News flash: New study shows formal learning requires effort!!!!

If my tone in this post sounds sarcastic, don’t worry, you’re not imagining things. My tone really is sarcastic. Some things, I’ve learned, positively beg for a rich heaping of irony.

The latest issue of Education Week contains the following article, published online June 16 and published in print June on 17:

Effort, Engagement, and Student Learning
An Evolutionarily Informed Education Science

It’s a short piece that reports on a new educational study. Here are the opening lines:

Schools that often emphasize fun, student-centered classroom activities in instruction, and evolutionary processes over many generations have helped shape humans’ interest in those engaging social activities.

Yet for students to tackle new and difficult, or “evolutionarily novel” material in reading, math, and other subjects, schools need to emphasize effort and persistence.

That’s the argument put forward by David C. Geary, a professor of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri-Columbia, in a study (pdf).

Aside from the syntactically incoherent character of that first sentence (I think a copy editor failed to remove the word “that” after the word “school”; reread it while making that mental change to see what I mean; or maybe it’s the comma-plus-and that causes the problem; in any case, the sentence lumpy) — aside from its low readability, the passage rates quite high on the amuse-and-annoy scale for its bludgeoning obviousness. “What’s that you say? Students actually have to try in school in order to be successful and learn their lessons? Sakes alive! Such revolutionary radicalness!”

Maybe I’m jumping the gun in my mockery by failing to fill in the rest of the picture that’s painted by the rest of the article. It says the study was published last October in Educational Psychologist but only publicized this month by Mizzou’s press office. (Apropos to nothing, that’s my alma mater we’re talking about.)

Then it summarizes Geary’s argument in a bit more detail:

The process of evolution, Mr. Geary says in the study, has resulted in students being able to acquire certain types of new knowledge and skills, such as language acquisition, in a relatively “effortless” manner through processes that are engaging. Schools have arranged lessons to suit those desires.

Yet evolution has not provided the necessary scaffolding to help students with challenging content, such as algebra and reading, Mr. Geary argues. Only determined effort in classrooms will help students meet that demand, he says.

Aside from the continuing evidence of editorial slovenliness — students are able to acquire language acquisition? Oof — this passage helpfully elucidates the point: By means of evolutionary pressure, Geary’s study says, we have bred into ourselves a desire for engaging in fun social activities. This has led to a situation in which we are able, by evolutionary inheritance, to learn some things effortlessly, such as when we learn to speak in childhood. But most of the things we learn formally in school are new, in evolutionary terms, and so we can’t make school all fun and games if we want the learning there to actually “take.”

When you put it that way — as I just did — it really does pose an interesting thesis. The injection of evolutionary psychology into educational theory sounds fascinating. But the conclusion, at least as offered by the Education Week article, is maudlin at best, absurdly unnecessary at worst: Formal learning requires formal effort.

Really? Is this actually news? In asking this pointed question with a pointedly rhetorical intent, I hasten to add that I don’t mean to spit on Geary’s work. His educational evolutionary viewpoint sounds fascinating, not least because it makes possible the enjoyable argument that America’s (largely unacknowledged) cultural elevation of amusement to a position of chief importance not just in formal education but in life at large over the past few decades represents a collective psychological regression and intellectual devolution.

But the punch line about formal learning requiring “effort and persistence” reminds me ever so much of one of the many passages from Theodore Roszak’s Where the Wasteland Ends that has stuck closely with me ever since I first read that wonderful book in 1991 and was floored and transformed by its profound and vibrant critique of the politics, psychology, and spiritual reality of modern technocratic, urban-industrial culture with its wholesale reliance on a philosophy of scientistic reductionism:

Can one help concluding that there is something more radically corrupted than humanist intellectuals suspect about a standard of intellect which requires a lifetime of professional study and strenuous debate, much ornate methodology and close research to produce at last a meager grain of human understanding, cautiously phrased and nearly drowning in its own supporting evidence? That people are very likely not machines . . . that love is rather important to healthy growth . . . that “peak experiences” are probably of some personal and cultural significance . . . that living things have “goal-oriented needs” . . . that human beings have an emotional inside and are apt to resent being treated like statistical ciphers or mere objects . . . that participating in things is more rewarding than passively watching or being bossed about . . . how many books do I take up each year and abandon in anguished boredom after the first two chapters, because here once again is some poor soul offering me a ton of data and argument to demonstrate what ought to be the axioms of daily human experience? If our Paleolithic ancestors were presented with these “controversial new findings,” surely far from applauding our deep-minded humanism, they would only wonder, “Where along the line did these people become so stupid that they now must prove to themselves from scratch that 2+2=4?”

If we could put Roszak’s humanistically wise Paleolithic peoples in a school setting that requires formal effort and persistence to inculcate the literate sensibility and cast of mind required of citizens in the modern liberal democratic nation-state, then, as they say, we just might have something there.

Short of this impossibility, we might consider deliberately recentering ourselves in self-evident human verities, perhaps with the help of wise guides like Roszak, while recognizing the cultural-technocratic fraud for what it is, both in educational theory and elsewhere, so that we can perhaps abandon our current insoluble cultural and civilizational impasse and devote our efforts to pursuing more achievable and desirable ends than re-proving to ourselves that 2+2=4.

The process of evolution, Mr. Geary says in the study, has resulted in students being able to acquire certain types of new knowledge and skills, such as language acquisition, in a relatively “effortless” manner through processes that are engaging. Schools have arranged lessons to suit those desires.

Yet evolution has not provided the necessary scaffolding to help students with challenging content, such as algebra and reading, Mr. Geary argues. Only determined effort in classrooms will help students meet that demand, he says.

About Matt Cardin

Teeming Brain founder and editor Matt Cardin is the author of DARK AWAKENINGS, DIVINATIONS OF THE DEEP, A COURSE IN DEMONIC CREATIVITY: A WRITER’S GUIDE TO THE INNER GENIUS, and the forthcoming TO ROUSE LEVIATHAN. He is also the editor of BORN TO FEAR: INTERVIEWS WITH THOMAS LIGOTTI and the academic encyclopedias MUMMIES AROUND THE WORLD, GHOSTS, SPIRITS, AND PSYCHICS: THE PARANORMAL FROM ALCHEMY TO ZOMBIES, and HORROR LITERATURE THROUGH HISTORY.

Posted on June 27, 2009, in Education and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Good grief. I would never have realized that reading didn’t come naturally to people if I hadn’t read this article. I thought babies just started doing Calculus in their heads while they were in the maternity ward.

    I won’t even ask what this world is coming to because I know I would get several answers, and all of them would basically be saying, “The end.”

  2. Didn’t I leave a comment on this b4? Deleted?

    Well, anyway, as you say – interesting, but sort of irrelevant. It’s kind of cool that primitive people evolved “fun” activities that would teach the young of the tribe to socialize – the way lion cubs wrestle each other cause it’ll teach them skills they need to hunt and defend the pride. But now that we’re in this social setting, and we want to learn something rather quickly (way quicker than we could evolve an adaptation that would make us predisposed to learn it), we’re just going to have to get down and do it. Duh.

  3. thefaithfulmind – I’ll tell you exactly what this world is coming to: The End! There, wasn’t that a surprise? 😉

    Kim – Yes, you did leave a comment previously, and I just now discovered that I never approved it. Oops and sorry. I went ahead and substituted your current one for the previous one, since both say the same thing. Regarding which, I agree, and well put.

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