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Primal Brain in the Modern Classroom

Evolution biased the human mind to attend to some types of information over others—often the exact opposite of what teachers wish children would learn
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Michael Hitoshi Getty Images (forest background); Dori O'Connell Getty Images (child)

As children settle into their classrooms for the beginning of a new school year, parents steel themselves for the pending battle. Mothers and fathers know well that their youngsters would rather pay attention to one another than to the blackboard. But parents may not realize that the reasons children struggle with education lie deep in our evolutionary past.

Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection provides a framework for organizing and understanding all living things. How we learn—and what we are interested in learning about—is also shaped by natural selection. Most demands of life are relatively mundane and change little across the millennia. Our minds have evolved to handle these predictable bits of information with ease. Dramatic variation, such as an outbreak of disease or war, brings unexpected challenges and can have a disproportionate influence on our survival. Those who can deftly solve problems to survive such fluctuating circumstances gain an edge.

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