Classroom Democracy, Part IV: The Evolution of Learning

We must liberate Political Science from the Barbarians.

Political scientists rarely apply the tools of political science to the problem of teaching political science. Instead, our poor field is oppressed by interlopers from psychology or economics. Students are naturally curious, the psychologists tell us, and so we should merely facilitate their natural desire to learn the materials. Or the Economists trot out their Rational Man, and tell us that our students are his clones: the student’s must be forced to study by altering the utility function by punishing behaviors we dislike and rewarding the behaviors we enjoy. Everywhere these foreigner followers of the SSSM god teach us to ignore our ancient traditions and follow their strange ways.

The Classroom: A People-Powered Polis

No more! It is time for the colonized to become the colonizers! Our hammer and sickles and evolutionary analysis and wary cooperation theory. Let us rise up and seize the commanding heights our own field’s future!
Political science is the study of social conflict and interpersonal interaction. Current research into genetic factors imply that certain traits are in-born, and I propose that these can be exploited for pedagogical ends. Humans are loss-avoiding, in-group-supporting, out-group-competing, cheater-punishing machines, and it is time we apply these facts to education. (I realize that the direction of this paper is separate from the week’s focus on international relations and comparative politics, but I believe it is no less useful.)

Loss avoidance, for instance, can be a powerful tool for an educator. As Jervis (165) notes, “losses inflict psychological harm to a greater degree than gains gratify.” Yet traditional education ignores this, with students beginning with zero points in a class and slowly earning their way to the minimum amount of points needed for a score they desire. This “framing effect” — different response to the same substantive stimuli depending on how it is described — has been shown to me important (Jervis 172) even among highly educated populations, such as surgeons. An evolutionarily-informed classroom would start students with the maximum numbers of points, and be deducted through the assignments to the final grade.

Disengaged students are the fear of every instructor, and from the perspective of an plural classrooms, these could be thought of as outbreaks of peace (a cessation of student competition). Peace between groups “is the normal human condition” (18) but hope can be found in systems. Systems may be the cause of the “intergroup alliances” (24) that prevent group tournaments, and systems can also serve to prolong hostilities (23). Thus the wise instructor will have to devise the classroom such that conditions that further intergroup tournaments — such as power asymmetries as well as not overly “punishing” groups for original solutions to problems (23) — in order to improve education. Likewise, safe predictable levels may , (Jervis 168) along with too much “tension-reducing reconciliation” (Sapolsky) such as “cheating,” arise, and these need to be countered as well. Similarly, the emergence of groups in which all of the work is done either by women in “female farming systems” (Harpending and Cochran 11-12) or entirely by males in raiding parties (Wrangham 22) would be something to watch out for.

By being closer to human nature, a method of political science education focused on coalitionary aggression and loss aversion will be more inclusive. Some mental phenotypes “are adaptive yet… are irritating or undesirable (Harpending and Cochran 10) and can lead to labels such as Hyper-Active (Ding et al 314). However, group tournaments would allow a division of labor that allow different personality types to contribute in different ways. This is superior to the current, atomist, model of education which attempts to use a common delivery to directly teach every student.

Student motivation is always a question, which is not surprising as minimal competition (“peace”) is the normal human condition (Wrangham 18). Fortunately, as educators we can create intergroup competition through manipulating system-level rules (24). Breaking students into groups, say, and not deducting points from the winning group, should be enough to encourage individual competition, especially if we trust in man’s capacity as a wary cooperator and allow further deductions based on negative, if costly, reviews from fellow students (say, a student can deduct one point from himself to deduct a point from a cheater).

This model makes precise predictions. It argues that classes which give the students all of their points immediately but then deduct for wrong answer, rather than classes that begin students with zero points and reward for correct answers, should produce higher-achieving students. Likewise, it argues that classes where group work is done with the purpose of triumphing over another groups should be more effective than either classroom where the purpose is intergroup cooperation, individual cooperation, or individual competition. An experiment to demonstrate this for one-shot classes should be straight-forward to conduct, and a comparative, semester-long study involving recitations is not beyond the realm of possibility.

These experiments would integrate well with existing programs. Games that focus on cheater-detection and cheater-punishment, for example, can easily be applied to seeing if students will detect and punish academic cheaters — especially if those cheaters’ actions cause the victim to lose points.

Classroom Democracy, a tdaxp series
1. A Parliament of Scholars
2. A Defense of Republics
3. The Life of Constitutions
4. The Evolution of Learning
5. Bibliography

14 thoughts on “Classroom Democracy, Part IV: The Evolution of Learning”

  1. “Political scientists rarely apply the tools of political science to the problem of teaching political science”

    That's ok. Education professors rarely apply the tools they discuss either ( ” Do as I say…”)

  2. The way I see it, one of the problems is that in the classroom, reality is fake. The students are really tied together by a leviathan force applied according to the rule-sets of the society.

    If the classroom really represented a reality that was a complex adaptive system, the rules of a network would apply. The resources would go to the students with the resource and would be taken from the students that had nothing. While this leviathan force artificially binds the classroom, the granting of points to those who earn them would seem to be an attempt to create a system similar to a complex adaptive system, while controlling, or perhaps more accurately training, the resources equally.

    Because the reality of the classroom is really only the reality of the teacher, no matter what you do the students will adapt just fine. If you give all the points before the class, the students wanting just a passing grade will figure it out and use their resources according to what is best in their situation. When a point in time is reached that they are pretty much guaranteed a passing grade their resources will go where needed. The students will adapt no matter what you do, so, it would seem to me, how you give out points would not matter much.

    Most students are making judgments about the best way to use their resources, than what the class has to teach. A teacher with a reputation that will look good on their resume might win over a teacher who has better comprehensive skills and teaches a 5-credit course. The student is not only adapting to the classroom, but to the program, financial support, and social skills as well. So while the reality maybe that you are really “reaching” your students, it maybe that those that can adapt to your teaching style are looking for an easy, less time consuming, 3-credit (or however many) course.

    What you are really trying to produce is a complex adaptive system (student) that is not dependent on one course or one teacher, but can adapt to any system it is exposed to. So it would seem to me that one goal of a good teacher would be to make the classroom environment as complex (not necessarily hard to understand but move in a complex manner) as possible. I have always appreciated teachers who could build complexity into their studies. This is what it sounds like you are attempting, bravo.

  3. Sean,

    Cool! What are Christine's comments/criticisms/questions?


    You are right that this mechanism builds adaptive behavior, both in groups and individuals. One day, for instance, a Prime Minister was elected who had not been attending class nor reading the material. Predictable, little was achieved that day, because the Prime Minister did not know want he want lectured, what to review, etc. There was not a repeat of that. The lesson students learn: if students run the classrom, choose a capable student.

    Another time, the class decided to spend the session before the test watching a movie instead of reviewing for the test. (The vote was close.) After the test, a number of students came up to me insisting they probably would have received a higher grade (from half a grade letter to a full grade letter) if they had just a little more time to think of the correct answer. I explained that those areas they were “slow” on where in the test review notes (and even made the test review notes available to demonstrate this). The lesson students learn: if the classrom is run without attention to academics, academics hurt.

    It's important to mentor self-regulating strategies, and I think classroom democracy is a good way to do this.

    I haven't applied the suggestions in Part IV (particularly the group competions), but I imagine they would speed up those benefits of classroom democracy. The biggest question I have is how this “evolutionary” classroom and classrom democracy should fit together best.


    I am very lucky in that the Educational Psychology faculty apply what they are teaching. Dr. Kiewra, who is something a cognitivist-behavioralist, consciously runs his classes and seminars along those lines and explains how students can turn around and run their classes along thsoe lines, too. Another professor is more of a straight behavioralist and runs his classes that way. Yet another is a social ) constructivist who teaches in a very vygotskian manner, and another is a constructivist who uses piagetian tactics.

    It is INCREDIBLY useful to be exposed to these philosophies through these philosophies. The experience is amazing. My props to them.

  4. Purpleslog,

    Submitted! (I hope, the form was somewhat confusion… heh 🙂 )


    Agreed. I am having a wonderful time in my classes here, and the faculty has generally been very open to synthesis (such as the Coming Anarchy series [1] which juxtaposed identity and creativity, or this series which contrasts classroom teaching and evolutionary psychology).

    (I mistake by the way, I've been under two Vygotskians, not one Vygotskian and one Piagetian.. My mistake 🙂 )

    Just last week, someone very senior in the department told me that there, the prestige assignments are teaching, not research. I believe it. The intellectual strength the faculty put into supporting and demonstrating their methods is wonderful.


  5. Mark,

    I agree. I will write up my thoughts on the forum [1] soon, but I'll mention one thing here because it relates to what you said. One VWKR (Very Well Known Researcher) gave me two pieces of honest, friendly advice

    1) Do not mention that you enjoy teaching, especially in relation to research. You will receive less help from others.
    2) Teaching is a waste of time, and should be avoided as much as possible

    This was not said in a bitter or unfriendly manner, but in the context of what has worked for the VWKR in his career so far.

    We need researchers, and it is important they practice what they do a lot to become experts. But for myself, I enjoy the previously mentioned definition of prestige more.


  6. good topic
    ihope if we can apply it in our school
    the students are the most important element in education proces

  7. Dan
    Have you ever thought of taking some of these outside the box teaching techniques you’ve devloped and putting them into a Nimble book? It would be great to see these ideas adopted at other universities and a book may be good way to get your ideas to the masses.

  8. “Instead, our poor field is oppressed by interlopers from psychology or economics. Students are naturally curious, the psychologists tell us, and so we should merely facilitate their natural desire to learn the materials. . .”

    Ironic statement considering your own educational background:P

    “That’s ok. Education professors rarely apply the tools they discuss either ( ” Do as I say…”)”

    Let me guess: PhD and D.Ed candidates aren’t required to prove themselves as good teachers before entering the programs?

  9. Michael,

    Ironic statement considering your own educational background:P

    Haha! 🙂 You can tell I was still learning the field when I wrote this series!

    Let me guess: PhD and D.Ed candidates aren’t required to prove themselves as good teachers before entering the programs?

    Or on leaving the program, either.

    I had the wonderful opportunity last semester to have some extended conversation with a faculty member who is on a national board designed to re-define the D.Ed. degree into an advanced, teaching-focused degree. Currently, it’s a relic of a battle a century ago between Colleges of Arts & Sciences and Colleges of Education, that no longer matters.

    Shadi, Purpleslog & Brent Grace,

    Thanks for the kind words! 🙂 I had not thought about it, but I do see a need. (If I do so, it will be after 5GW: The Fifth Generation of War, and have new material relating to assessment)

    Since writing this I became aware of the idea of the “democratic classroom” by John Dewer (who is held in very high esteem by educational scholars, and in a quaint type of respect by educational psychologists). I should also describe similarities and diferences between that approach, as well.

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