dumbfounding of our instincts, like the immune system attacking its own body. Intervention programs such as the Good Behavior Game vastly improve the formal educational environment using some of the same principles as the Sudbury Valley School. They can be regarded as a renovation of a previous construction, rather than a new construction from the ground up.

Once we think of evolutionary theory as an updating of our conception of human nature, something that the great philosophers and social theorists of the past would have been eager to do themselves, then it becomes an essential tool for diagnosing and solving the problems of modern education. Moreover, it begins working immediately. Once you view the world through an evolutionary lens, it’s difficult to look away. When I heard Peter tell his story at the conference preceding my workshop, he was the banquet speaker. Even the waiters clearing the tables stopped to listen, nodding their heads in agreement, not only because Peter is a fine speaker but also because his message made so much sense. It even seemed like common sense, except that there was nothing common about the Sudbury Valley School.

Liberté, Égalité, et Fraternité

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