People haven’t evolved to be writers, so forceful schools must forcefully force them

An argument that is increasingly relied on to justify what is sometimes called outcome-oriented teaching (the critics of which prefer to call ‘drilling for tests’) is that, because people are not evolved to write, there can be no natural or informal way in which they would learn to do it. Thus, it is necessary to take control of the classroom, tell them what to do, and unapologetically make them do it, again and again, until they can.

At face value, there’s a lot that is appealing about this. Anyone who has ever watched a kitten play – stalking imagined prey, flexing its leaping skills, engaging teeth and claw to grab and grapple – can’t help but see infant play as an evolved means to learn and practice essential life-skills. This much is uncontroversial. As much of what is taught in schools is clearly too recent to have been the object of evolutionary pressures – what is sometimes called ‘biologically secondary’ content – the conclusion may then be made that some means other than play must be found of training young people to do it. Light-headed types, who have since at least Socrates sustained a vision of pedagogy as kind of scaffolded play, must therefore be pushed aside in favour of serious types, whose serious methods will achieve serious results.

But this is an argument rooted in a discipline sometimes called evolutionary psychology, and evolutionary psychology is an ethical and conceptual minefield. No doubt thinking about the circumstances in which humanity evolved can shed light on our current behaviour, but exceptional caution is required when following this kind of reasoning. It is, for a start, inevitably speculative: evolution has only happened once, and is such a vast and complex event that it is effectively impossible to construct anything like a genuine scientific experiment to test one’s hypotheses. Because the arguments are couched in terms drawn from biology, though, they can have the appearance of a level of scientific respectability which they often very much lack.

This point is not in itself enough to invalidate the theory of ‘biologically secondary’ content, but it should stand as a significant caution. There are, in fact, more serious, conceptual issues with the argument, which can be seen by considering sign language for the deaf. Sign language’s history is somewhat murky. Something perhaps like it is attested to in the writings of Plato, and it seems clear that people – deaf and hearing – have been using body language and signs to communicate right back into the evolutionary past. But modern sign language, with its complex grammar and rich vocabulary, is a much more recent phenomenon. It is, despite this, acquired by both deaf and hearing children in ‘deaf’ homes through the same informal processes as speech is.

It seems highly unlikely that human beings have evolved to engage in patterns of interactive play to learn the specific intricacies of modern sign language – and yet they do. This implies that our capacity to acquire language informally – while perhaps hard wired by evolutionary processes – is flexible, and open to contexts and media markedly different from the ones in which it generally developed. At the risk of being accused of bad grammar, I might say that we have evolved, not so much to learn how to speak, but how to language.

What is more, remarkable as it is, the natural, ‘organic’ language learning that goes on in the first few years of human life is far from uniform. Even amongst children who ostensibly speak the same language, exactly what is acquired by, for example, age 5, can vary considerably. This is presumably at least in part a result of variations in exactly how this informal interaction and play happens. In human beings, then, play is not simply some fixed and uniform process, ordained as such by biological imperatives, but a highly variable experience which is shaped by the social and cultural context in which it occurs. Crucially, the informally acquired language of a 5-year-old is highly predictive of that child’s capacity to acquire the formal and academic vocabularies of secondary school, as any infant schoolteacher who has watched their young charges proceed right the way through school will tell you. By most estimates, the variation in how informal interaction occurs significantly outweighs any variation that may occur in modes of school instruction.

Our educational priority as a society lies, therefore, not in fussing over the minutiae of school lesson plans, but in working to ensure that all children experience the best possible kinds of play and linguistic interaction, both at home and school. That good education is about far more than schools ought to be axiomatic – just as it is that good health is about far more than hospitals. Blaming the teachers of deprived children for their poor academic outcomes should be as distasteful as blaming the doctors of deprived communities for the lower life expectancies of their patients. I do not mean by this that it is the parents of such children who should instead be blamed. Certain patterns of language use amongst particular populations may serve to make formal education tougher, but identifying this fact is in no way to blame the individuals or families concerned. What is more, many of the factors which negatively influence the language development of children (poor housing, poor working conditions, reduced leisure time and opportunities) are largely outside the control of the families concerned.

What goes on in the classroom may of course be improved, and in certain contexts, drilling and explicit instruction is one tool among many that a teacher may lean on. It is, perhaps, sometimes not leant on enough. The academic element of institutional education has as its essential focus the acquisition of formal and academic vocabularies, and I am at least open to the speculation that some of this vocabulary is sufficiently different from ‘everyday’ language in its precision and/or counter-intuitive meaning that it must be transmitted to students in top-down drills and practice.

That said, even pre-schoolers pass through frequent stages of development in their language which, from the perspective of the previous stage, seem counter intuitive: anything is counter intuitive if your present state of language does not account for it. And it is dubious at best that precise and counter-intuitive vocabularies are ‘evolutionary recent’ phenomenon. Non-literate peoples often boast extraordinarily precise taxonomies of the natural world, for example, along with mythologies and metaphysics which can seem highly counter intuitive, at least to the observing outsider.

At the risk of indulging in evolutionary psychology myself, might not the tendency of older people to drill and test youngsters on precise questions of language itself be an evolutionary adaptation? Repetitious games might therefore take their place alongside more informal interactions as an essential part of a teacher’s toolkit, just as they have for millennia. Teachers may scaffold interaction that their students experience in response to the types of language they are teaching, fixing the rigidity of the play to match the precision of the vocabulary targeted. Precise and rigid vocabularies, such as those required for some scientific and mathematical texts, may require more structure in certain circumstances, whereas the more ambiguous yet flexible vocabularies of public discourse and the humanities can be taught in a looser, less structured manner.

On close inspection, then, the sharp distinctions of the ‘biologically secondary’ thesis quickly blur, diminishing much of its rhetorical bite. Informal language acquisition can account for much more of the business of schools than the instructional engineers contend, and even when explicit drilling is useful, it occurs in continuity with the general pattern of how language is acquired. Most experienced teachers hardly need to be told this: their practice is already fluent, adaptive and socially alert. Some folk can if they wish put this down to a Darwinian just-so story, but, in the end, I think I’d prefer to see it as the result of the human skill, dedication and sensitivity of the teacher.   

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