The Evolution of Learning

I’ve been trying, and failing, to write a satisfactory post about the US education system for quite some time now, and I thought it would get easier after reading Diane Ravich’s book, but alas, it did not. I’m not an expert on education, so I find it kind of hard to come up with something new to write about. So I’m just going throw a big idea against a wall, and see what sticks. As always, I welcome comments.

There are two popular sayings in our culture that are mutually exclusive. Being so, in a logical construct, the two conditions can not coexist. And yet they do, sometimes in the same conversation! The two statements are:

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”


You learn something new every day.”

Now, I’m not dense, and realize that people don’t mean these phrases as absolutes whenever they say them. However, for the purposes of this post, we will assume that they are binding constraints. Thus, if the first sentence holds true then the second cannot ever be true, and if the second is true; at some point in time, the first will not hold. How do we reconcile these two things?

Through evolution.

I propose (perhaps not originally) that humans learn through a process similar to an evolutionary search algorithm. Thus when we are young (even before we are cognitive), we begin the process of blindly searching through the evolutionary space of all possible ways of gaining knowledge. During this time, we learn in absolute terms from our successes and failures — and our search is entirely selfish (and not even selfish altruism, just selfish). Also during this time, we have very benign goals. During this phase of the learning process, we use primitive knowledge of what works (meaning we get what we want) and what doesn’t (meaning we do not). Our design space is the environment in which we develop. This is where we select for, and amplify the evolutionary strategies that work, and discard those that do not.

Combined with genetic dispositions toward certain learning styles, this principle would help explain the differences in learning styles between children — even separated twins. If we are born into a design space where we find a high peak by crying relentlessly until we get what we want, we will select for that type of behavior, and use that road for evolution. If we get a lot of praise for taking things apart, we will evolve that strategy. And if we get no praise at all — if our design space is full of deep valleys — then we will become very recalcitrant, skeptical…economists (just kidding ;]).

Moving further, and taking our learned knowledge of the primitive design space of education with us, we enter structured learning environments, where we further refine the strategies we learned as infants to more sophisticated ends. This early structured environment is very important, as it limits the design space to (overall) positive learning strategies — and thus we can waste less time searching blindly, and build on our evolutionary strategies more quickly. This would explain the apparent success of “head start” programs. This is an important time to generate positive feedback loops — which is why constructivism fails so massively during this time (as beautiful as the concept may seem).

I believe (correct me if I’m wrong) studies have shown that learning styles have pretty much evolved through this process, and become identifiable fairly early on in life. I want to say 6-8th grade. At this point, we have generally found evolutionary ‘good tricks’ that work for us, and we try to structure our learning based on those tricks. Thus, if we have found that reading books and understanding concepts provides evolutionary rewards (praise?), these are the paths that we will outwardly tend to pursue. On the other hand, if we have found in our search that building, creating, and physical discovery provides these rewards, we will tend to be more “hands on”…and, of course, all manner of combinations of learning styles in-between. Once we understand basic concepts of science, math, etc…this is where constructivism can be a very powerful learning tool (but remember the caveat, this is not for everyone). Also remember, most learning is not done within the walls of the school. This extends to the home, as well.

This evolutionary framework of learning also helps us explain the divide between the moderately well-off and the poor. Not so much in grades — mind you, but in the cognitive learning styles. I would say early on, children in poor households catch onto the fact that money is of high utility in the household, and anything that people can do to generate money is often rewarded. We also learn that physically constructing our reality — at the expense of exploring concepts — generates money. Thus, poor kids have a tendency to not see “the point” of school, because it is not generating a monetary reward. This, of course, also creates the problem of hyperbolic discounting. Poor children have a high dropout rate, because of the prior reward structure of their evolutionary search. Children that live in households where money is not a chief concern generally aren’t exposed to this type of stress. Thus, they are able to adapt to a different discounting structure.

As we become older (high school, college, and beyond), we become more cognizant of our specific learning styles. We also come to have the resources to shape our own design space, and thus we can consciously select for things and situations which we “know” we have adapted to success. We can start to avoid valleys (only as far as education is concerned, we may hit other “valleys” in our search — like social norms, and law enforcement :P). Thus, we can learn very quickly by selecting for ourselves — the knowledge and monetary gains depend on the previous design space in which our learning styles evolved.

So to circle back to our statements in the beginning, what the first statment *really* means is that you can’t teach a dog in new ways — and some learning styles do not conform well to certain types of study. Highly theoretical math, for instance, will not be an avenue that someone who has evolved a learning style based upon physical manifestation of results — but construction may be. Thus, it is very hard (or near impossible?) to get people to learn in new ways. However, this does not mean that people cannot learn new things…indeed, they may learn new things every day!

Thus, our two statements are reconciled!

— — — —

That was mostly just jotting down notes in a stream-of-consciousness. But it was a lot of fun! The concepts are probably not highly original — and maybe complete nonsense — but as I said, I’m not an expert at the psychology of learning. I would be interested in your comments…but please remember to not take anything I’ve said as concrete fact, it is merely a very rough outline of an evolutionary model of learning.

Hope you enjoyed reading!

P.S. As an aside, I’m toying with the “long-run” idea of pursuing a doctoral program at a local college in “Human Capital Management”. Now, I’m a macro guy, and that’s a micro study — but it sounds very interesting, nonetheless. I have a previous post about my views on human capital. This area would be prime for research!


4 thoughts on “The Evolution of Learning

  1. Even in mid-income settings where money is not always a problem, practicality can certainly rule the day! Those who gained college degrees in my extended family tended to do so in areas that would readily “pay off” and love of learning not exactly the point for most family members. It took many years for me to give in to the love of learning in a major way, but now I have to overcome an unfortunate bias against Microsoft Word so that I can finally get some writing done online. Talk about trying to teach an old dog new tricks! Education is a tremendous component of systems integration in general, so reform in education also becomes systems wide in profit and not for profit areas. Good luck in your doctoral program studies and yes it’s fun to put micro and macro together, whether in the classroom or learning on one’s own.

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