One of the most troubling conundrums in the field of education is that the common sense observation that children learn so many things simply by virtue of being immersed in an appropriate environment is contradicted by the overwhelming empirical data that explicit instruction outperforms discovery approaches in schools.

Why should this be? Surely if children can learn something as complex as speech without much effort, why do we need to go to the trouble of painstakingly teaching them phoneme/grapheme relationships? It’s easy to sympathise with the view that it would be better to just give them some appropriate reading material and let them work it out for themselves. But, there’s that pesky evidence suggesting that systematic synthetic phonics is a much better approach to early reading instruction than whole language approaches. If our guesses and intuitions are contracted by scientific enquiry, then our guesses and intuitions are wrong. Clear as this is, it’s unsatisfying to hear that you’re wrong without a plausible explanation. And despite all the evidence supporting explicit instruction over discovery methods, a satisfying explanation was always missing.

Happily, there is an explanation and I hope you’ll find it satisfying. The evolutionary psychologist, David Geary draws a distinction between two different types of knowledge. The first, what he calls ‘biologically primary’ knowledge, is stuff which we have evolved to acquire easily. Learning how to cooperate with other people (folk psychology) understanding other species (folk biology) and inanimate objects (folk physics) all provide a clear evolutionary advantage and, over countless millennia, natural selection has shaped our brains to pick up these evolutionary ‘good tricks’ as efficiently as possible.

From Geary & Berch (2016)

The second kind of knowledge is ‘biologically secondary’. As well as ‘hard wiring’ our brains to rapidly learn the ‘folk disciplines’, nature has also made use of the brain’s natural plasticity to enable us to learn new – cultural – information which may prove useful to useful to us. The trouble is, although we can rewire our brains to learn culturally generated knowledge, it doesn’t come nearly as easily. The good news is that, with effort, our brains are more than capable of automatising secondary knowledge to the point where it can become effortless to use. The bad news is, we tend to find it hard to get to this point.

This explains why we find it easy to learn to speak, but more difficult to learn to read and write. Although these skills seem (and are) closely related, spoken language is ancient in its origins whilst literacy is a very recent cultural development and evolution is lagging far behind. This is why we need schools. “In contrast to universal folk knowledge, most of the knowledge taught in modern schools is culturally specific; that is, it does not emerge in the absence of formal instruction.” (p. 234) Schools exist to teach the hard stuff that children are unlikely to just pick up from their environments. As John Sweller acknowledges, “Since Geary’s formulation, it has become clear that theories like cognitive load theory apply solely to the biologically secondary knowledge for which schools and other educational institutions were invented.” (p. 215)

This is an incredibly useful framework for deciding what should be covered in a school curriculum. We should think carefully about whether what we are seeking to teach is biologically primary or secondary. If it’s a primary adaptation, then maybe we don’t need to teach it at all as children will have an innate ability to pick it up from their environments. That said, maybe we do need to make sure that children’s environments are conducive to acquiring the folk knowledge we all take for granted. Just because the capacity to learn this stuff is innate, it doesn’t follow that we will learn it if, say, we spend our formative years locked in a darkened room. This might provide an argument in favour of ‘play based’ approaches in Early Years to ensure all children are immersed in the kind of environment in which they pick up speech, group cooperation and a sense of self. But, if we’re tempted to teach these kinds of things explicitly later on in education we will probably be wasting our time. This is the argument I advance against a curriculum based around so-called ’21st century skills’.

As well as suggesting the degree to which we should be explicit in our instruction, Geary’s theories also tell us something important about motivation. We’re inherently motivated to learn knowledge which has an obvious evolutionary advantage. Few children have to be persuaded to socialise or mess about with objects – the tendency is part of being human. Similarly, few children are motivated to put in the effort required to learn to read without direction. As information diverges from its folk knowledge base, it becomes increasingly harder for us to wrap our heads around it. We easily fall prey to naive misconceptions and get frustrated at the tedious practice needed to master secondary knowledge. This is why schools need rules and well-administered behaviour systems; without these things, children – especially teenagers – are likely to drift off into those activities which come more naturally are induce more pleasure such as chatting, twanging rulers, looking at cat pictures on the internet and flirting with each other.

Here are three ideas from Nick Rose, adapted from chapter 1 of What Every Teacher Needs To Know About Psychology, which all teachers might find useful:

  • A key idea in the psychology of learning is the ‘schema’. Learning new information requires secure foundations (schemas) of prior knowledge. There are likely to be some concepts, facts or ideas that are more ‘foundational’ than others.
  • How do students ‘select’ which schema to use when tackling questions or problems in lessons? Perhaps, as Geary implies, the more our subject relies upon biologically secondary knowledge, the more readily a student will rely upon a misconception based on their prior ‘folk knowledge’.
  • Our brains have adapted to readily recall stories, and this suggests we might use the structure of stories within a sequence of learning to make abstract content more memorable.

All this certainly gives the lie to the misconception that there’s ‘no best way’ to teach.