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Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Naturalising Education Part 1: Conceptual Foundations for an Evolutionary Educational Psychology Review


Science provides the only methodology in which to acquire knowledge. Ironically, the justification for this lies in the fallibility made evident through attempts at falsification and refutation. Every claim in science is reviewed, corrected, refined, improved; more often than not refuted. Those that survive the error-reducing process of refutation are often further refined and reduced into more fundamental processes. Theories are grounded when reduction has occurred – grounded in physics. Physics fixes all the facts. If we are to take naturalism seriously this is a non-negotiable. In humans the laws of physics govern the atomic scale processes which, in turn, govern the chemical processes and interactions that then govern the biological processes we see at our scale. In addition, the biological processes give rise to our folk psychological intuitions and phenomenological experience from which we understand and make sense of the world from. For a beautiful account of how quantum mechanics provides the necessary conditions for life see Schrodinger, What is Life? For a more recent account of how quantum mechanics influences everything in biology see Johnjoe McFadden & Jim Al-Khalili, Life on the Edge: The Coming Age of Quantum Biology.

Scientific inquiry has revealed to us some of the most counter-intuitive and intricate and complex features of the universe we inhabit and everything within it. This might seem a world away from education, but it’s not: learning is a feature of this universe and is not exempt from the same laws that govern everything else. That is to say, the subatomic world of quantum mechanics gave rise the biological creatures as complex as us, and dictated the evolution in which the survival of the species necessarily depended on the ability to learn. Education might be a new concept (in evolutionary time scales), but learning is primordial and was the condition for the possibility of our survival and evolution. Long before we debated the best teaching strategies we were successfully teaching – it is inseparable from the human condition. Surely with our comprehensive but not yet complete understanding of reality we should have made sense of ‘learning’ and what it’s all about? After all, physicists are working with numbers so incomprehensibly large that it must be far more complex than the educative process? There are, it is estimated, 10 to the 80 (that is 10 followed by 80 zero’s) atoms in the observable universe.

The brain is incredibly complex. It is estimated that each adult brain contains only 100 billion neurons, a number far smaller than the above. But each of those 100 billion neurons makes between 1000 to 10,000 contacts between other neurons. Based on this, in each adult brain the number of permutations and interactions between neurons far exceed the number of elementary particles in the universe – about 10 to the 100. As J.B.S Haldane stated, ‘… the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but it is queerer than we can suppose’. Incredibly, our folk intuitions have been ‘supposing’ without access to the complexities that lay beneath conscious experience. In keeping with Haldane’s comments, our biology in no way is capable of supposing such complexities – we need tools such as mathematics and language through analogy and story to conceptualise what is literally impossible to imagine.

Some of the most fundamental things our intuition and conscious experience teach us about learning turn out to be completely illusory. All of these illusions, as products of a universe fixed by the laws of physics, are useful for survival and have been selected for by environmental filters that we have inherited from our ancestors. You can see, on the outset, how many people who promote the science of learning do so in a manner in which would not readily accept these claims: they contradict many long held beliefs about the nature of learning and purposes of education. But if we are to take naturalism seriously, and make the paradigm shift in education, we must be also willing to accept conclusions that go against the prevailing wisdom (if indeed the prevailing wisdom needs reduction/refutation) in order to establish a full understanding of how learning takes place, and how best to teach as a result.

One of the best accounts of naturalism and education is by Geary, D. 2007, Educating the Evolved Mind. There is a wealth of insight and far too much to share, but there are some important points I wish to utilise as it signifies the manner in which learning can be understood by being reduced (and I mean theoretically reduced) to biological principles and processes. This process is the application of evolutionary theory to the understanding of the brain and its development in the educative process. In Part 2 I will address the primary and secondary forms of cognition and consider the implications for theories of learning and teaching. In Part 3 I will readdress Willingham’s thesis that students don’t like to think and that the majority of learning is not ‘thinking’ but ‘memory recall’. In doing so I hope to deliver an understanding of learning that is outside of ideological influence (true irrespective of current trends) and consider the potential implications for teaching and learning.

Jesse Stephens