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.

In essence, we have two modes for dealing with information—autopilot and conscious engagement. Whereas automated processing handles the universal features of the social and ecological worlds, our conscious problem-solving abilities let us register nuances in our environments.

By understanding both mechanisms for learning, we achieve deep insight into how children think. We can begin to see why children pick up some skills effortlessly and others with substantial struggle. An evolutionary approach to teaching could help educators bridge the divide between children’s innate cognitive biases and the goals of contemporary schooling, potentially revealing more effective ways to educate future generations.

Anchors in a Sea of Sensations
Some of our learning biases are revealed early in life. From birth, babies attend longer to stimuli with the structure of a human face—two eyes above a nose—than to other equally complex stimuli. These critical features draw infants’ attention, facilitating the development of parent-child attachment. Such elements of human survival that stay basically the same across thousands of lifetimes become hardwired as anchors of human cognition. They direct our attention to predictable aspects of life and allow us to automatically process information related to them. The bias for faces helps newborns anchor themselves in an otherwise overwhelmingly stimulating environment.

Infants must also differentiate their parents from other people, however, so these cognitive anchors are imbued with a certain amount of flexibility. But what makes humans unique is another level of plasticity that allows us to consciously solve problems. When conditions change rapidly, threatening our survival or reproductive prospects, our automatic systems can hold us back. Instead we need creative ways to address new situations. The combination of hardwired predilections and plastic problem solving determines how we handle new information—and, by extension, how we learn.

Theorists suggest that our ability to consciously solve problems very likely emerged from fluctuating climates, complex social dynamics or ecological demands such as hunting. Richard D. Alexander, an evolutionary biologist now retired from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, has proposed one possible model for the evolution of the human mind. When our ancestors began building shelters, creating tools for hunting and using fire for cooking, they became better at extracting resources from their environments and fending off starvation and predation. With these threats reduced, early populations likely expanded, spurring competition over the best land, food and other desirable commodities.

The heart of this battle for existence then becomes a struggle among members of our own species for control of those key resources. Social competition is not unique to humans, but it becomes an especially potent selection pressure for species that dominate their ecosystems, as we do. Both our ecological supremacy and the accompanying social competition are undergirded by “folk knowledge”—the indigenous patterns of thought that help us process the psychology, biology and physics of life.

Folk psychology refers to implicit knowledge organized around ourselves, other people and group dynamics, whereas folk biology and folk physics involve our grasp of living things and the physical world, respectively. These abilities evolved because they allowed our ancestors to not waste their mental energies on mundane day-to-day tasks and to focus instead on mastering ever changing social and environmental challenges.

Our built-in psychological competencies set us apart from all other species most dramatically. Humans possess an innate, perhaps unique, self-awareness. This ability is tightly connected to the important skill of mental time travel—being able to project oneself both backward in time to relive the past as well as forward to create a mental simulation of a potential future. Underpinning our self-awareness is a long-term network of memories and knowledge about ourselves, called a self-schema. Self-schemas can regulate goal-related behaviors, allowing us to plan where to focus effort and when to persist in the face of failure.

We also develop schemas for other people. Certain human relationships, including the ones between a parent and a child or between two friends, are universal. These bonds are supported by built-in skills that let us read nonverbal communication signals, decipher facial expressions, share a language and possess a theory of mind—that is, the ability to make inferences about the intentions, beliefs, emotional states and likely future behavior of others. When we form a new relationship, we adopt a schema of the other person that encapsulates our lasting memories of physical attributes, personality traits and the specific incidents that involved him or her. This knowledge enables people to better understand and predict the actions of their acquaintances.

In addition to forming one-on-one relationships, individuals divide the social world into groups. We tend to have more positive attitudes and beliefs about members of our own group than about outsiders, especially when the groups are competing. We are also capable of forming affiliations by nationality and religion, organizing ourselves into larger social units than would be possible based only on personal relationships. A preoccupation with social matters is deeply ingrained in how we think.

Similarly, we have evolved shortcuts for managing information about the biological world. For instance, we possess a universal ability to develop taxonomies of other species and to arrange knowledge about the behavior, growth patterns, and recurring characteristics of a familiar type of plant or animal. This knowledge helped humans in traditional cultures acquire the skills needed to secure food and medicine.

To safely find our way to fruitful hunting grounds, we rely on innate systems for navigating in three-dimensional space and remembering key features of those environments, as do many other species. Humans go at least one step further, though, and form bird’s-eye-view maps as well as images of physical space when we are not in it. Our ability to construct and use tools also far exceeds the competencies found in other species and is almost certainly a component of humans’ dominance on the earth. Finally, strong cross-species evidence suggests that we have an intuitive sense of number and time, although the complexity of how humans mentally represent time vastly outstrips that documented in other species.

Evolution of Consciousness
What these folk competencies tell us is that most information encountered in day-to-day living during our evolutionary history is processed automatically and with little cognitive effort. But life is not always routine—living with other people always has its surprises. The ability to block those built-in systems and engage in controlled—that is, conscious—problem solving is a defining feature of the human mind.

Building on the work of others, I proposed in 2005 that humans, perhaps uniquely, can generate mental models of our circumstances that enable us to anticipate future changes and concoct coping strategies. We use our working memory to hold mental representations of situations. We can envision a fantasized scenario and compare this image with a model of our current state. By doing so, we can simulate strategies to reduce the difference between where we are and where we want to wind up in the future, giving us a key evolutionary advantage. We might mentally rehearse ways to outcompete others, for instance, for a mate or a job promotion. The combination of consciousness, self-awareness and explicit problem solving is what enables us to learn things not relevant to our evolutionary past.

Consider modern physics, one of humanity’s most significant intellectual accomplishments and yet a domain that most of us understand poorly. Part of the challenge with learning physics is that the inferences that emerge from our folk physics often clash with the scientific explanations of the same phenomena. When asked about the motion of a thrown baseball, for example, most people believe two forces create this motion: one propels it forward, akin to an invisible engine, and another drives it downward. The downward force is gravity, but in fact no force propels it forward once the ball leaves the player’s hand. Although adults and even preschool children often describe the correct trajectory for a thrown or moving object, reflecting their implicit folk physics, their explicit explanations can reveal a naive understanding of the forces acting on the object.

In his masterwork, the Principia, Isaac Newton neatly summed up the situation: “I do not define time, space, place and motion, as being well known to all. Only I must observe, that the vulgar conceive those quantities under no other notions but from the relation they bear to sensible objects.” In other words, the “vulgar” only comprehend physical phenomena in terms of folk knowledge. Newton brought humanity beyond these coarse explanations by using the conscious problem-solving systems that we evolved to cope with new situations. Unlike most people, he was obsessed with understanding the physical nature of the world rather than its social complexities. He devoted many years purely to thinking about physics and conducted experiments to test his hypotheses.

Newton’s efforts transformed the sciences and generated a substantial gap between the technical understanding of gravity and motion and folk beliefs about them. Brain-imaging studies and other experiments indicate that giving up our intuitions and grasping Newton’s insights does not come easily, even for college students.

And so it is with many realms of modern life: the chasm separating our folk knowledge and the vast store of humankind’s cultural, scientific and technological legacy is widening at an accelerated pace. Because some of this expertise is now critical to thriving in contemporary life, we rely on schools to ensure that all members of society possess core skills and information. But unlike the fast implicit learning that adapts folk systems to local conditions—such as learning to identify one’s parents—learning in school requires the same effortful engagement of working memory and explicit problem solving used by Newton and all the other innovators that have produced modern culture. To further complicate schooling, children have inherent motivational biases that often clash with the requirements of scholarly activities.

Desire to Learn
This evolutionary view of learning can help us make some predictions about children, one being that they ought to be inclined toward activities that flesh out their innate competencies. An example is a motivation to play with others, which hones their social skills. Likewise, we can expect children will seek out activities that help them develop their biological and physical understandings of the world.

One testable prediction is that children will be much more interested in learning in areas directly related to their folk abilities than to, say, practice solving polynomial equations. This bias would explain why many schoolchildren value social activities with their friends more than achievement in core academic areas. In 2003 psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his collaborator Jeremy Hunter, both at Claremont Graduate University, found that students experienced the lowest levels of happiness while doing homework, listening to lectures and doing mathematics, whereas they attained the highest levels when talking with friends. A preference for engagement in peer relationships may not be useful for mastery of algebra, but it follows logically as an evolved developmental bias for a highly social species.

A related prediction is that the core of a person’s self-schema will be defined in terms of his or her standing with respect to peers—critically important from an evolutionary perspective—rather than schooling. Evidence to date supports this idea; the best determinant of global self-esteem from childhood to adulthood is perceived physical attractiveness, not test scores.

We can make a related prediction about how children will learn in groups. Although popular in education circles, from an evolutionary perspective working in groups with peers ought to not be particularly effective, unless a teacher provides strong guidance. Conversations are predicted to drift to topics that are of greater evolutionary relevance than the task at hand, such as gossip. Seemingly trivial, such chatter can reveal crucial details about the structure of social networks.

Several evolutionary psychologists have argued that children’s social engagement and other developmental activities can sometimes result in academic learning. Early in their schooling, the boundary between folk abilities and new knowledge is fuzzy. Children’s natural interest in novelty and their desire to learn their culture will also get them started in school, but I predict it will not be sufficient to maintain long-term academic engagement. If my model is correct, then deploying the mechanisms for conscious problem solving will require significant effort. Without an explicit assumption that learning will require hard work, we risk having children assume that they will pass their classes with ease—and thus when they begin to experience failure, they are at risk for making attributions that may undermine their later engagement with school.

Indeed, experimental studies show that changing student attributions about the learning of a difficult subject, such as mathematics, from a focus on ability to an emphasis on effort results in greater engagement in mathematics classes and improves learning, as psychologist Lisa Blackwell, then at Columbia University, and her colleagues found in 2007. Early in formal school, the point at which children transition from tasks they find easy to more challenging assignments—such as going from counting small sets of numbers to managing larger sets—may be the critical first place for addressing children’s beliefs about education and instilling an expectation that it requires an investment of time and energy. Of course, many teachers do focus on the importance of effort, but studies such as Blackwell’s suggest that more can be done for many children.

We are at a point in our history where the cultural knowledge and abilities needed to function in modern societies—all acquired very recently in our evolutionary history—have far outstripped the mechanisms for learning that we inherited from our early ancestors. Schools are the central venue in which culture meets evolution during a child’s development. Considering children’s academic development with an eye to evolution has the potential to answer key instructional questions, such as why many students need explicit instruction to learn to read but not to speak. It also tells us why many children value social relationships more than academic learning. Of course, insightful parents and teachers already know what their kids like, but the lens of evolution can help us reason through their preferences and suggest new ways to improve the education of young minds.