Evolution & Student-centered Teaching Practices

Why does education "work"? How should we think about its best practices as a whole?I’ve been reading The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt, and lately it’s gotten me thinking about the role of morality in education. If education is a garden, morality is the soil. What implicit moralities best cultivate learning? What keeps thirty students itching for A’s from cornering the teacher in his/her office and demanding that grade?

That’s a little far-fetched, but you see where I’m going. The classroom is bound by certain ethical principles, but what keeps students (or instructors) from violating them? Part of that can be explained by student self-interest: “this content will improve me, so I have incentive to follow the rules,” or “I want the grade, so I’ll go along with what the instructor says.” But there’s good reason to believe that’s not the whole story. For example, many instructors take an arbitrary approach to assigning grades, and for these teachers doing that is in their self-interest: it keeps students off their backs and frees up more time for [writing grants|lab work|time with family|anything else]. Of course, the best instructors know better. They understand that arbitrary grades (e.g. curves) are demotivating and encourage cutthroat behavior in students. They know that students must have a reason to buy into the morality of education, and that many practices in the classroom undercut education’s lofty foundations. What’s the core reason to buy into education, and what practices have evolved to promote that buying in? Consider an evolutionary perspective.

In his book, Haidt draws a distinction between individual selection, the genetic evolution associated with individual traits, and group selection, the evolution of genes and culture to promote efficiency within groups. Individual selection is driven by self interest and the triumph of more effective individuals over less effective ones. Haidt is a champion of group selection, which he sees as responsible for religion and the “hivish” mindset of sporting events and raves. For thousands of years humans have known that groups accomplish more than individuals, and adaptations driven by group selection have pushed what groups can do to ever greater heights.

I see a lot of Haidt’s theory in the “evolution” of the modern classroom. For example, I used to believe that many of the flexible, “student-centered” policies you hear about today—such as allowing students to negotiate their grades or retake exams—represented a yielding of the instructor to the students. Why would an instructor, who clearly knows best how students should be evaluated, allow students to grade themselves? Knowing what he does, how could that be in his self-interest? More generally, what foundation permits one to endorse some of the namby-pamby activities hocked by those who promote student-centered learning?

The answer isn’t just “be an altruistic person.” Not according to Haidt. Once you see a student body and instructional staff as a group of people aimed at a goal, student-centered policies make a lot more sense. Good policies improve the efficiency of the group at reaching the goal. What is the central goal of a group of students and teachers? You’ve probably already guessed: student learning! Classes that learn more in a more efficient way are best (and eventually they will “select” away the worse classes). Learning is the reason that students buy into the morality of education—whether learning is a means to a professional end is, in my view, irrelevant to the teacher.

Student learning shares a lot with the concept of god supported by group selection theory. Just as modern atheists question the existence of god, many doubting educators (myself included) question the concept of “student learning.” It’s extraordinarily difficult to measure empirically, it means different things to different people, and it has little to do with the nature of content. How can something this fuzzy be a goal worth chasing?! Concerning religion, the brilliant insight of group selection theory is that the appeal of god has nothing to do with the empirical reality of a deity and everything to do with empowering groups of people. The same is true of student learning. Although it will always elude formal, rigorous definitions, it’s a construct around which students and instructors can rally to build structures (most mental) and accomplish tasks out of reach for even the most studious individuals.

This doesn’t mean that we can’t bring clarity to student learning, of course, and the same is true of god. Ancient texts, rites, rituals, and oral traditions clarify the purpose and character of god in society. Imagine a syllabus as the “bible” of a course. It clarifies student learning by providing concrete learning goals. It also establishes the norms of the classroom and the “rituals” (activities) that define participation.

It’s fascinating to think about how teaching practice has evolved very rapidly in recent years to promote student learning. For all but the most egotistical of us, education is about student learning—it’s the central concept that keeps butts in seats and discourse civil.



  1. Two good books I read recently that touch on these topics are What the Best College Teachers Do by Bain and Influence by Cialdini. Have you read either of them? Both are fascinating books. Influence has nothing to do with teaching directly (it’s written about salesmen and DTC marketing primarily), but I plan on incorporating many of the concepts into my classes in the future with the goal of ‘student learning.’


    1. I’ve read Bain, but not Cialdini. I agree that a number of books from the business/marketing world are useful for teachers, though.

      I’ve always felt that Bain was a little idealistic. He describes what the ideal classroom looks like, and talks about teachers who have the ability and circumstances to create those ideal conditions…but I think he ignores the difficult practical circumstances faced by many teachers (such as those teaching large classes). My two cents!


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