A Univerisity of Missouri researcher says the gap is widening between what humans can naturally learn and what they need to learn to be successful adults in modern society. David Geary is the Curators’ Professor of Psychological Sciences at M.U.
His study says humans have evolved to learn basic skills, like talking and social interactions, but are not equipped to easily learn advanced subjects such as math or physics.
"Over thousands of years, humans have evolved to naturally understand things like facial expressions and social interactions," he says.
Schools have traditionally helped bridge the gap between evolution and new knowledge, but in the U.S. more may need to be done.
"Schools need to push children to learn things that they do not do naturally, which is more important as our knowledge of the world continues to expand," Geary says. "Learning is not always going to be fun and children should not expect it to be. Attempting to engage children by making activities fun, causes those activities to become more similar to what students are already doing naturally and can limit new learning."
He found that one reason U.S. students may be behind students in other countries in subjects like science and math is because American schools have moved away from traditional practices where students learn information through repetition. Instead, U.S. schools often use more group and social interactions to teach topics that can be challenging.
"Other countries are blowing us away and have been for a long time," he says. "From an evolutionary perspective, what we are designed to do and what culture says we now have to do, is very different. We should not expect what comes naturally to us to be the best way to learn something new."
This is where the evolutionary process comes in. While the need to learn about others now comes naturally, such as learning to talk, mastering things like linear algebra, does not, because it is a recent cultural innovation, Geary says.
"Learning mechanisms in humans have evolved to support the transfer of culturally useful knowledge. However, we are now at a point in human history where the abilities needed to function in a high-tech, modern society have surpassed the capacity of those simple learning mechanisms."
His study, "An Evolutionarily Informed Education Science," is published as in the Educational Psychologist journal.