Evolution and education policy

A couple of months ago, David Sloan Wilson posted on a project he has been involved in with in the Binghamton City School District, which is also the subject of an article in PLoS ONE by Wilson and his colleagues. The concept behind the project is that “[K]nowledge derived from general evolutionary principles and our own evolutionary history can be used to enhance cooperation in real-world situations, such as a program for at-risk high school students.”

Among other things, the authors drew on the work of Elinor Ostrom and the design features that she identified as contributing to group success. The authors also looked at bodies of evolutionary knowledge about development, psychological function and learning.

From this knowledge, specific measures were developed. As regards cooperation, the first three days of school comprised group identity building activities. Students were consulted to set up the rules. Staff meetings were held twice weekly. Praise was plentiful but rules clear and enforced. And so on (the full list of measures is in the paper here).

Students in the modified program significantly outperformed the comparison group in a randomly controlled trial. The standard of performance was up to average for a Binghamton student, despite the sample coming from students who had failed three or more subjects in the previous year.

This is a positive result, but it reminded me of a section in Ian Ayres’s book Super Crunchers: Why Thinking-by-Numbers Is the New Way to Be Smart. Ayres describes a method of teaching known as Direct Instruction, which is the form of teaching that George W Bush was watching when he was informed of the 9/11 attacks. Ayres writes:

Direct Instruction forces teachers to follow a script. The entire lesson – the instructions (“Put your finger under the first word.”), the questions (“What does that comma mean?”), and the prompts (“Go on.’) – is written out in the teacher?s instruction manual. …

Each student is called upon to give up to ten responses each minute. How can a single teacher pull this off? The trick is to keep a quick pace and to have the students answer in unison. The script asks the students to “get ready” to give their answers and then after a signal from the teacher, the class responds simultaneously. Every student is literally on call for just about every question.

Every time I read about Direct Instruction, I struggle to understand how it could work. It seems constrained. It puts everyone at the same pace. But it works. Ayres continues:

The result was Project Follow Through, an ambitious effort that studied 79,000 children in 180 low-income communities for twenty years at a price tag of more than $600 million. … Project Follow Through looked at the impact of seventeen different teaching methods, ranging from models like DI, where lesson plans are carefully scripted, to unstructured models where students themselves direct their learning by selecting what and how they will study. …

Direct Instruction won hands down. Education writer Richard Nadler summed it up this way: “When the testing was over, students in DI classrooms had placed first in reading, first in math, first in spelling, and first in language. No other model came close.” And DI’s dominance wasn’t just in basic skill acquisition. DI students could also more easily answer questions that required higher-order thinking.

Can evolutionary theory provide an explanation? I don’t know – but it does not matter from a policy perspective if one can’t be developed. This is because policy decisions such as teaching method do not need to be made though a non-repeatable top down decision. Instead, randomised controlled trials can be used to test all the teaching ideas, crazy or not, and see which delivers the best result. Evolutionary theory can be used to develop ideas to test, but it is the results that matter.

Even better, competition between schools can provide a basis by which teaching methods compete. Student and parent choice would drive outcomes. As a result, I am more interested in seeing competition between schools in the marketplace than having them consider what evolutionary strategy they should use to teach.

So, while Wilson’s work in Binghamton is impressive and his evolutionary approach improved outcomes, I don’t know if he has produced the best possible result. Competition and randomised controlled trials are the way to find out.

(And thanks to Sex, Genes & Rock ‘n’ Roll for the reminder about Wilson’s post)

Wilson, D., Kauffman, R., & Purdy, M. (2011). A Program for At-Risk High School Students Informed by Evolutionary Science PLoS ONE, 6 (11) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0027826


  1. “competition between schools can provide a basis by which teaching methods compete. Student and parent choice would drive outcomes. As a result, I am more interested in seeing competition between schools in the marketplace than having them consider what evolutionary strategy they should use to teach.”

    You sound like the Swedish right sounded in the 90’s. Since then, the Swedish free-school-system saw put into place where privately owned schools competed for students. The schools were give money on basis of how many students they attracted.
    The intellectual Swedish right doesn’t no longed whistle to this tune and Swedish national economists find more and more fundamental problems with this approach. Jonas Vlachos, who judging from his posts on Ekonomistas.se is very far right on the political spectra (in Swedish that translates to neoliberal), has written several strongly critical reports (in Swedish) about the Swedish school-system and the negative side-effects of the free choice system. Incidentally, the results on the Swedish school have plummeted, as measured by PISA, from being at the very top to rapidly falling under the median. In the same time, the Finnish education system, which is employing a method quite exactly the opposite to what you suggest, is excelling. (here you can see what the Finns themselves say about their educative system http://www.linkedin.com/today/article?articleID=1015598382 ).

    What you suggest is so ideologically biased, so uniformed and so far from scientifically sound that I cannot take you seriously any more. I have had some intellectual challenge out of this blog, but the right out dogmatic stupidity you spout now is just getting too much for me. You show that the neoliberals are a bunch of intellectually fat and lazy cats, who’s inability to incorporate real world observations into your theory and modify it accordingly has rendered you a sad parenthesis in the history of thinkers.

    1. Can you show me a study that demonstrates that school competition caused Sweden’s change in PISA position? Or was it other factors (such as increased immigration)?

      When the specific point I was making is examined, it generally looks positive. Take the following study:

      We show that schools facing accountability pressure changed their instructional practices in meaningful ways. In addition, we present medium-run evidence of the effects of school accountability on student test scores, and find that a significant portion of these test score gains can likely be attributed to the changes in school policies and practices that we uncover in our surveys.

      And by the way, Sweden has never been ranked higher than 9th out of 30 in any of the PISA tests.

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