Student Nature, Part III: Nature and Her Consequenceson October 23, 2006 at 12:00 am
This series doe not argue that only genes matter. The emergent rules of complex systems (Bloom, 2000; Johnson, 2006, 2), in addition to more mundane matters such as instructional processes (Beins, 2002, 308; Fels, 1993, 365; Zubizarreta, 1996, 126), detailed syllabi (Barker, 2002, 382), and perhaps classroom size (Lisska, 1996, 93), effect education and classroom enjoyment in obvious ways. Still, genes interact with the environment, so both are important to educators. Just as series life decisions are correlated with an interaction between environment and genes (Capsi, 2003, 386), so education is as well. Next I outline how our genetic heritages should effect how we teach. Controversy should not keep us from the truth. A highly successful method of peer teaching, Cooperative Learning (see, for example, Slavin, 1999, 74)), is often not used because of aversion to the use of rewards that are external to the student (Slavin, 1996). Similarly, if genetic knowledge is ignored because it does not fit our pre-existing biases, shame on us.
Rationality may be overrated. Lieberman, Schreiber, and Ochsner noted that “”Because behavior is often driven by automatic mechanisms, self-reports of mental processes are notoriously unreliable and susceptible to many forms of contamination” (2003, 682). Yet many texts argue that reflection and self-reports are valuable tools (Moshman, 2005, 43) instead of dubious, context-specific guesswork (see, for example, Bower, 2006; Kurzban & DeScioli, 2005, 20-21). For instance, when asked to give as much force as they received, subjects will inadvertently hit harder than they were hit because of evolved quirks in our nervous system (Shergill, 2003, 187). This is because, literally, people do not know what they are doing. Further, people put much more value on losses than gains of equal magnitude, when logically there is no reason to do other than emotional predisposition (Jervis, 2004, 165-167). The emotional system is tied up with the logical thinking in the brain (McDermott, 2004, 693; Spezio & Adolphs, 13) so much so that “those who were instructed to think of reasons why they liked or disliked [a chose made in an experiment] ended up, on average, less happy with their choice… than subjects who were not asked to provide reasons” (Camerer, Lowenstein, and Prelec, 2003, 23). Does this call rational discourse into any doubt?
Likewise, group deliberations must be rethought. Constructed group identities lead to conflict (Maalouf, 2003, 21) because xenophobia and ethnocentricism are often genetically adaptive (Hammond & Axelrod, 2006, 10). Though it is clearly possible to reduce actual conflicts (Sapolsky, 2004), group aggression is a function of environment and genes, after all, the capacity for violence is in our genes. What to do with this? What to do with the fact that fear seems conducive to learning (Lupia & Menng, 2006, 3-4,7). We get nowhere if we do not ask.
Politics, too may be a concern. The finding that people like those who have similar attitudes to themselves (Mutz, 2006, 8) immediately strikes us as a problem for socialization, but learning that not only attitudes but also, and seperately (Alford & Hibbing, 2006, 13), political beliefs (Alford & Hibbing, 2004) are generally heritable shows us that socialization may have limits. Compound this with the historical politicalization of education (Fass, 307) as well as that differences are as conflicting as they are “enriching” (Taylor, 1996, 137), or even a world where terrorism is positively correlated with educational achievement (Atran, 2003, 1536) and you have a recipe for trouble.
In other papers, for other classes, I have argued for deliberative proceedings and group work. I believe these are effective tools and that student empowerment is vital for proper classroom education. I also believe that evolutionary theory and population genetics will give us educators important clues about how to best teach our students, whatever their age. But if we shirk from hard work because we are uncomfortable with some of the possibilities, or retreat with disgust as the questions raised we are like a farmer who, too lazy to reach his hands high, never picks the tastiest fruit.