It should come as little surprise to hear that some of what human beings can do is innate. That is to say, we are born with various capacities and abilities which appear to be ‘hardwired’ into our brains. The evolutionary psychologist David Geary talks about such capacities as being either biologically primary or secondary adaptations. Biologically primary adaptations are those that emerge instinctively by virtue of our evolved cognitive structures, whereas biologically secondary adaptations are exclusively cultural, acquired through formal or informal instruction or training.
Evolution, through natural selection, has resulted in brains that eagerly and rapidly learn the sorts of things which allow us to survive and reproduce. Geary divides these biologically primary domains into three main areas: folk psychology (interest in people), folk biology (interest in living things), and folk physics (interest in inanimate objects), and suggests that we are naturally disposed towards learning such things as peer interaction, play hunting of other species, and exploration of the physical environment within these primary domains.
By contrast, biologically secondary knowledge is abstract, counter-intuitive and hard to learn. We may find it natural to learn to count physical objects, but understanding the abstract concept of negative numbers is hard precisely because they have no physical reality. Similarly, we appear to have evolved a capacity to learn to speak our mother tongue over millennia, but we have developed no such capacity to learn reading or writing. Writing is a comparatively recent ‘good trick’ and natural selection just hasn’t gotten round to equipping us with an in-built capacity to learn to read.
This brings us to the perennial complaint amongst many well-intentioned but sadly uninformed observers that schools don’t spend sufficient time teaching such skills as creativity, problem solving and collaboration. Here’s a recent one:
Prof Rose Luckin, an expert on AI and education at University College London who gave evidence to the committee, said that the school curriculum needs to be brought up to date to reflect that we now live in a world where problem-solving and creativity are becoming more important assets. “Regurgitating knowledge is something that you can automate very easily,” she said. “That doesn’t prepare children for the modern workforce.”
Instead, she said pupils should be spending more time working on problems collaboratively, because in future many professionals will be required to collaborate with robots.
Just as I wouldn’t dream of advising Prof Luckin on how to go about designing AI, I fervently wish she and others like her would be content to stick to their areas of expertise. To say “we now live in a world where problem-solving and creativity are becoming more important assets” is fatuous indeed. When have human beings ever lived in a world where they didn’t need to solve problems and be creative?
The answer is never. Creativity, collaboration and problem solving have always been vital for the survival of the species, so much so that we have evolved an innate capacity for developing these skills. Every child naturally learns to collaborate, solve problems and be creative without recourse to explicit instruction.
Of course, that is not to say that every child is equally creative or that we all share the same capacity for successful collaboration; as with every human characteristic there will be a normal distribution of ability. But it does mean that everyone has a natural ability to solve problems. Otherwise some people would never work out how to get out of bed and put their trousers on! Now, you could argue that because of this difference in natural ability, some children will benefit from additional instruction in these skills. Maybe they would, but not nearly as much as they’d benefit from extra instruction on culturally dependent, biologically secondary knowledge where the differences are almost purely environmental rather than heritable.
Because these skills are innate, schools don’t need to waste much time teaching them, and certainly not as generic, ‘transferable’ skills. It’s probably worth giving a few pointers on how to collaborate more effectively or offer some tips on how to solve specific problems, but these can be acquired incredibly rapidly. But, you may ask, if the ability to collaborate or be creative is innate, why do we seem to see it so rarely? Why, for instance, is it that children seem incapable of working effectively in groups?
The answer is simple: you have to be creative about something. It’s not enough to collaborate, you must have something to collaborate on. It’s all very well to have an innate ability to solve problems, but what specific problems do we want students to solve? In every case the problem is caused by the interaction between the natural and the unnatural; the primary and the secondary. If you want students to find creative ways to avoid doing any work, then clearly creativity is a doddle. If instead you want them to find creative solutions to biologically secondary algebraic equations then you’re in trouble. Asking students to collaborate in discussing last night’s telly will present no problems, but expecting them to collaborate on researching climate change is trickier because researching climate change doesn’t come naturally. The same can be said of learning. Learning is another innate capacity – we are all born with the ability to learn and find it easy for pick up stuff we find interesting. The only question really worth asking is what are students learning?
Where some children appear to struggle to be creative or solve problems the issue is in fact caused by a lack of biologically secondary knowledge. Contrary to Luckin’s assertions, regurgitating knowledge is not something that you can “automate very easily”. In order to ‘regurgitate’ knowledge you’ve first got to know it, and knowing abstractions is not nearly as effortless as many otherwise very smart people seem to believe. It takes a lot of time to teach children all the cultural knowledge they need to make sense of the modern world. So much time in fact that there’s precious little of it to spare for fripperies like contentless creativity or hollow collaboration. After all, curriculum time is strictly finite and there is always an opportunity cost to every decision we make about what to teach.
Rather than investing time on working on problems collaboratively just in case we have to one day collaborate with robots, we’d be much better off developing students’ capacity to collaborate by giving them lots of powerful knowledge which they can then use to solve problems with and collaborate on solutions to problems we don’t yet know exist. Understanding the evolution of how we learn asks some difficult questions about the curriculum we put in front of children. Whilst they will be highly motivated to engage when they have opportunities to socially interact and develop other biologically primary abilities, these are things they would probably learn independently without giving up curriculum time.