David C. Geary is a Curators’ Distinguished Professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences (and a former departmental chair) and the Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Program at the University of Missouri. His many publications include The Origin of Mind and Evolution of Vulnerability. I wanted to interview him because his ideas on biologically primary and biologically secondary abilities have been discussed at length on this blog.
Question 1: Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with the idea of biologically primary abilities that we have evolved to acquire, and biologically secondary abilities that are culturally specific and that we have therefore not evolved to acquire. Is this an accurate summary of the theory and, if so, what empirical evidence supports it and what potential empirical evidence could prove it wrong?
Yes, this is accurate. Primary abilities have not only evolved, they are human universals that emerge developmentally through a combination of skeletal, inherent constraints and a bias to engage in the types of activities that will flesh them out and adapt them to local social and ecological conditions. Language is one example, but there are many others in the broad domain of folk psychology – an intuitive understanding of the self, others, and the ability to engage in social relationships. Other primary domains include folk biology (e.g., learning which foods can be eaten and when) and folk physics (e.g., the ability to navigate from one place to another). The research of Liz Spelke, Rochel Gelman and others have provided evidence for very early (in infancy, toddlerhood) attentional and behavioral biases in these domains, and evidence that common childhood activities are needed for their full expression.
The motivational and behavioral component is expressed through children’s engagement in self-initiated activities, such as social play or exploring the environment. These activities are typically considered fun, consistent with a built-in reward mechanism that reinforces children’s activities in these areas. Children need to engage in these types of activities because it takes many years for primary abilities to become fully developed. The plasticity of these abilities and a bias to engage in activities that flesh them out allows them to become adapted to local conditions (e.g., the local language).
In other words, the combination of skeletal constraints and built-in motivational and behavioral biases ensures that certain competencies emerge (e.g., various social skills) but at the same time are adjusted to better fit the nuances of the contexts in which the children are situated. The development of these competences occurs with little if any explicit instruction or mental effort.
Biologically secondary abilities, such as reading, writing, and arithmetic, do not have this deep evolutionary history, are not human universals, and in fact the cultural-goal (at least in developed nations) of universal education is less than 200 years old. There are many implications to my basic argument but the key ones are:
a. The cognitive, attentional, motivational, and behavioral biases that ensure the acquisition of primary abilities will not be sufficient for the learning of secondary abilities.
b. I’ve laid out why secondary abilities will require the engagement of domain-general abilities, such as working memory, at least during the early phases of learning elsewhere (e.g., 2008 article in Educational Psychologist, and 2007 monograph, Educating the Evolved Mind). As you know, John Sweller and others have repeatedly demonstrated the importance of working memory for school learning.
c. We cannot expect a universal motivation for secondary learning. Some people will of course like to learn new things, especially once they have the basics mastered, but the goal is universal education, not just the education of the curious and cognitively able. For most children, the goal to learn secondary competencies in school is competing against a strong motivation to engage in activities that flesh out primary abilities, such as social play or other social activities.
d. These points suggest that for most children to become proficient in secondary domains, well-developed curricula and competent teachers must provide students the structure and scaffolding provided by evolution to support primary learning. This will involve explicit curricular goals and for many children explicit instruction (see below).
e. Making school more fun essentially involves making the associated activities more similar to the activities that promote primary learning. This might work, with teachers’ help, during the initial (preschool) phases of learning secondary abilities, but won’t be effective as material becomes more abstract.
If my thesis is incorrect, then it can be easily falsified. As one example, whole language should be more effective in helping children learn how to read than instruction that includes an explicit focus on phonology, word decoding, reading fluency, and understanding the structure of written stories. The National Reading Panel in the U.S. concluded that children need to learn these things, and many experimental studies funded by the National Institutes of Health show that explicit instruction works better than other approaches.
It is not as well known, but this has also been assessed for mathematics with Project Follow Through. The study, conducted in the U.S., was a quasi-experimental evaluation of the basic tenents of broad educational approaches and was the largest educational intervention that has ever been conducted. The project was conducted from 1968 to 1977 and included about 200,000 at-risk children from kindergarten through third grade. Each participating school partnered with a university, research institute or some other group to develop and implement the four-year intervention grounded in differing educational principles and academic foci.
The principles reflected the basic teaching philosophy and broadly included direct instruction, cognitive approaches (e.g., focus on problem solving), and social/affective approaches focusing on, for instance, self-efficacy. The educational goals ranged from a focus on mastery of basic skills to more complex problem solving and conceptual understanding. Relative to Title I (a U.S. program for children at-risk for poor long-term academic outcomes) comparison groups and with respect to performance on standard achievement tests, children in the direct instruction programs with a focus on basic skills and mastery had better outcomes on basic skills, problem solving, and had a better academic self-concept than did students in the other programs. There was some fade out over time, but many of these gains were maintained throughout the elementary school years. Of course, the results were roundly criticized, and eventually suppressed in favor of more Romantic (child centered) approaches to education, eventually igniting the ‘math wars’ in the U.S.
One response to the math wars was the creation of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel (U.S.). One of many things covered by the panel included reviews of intervention effectiveness. Especially for at-risk students a rigorous curriculum with explicit instruction results in the most gains.
There are obviously people who, as I noted, are curious and cognitively capable and learn quite a bit on their own. This learning, however, typically occurs after they have learned the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic. And, does not work for most children or adults; if it did, we wouldn’t need organized schools.
The interview continues in Part 2