Evolution and education policy


Jason Collins


January 13, 2012

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’ Rollfor the reminder about Wilson’s post.)