Thursday, 1 December 2011

Using evolutionary dynamics to inform education decisions

When animal behaviorists are asked to describe the "impact" or "application" of their work, they often mention how their results will contribute to conservation efforts or, occasionally, medicine. However, insights from behavioral studies can be relevant and useful to a number of fields, as recently demonstrated by a project in which researchers developed a highly successful education program based on behavioral observations and an understanding of how and why those behaviors evolved.

The project, the result of a collaboration of researchers from Binghamton University and the Binghamtom City School District in Binghamton, New York, culminated in the creation of the Regents Academy (RA), an education program for at-risk 9th and 10th graders. The design of the RA is based on the fundamental principle that schools are social groups whose  members must cooperate with each other to achieve goals. The ability to cooperate in social contexts is important not only for humans and other primates, but also for a variety of other animals ranging from bees to meerkats to sparrow-weavers. Even in animals that do not spend most of their lives in close-knit social groups, cooperation may be vital at particular times of the year or life cycle--such as during the breeding season, when male-female work to successfully rear their young together. Cooperation is also seen across species lines, as when many different types of animals work together to drive dangerous predators out of their territories.

(Binghamton, New York, USA)

In species that demonstrate cooperation, cooperative individuals tend to be, on average, more successful than those who prefer going rogue. As a result, the characteristics that make cooperation more likely--what the authors of the current study describe, in humans, as "a complex array of psychological mechanisms" that includes processes we are not even consciously aware of--have been passed on from generation to generation, thereby preserving these beneficial behaviors over time. Thus, we humans are hard-wired to cooperate with each other. The Regents Academy was built on the idea that those hard-wired tendencies can be used to promote and enhance cooperative behaviors in real-world situations.

The creators of the RA drew on three main fields of research when shaping the program. The first was economics, a field that has long been linked with cooperation research because of the give and take between individuals with different amounts of resources, and the need for everyone to succeed to some extent in order to prevent the market from going bust. Specifically, the authors focused on Nobel Prize-winning economics work that identified 8 characteristics that help groups achieve common goals: strong group identity, receiving benefits that are proportional to the costs of cooperating, making decisions by consensus, utilizing low-cost monitoring practices to ensure that nobody is "misbehaving," employing a graded system of punishments to correct misbehavior when it does occur, quick and reasonable conflict resolution, group autonomy, and similar relationships of individuals within the group as among different groups.

(Students at the Regents Academy in Binghamton, New York)

The second important source of information was research on development and psychological functioning in different settings. Over the course of human evolution, we have adapted to deal with difficult environments, including those where food, water, and shelter are scarce, and where predators, parasites, and disease are common. This has resulted in hard-wired responses to the type of early-life struggles that many at-risk students have experienced. Across the animal kingdom, researchers have long seen patterns indicating that individuals who experience early-life trauma invest  their resources into surviving and reproducing as soon as possible, thus ensuring the transfer of genes to the next generation. For these individuals, cooperation may not be beneficial because it requires too much time and effort, and may be associated with high costs that these individuals simply cannot bear. This suggests that cooperation can be fostered by creating an environment that is safe and enriched and does not lead to these built-in urges to avoid, or at the very least show disinterest in, cooperation.

Finally, the authors also drew inspiration from the learning literature. One important theme of this work is the necessity of short-term, as well as long-term, benefits. The evolutionary relevance of this characteristic is obvious--given environmental stochasticity, animals that cooperate only to achieve long-term goals would often have failed simply because something unexpected happened (a natural disaster, a change of weather, the sudden appearance of a predator, the outbreak of a bacterial infection, and so on). As a result, it pays (on an evolutionary scale) to work towards a long-term goal only when there are short-term incentives along the way to make continued cooperation worthwhile. Another major contribution of the learning literature was an emphasis on "alternative" ways of passing on information. After all, our modern linguistic skills and educational setting are only relatively recent developments; prior to the advent of written language, the human brain developed to learn and retain information even in the absence of formal instruction--as seen even today in many "traditional" societies around the world.

(Cooperative behavior is seen in a number of species, not just humans. Adult meerkats, for instance, help raise juveniles produced by other individuals, and all animals look out for predators in order to warn each other of potential danger.)

Cumulatively, these ideas provided an evolutionary framework around which the Regents Academy could be shaped. Recognizing that different goals could be achieved in many different ways, the collaborators attempted to select a group of practices and characteristics that would complement each other to promote the desired outcome--an improvement of grades among at-risk students. These included making the RA a self-contained, autonomous program with its own dedicated principal and staff; consulting students as much as possible when establishing rules and practices at the school; maintaining small class sizes to foster more personal relationships with instructors, and having a principal that knew and interacted with each student personally on a regular basis; providing short-term incentives for cooperation and learning (such as a half-day break from classes on Fridays); communal eating; and incorporating an emphasis on how lessons relate to real-world events.

In order to investigate the efficacy of the program, its creators performed a study in which they compared quarterly grades and performance on the state-mandated Regents exams between RA students and other at-risk students in the local high school (Binghamton High School, BHS), as well as "normal" BHS students. At the end of the RA's recently completed first year, dropout rates were significantly lower than among at-risk BHS students (2 vs. 10 individuals). Further, students at the RA had GPAs that were an average of 28 points higher than those of their BHS counterparts--a difference that emerged in the first quarter despite all students' having had similar grades during the previous year. RA students were also more likely to score a "pass" on the Regents exams than were at-risk BHS students; in fact, students at the Regents Academy were on par with "normal" students at the local high school. Interestingly, a within-school comparison of students involved in the RA "fun club"--in which they could spend half of every Friday engaged in a student-nominated selection of activities--indicated that those who participated had significantly better grades than those who used the time to catch up on work, go to the gym, or socialize. This indicates that short-term benefits of cooperation--in this case, the chance to relax and have fun--really can improve the likelihood of cooperative behavior and the achievement of group goals.

(There are many examples of cooperation in primates. One common example of a cooperative behavior is grooming. Although this behavior likely began as a way to remove parasites, it is seen even in groups where parasites are not a major problem--suggesting that this practice has become an ingrained part of primate societies because it plays a vital role in facilitating bonding and cooperation.)

The creators of the program acknowledge that many educators may feel the urge to regard at-risk students as a lost cause--particularly given how many specially-designed programs for these individuals have met with failure. However, the researchers feel that their results indicate that it is possible to help these students achieve; further, they also believe that the successes reported here stemmed from the use of an evolutionary framework to inform the design of the Regents Academy. The authors also point out that their school has characteristics that are similar to those of other successful programs for at-risk students--an example of "convergent evolution" of education systems. Given that these commonly-used techniques clearly seem to work well--and, further, do not cost much more, and in fact may produce better outcomes than, more standard practices--they wonder why more institutions don't employ these methods.This is especially perplexing since each of the design features of the RA are intuitively reasonable; even among educators who do not believe in the need for an evolutionary framework for learning, surely the logic behind, and success of, each of these methods is enough to recommend them.

However, the authors also caution that "a cooperating group is like an organism": There are many parts that make up the whole, and removal of one can cause the entire organism to die. This may explain why schools that incorporate some but not all of these characteristics have previously met with failure. The researchers also point out that the framework they have developed may be useful in a variety of contexts in which cooperation and learning are the ultimate goals; however, some of the concepts they propose may need real-world testing in order to determine their utility in different settings.

Wilson, D.S., Kauffman Jr., R.A., Purdy, M.S. 2011. A program for at-risk high school students informed by evolutionary science. PLoS ONE 6(11):e27826.

Thanks to the following websites for providing the images used in this post:

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