Student Nature, Part I: The Nature of the Student

In the context of education, the human mind expresses genetic factors in four ways: universally among the species, differently by age, differently by sex, differently by group, or differently by type. The old models of explaining human behavior, some more economic, some more psychological, are dying (Carmen, 2006, 1). It is time for a new model, of genetics in education, to be born.

Before I begin, it is important to realize that some people are not more or less “fit” than others – genetic factors in no way implies social darwinism. Educationally, some of our most valuable abilities, reading and writing, rely on genetic factors that developed accidentally (Gould 114). In evolution we are all winners. Of all the humans who have ever lifted, each and every one of the ancestors of every human who now exists succeeding in something very unlikely: having descendants who are alive even today. Not only are we all equally human: we are all equally winners.


The most obvious genetic factor is our common humanity. Our human nature is seen in the information-processing system of the brain, our natural cooperativeness, and the universal learning tools we all have.

The most trivially shared, inborn human adaption is that our brains are information-processing machines. The information-processing approach has been used to explain motivation (Albanese & van Fleet, 1985, 252), reading ability (Benton & Kiewra, 1986, 378; McCrudden, Schraw, Hartley, & Kiewra, 2004), and even warfighting (Meilinger, 2000; Moffat 2000; Smith, 1999). One particular information processing model was noted for “its multidimensional complexity and its dynamic nature that encompasses both time and space… [this information processing model] does not represent a linear process developing along the time axis but a process that develops simultaneously within the operational sphere where time is but one of the constituent elements.” (von Lubitz et al., 2004) We have a modular information processing system (Smirnov, Arrow, Kennet, & Orbell, 2006 4) that is influenced by genetic factors (Fadok, Boyd, & Warden, 1995) that directly leads to multiple intelligences (Gardner, 2003).

Humans are generally cooperative. People act as if they enjoy altruism, reporting feeling a “warm glow” (Leuthold, 1993, 353) when they help each other. Students learn (Driver et al., 1994, 10; Hursch & Borzak, 1979, 70) and act socially in a manner reminiscent of only a few other mammals (Wrangham, 1999, 1) and the social insects (Wilson & Holldobler, 2005, 13371). These social tendencies, which Smith described as “a preference for cooperation, a modest level of mistrust, an ability to persuade others of one’s own good faith, and an ability to detect lack of good faith in others” (2006,1014) are exactly the genetic adaptations what one would expect in a socially evolved species. This includes not only altruism but also altruistic punishment, the behavior of irrational vengeance seen in countless laboratory experiments (Fehr & Gachter, 2000, 993; Sanfey et al, 2003, 1755) and computer simulations (Boyd, Gintis, Bowles, & Richardson, 2003, 3532). And even if completely anonymous conditions, people still are generous to others (Fowler, 2006, 676). Humans are social animals who need each other in order to learn (Ridley, 2003, 208). Education should be designed to exploit this.

Our “species-nature” (Talbot, 2003) includes other learning tools we often take for granted. The human brain can learn how to take care of things automatically by repeated practice, a process called automaticity (Craemer, 2006, 4-5; Morris, Squires, Taber, & Lodge, 2003, 4). Closely related to this is analogical thinking, applying known strategies to a new tasks, documented in areas from economic games (Henrich, et al, 2001, 75) to creativity (Weisberg, 1993). Similarly, essential human needs such as security (Huddy, Feldman, & Weber, 2006, 2) and thus the increased attention to intimate partners (Biggs, 1999, 106), probably have a genetic basis as well. Additionally, the cogntive split between verbal and visual knowledge (Igo, Kiewra, & Bruning, 2004), to say nothing of conscious and unconscious knowledge (Hoffman, 2006; Schraw & Bruning, 1996, 302), appear to be universal. This includes intuition (the ability to make correct choices faster than one could have consciously viewed choices) (Olson & Marshuetz, 2005, 501) and other hitherto-unscientific theories. Any educational methodology that assumes that what students are consciously aware of and what they can explain is the limit of their knowledge would be very misguided.


Student Nature, a companion series to Learning Evolved
1. The Nature of the Student
2. The Natures of Our Students
3. Nature and Her Consequences
4. Bibliography

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