We're not evolved to love algebra

Learning can’t be fun all the time,  argues David Geary, a University of Missouri psychology professor, in a journal article and an e-mail to Curriculum Matters.

 The process of evolution, Geary says in the study, has resulted in students being able to acquire certain types of new knowledge and skills in a relatively “effortless” manner, through processes that are “child-centered” and fun.

. . .  Schools have attempted to use child-centered and fun methods, in the belief that students’ natural curiosity will lead them to take on certain, more difficult tasks, like learning to read or do fractions, in the same way they learn language or how to count, he says. But Geary argues that explicit, teacher-directed instruction will be needed for many children to learn more unfamiliar and difficult, or “evolutionarily novel information.”

Evolution “has not provided the scaffolding for this learning,” Geary told me. And so “the scaffolding must come from instructional materials and teachers.” Schools should not expect students to be motivated to learn this evolutionarily novel information in the same way they are motivated to learn through social relationships. “There is no such inherent motivation to learn linear algebra or Newtonian physics,” he said.

OK, it seems obvious, but not in the education world.

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  1. Actually, I *was* motivated to learn math and physics through social relationships: being introduced to adults who were passionate about the subject gave me that motivation, and I eventually got a degree in physics out of it, although I must say the way math was taught in school damn near killed that motivation.

  2. This mixes and misinterprets so many concepts it is ridiculous.

    First of all, people are not claiming that we have ‘evolved’ to do one type of learning over another.

    Second, nobody suggests that things we are ‘evolved’ to do are ‘fun’.

    Third, nobody is suggesting that course and content selection ought to be based on what is ‘fun’.

    Fourth, it can be ‘fun’ to do things we were not ‘evolved’ to do.

    Fifth, the mix of mathematics and problem-solving can produce what Papert and Gee and others call ‘hard fun’.

    Sixth, there is ample evidence that people can have fun and learn math or physics at the same time.

    I could probably go on, but it should be clear that this pop-psychology straw man argument does not resemble any discussion that is actually taking place in the real world of education, only the made-up world characterized here.

  3. Tracy W says:

    I thought Steven Pinker made this arguments a while ago.

    Stephen Downes, the headline is misleading. If you read what Geary is actually saying, he’s talking about “effortless” learning, and “natural learning”, and only uses the word “fun” once.

    I am also not sure why you put the word ‘evolved’ in quote marks. If I read Geary right, he thinks we actually did evolve so that we can learn some things more effortlessly than other things. It may be that no one claims that we ‘evolved’, but Geary does appear to be claiming that we straitghtforwardly evolved.

    I could probably go on, but it should be clear that this pop-psychology straw man argument does not resemble any discussion that is actually taking place in the real world of education, only the made-up world characterized here.

    No one is forcing you to make pop-psychology straw man arguments, you are free to abandon your made-up world and engage with the real world of education at any time you chose.

  4. deirdremundy says:

    Hmmmmm… does that mean that those of us who find math and physics fun are more highly evolved? =)

  5. The idea that certain types of learning and certain motivations are natural (i.e., an inherent part of every human’s make-up) is critical to certain educational schools of thought. I think Geary is trying to take a hard look at those assumptions, informed by evolutionary psychology.

    Tracy W, I had the same thought–Pinker was on to this 10 years ago–but Geary is doing much more to develop the arguments.

    I’m also a little suspicious of the conflating of “fun” and “natural.” The word “fun” doesn’t appear in the 2008 Educational Psychologist article that the blog cites. . .but it is in the press release, and Geary sounds as though he’s saying what is not natural will often not be fun, which is as dumb as assuming that all learning must always be fun. I’m guessing Geary wouldn’t agree with that. . it wouldn’t be the first time an academic didn’t read a press release carefully enough.

  6. Cardinal Fang says:

    Geary’s talking about which kind of learning will occur naturally, without motivation or intention. All normal babies learn to walk and talk as a part of their normal life, without explicit walking and talking instruction. Most people (not me, but most people) learn, implicitly and without formal instruction, the rules of social interaction– taking turns in conversation, how to acknowledge what the other person has said, how to join a conversation, when to look at the other person and when to look away, and so forth

    Math is not like that. Very few people pick up math by watching someone else do it. To learn to graph a line, a student has to willfully sit down and start working with linear equations. To be able to do compute compound interest, a student has to intentionally do math problems involving compounding. This is similar to sports skills– if a person wants to learn to shoot a puck, she’s going to have to shoot a lot of pucks.

    Fun is not the issue. Some people love to do math proofs, while others like to shoot pucks. But in this world, students need to understand compound interest more than they need to put the puck in the top corner, so we need to figure out a way to get them to come to know that. It’s not going to come naturally without intentional work.

  7. From the University of Missouri press release:

    Geary found that one reason U.S. students may be behind students in other countries in subjects like science and math is because American schools have moved away from traditional practices where students learn information through repetition.


    Oh, I think Professor Geary’s in trouble!

    After all, everyone knows that the pretense of teaching higher order thinking skills obviates the need to learn mere facts.

  8. As far as the Algebra angle, what about the 5% of people who would be classified as INTJ or INTP by the Myers-Briggs type indicator?


  9. Mark Roulo says:

    As far as the Algebra angle, what about the 5% of people who would be classified as INTJ or INTP by the Myers-Briggs type indicator?

    We are strange. Just like Hungarians…

    -Mark Roulo

  10. We’re English teachers, duh!

  11. I believe that it’s true that lots of people don’t find math natural, but for some of us it is, and our problem is surviving being “taught” math by people that don’t understand it long enough to start learning it from people that do, and this whole-math instruction is MUCH worse than what I went through in school. For people for whom it isn’t natural, it would surely be better if schools stuck to teaching math the old-fashioned way, so that teachers wouldn’t try to be creative, and students would learn something.

    Good instruction in the subject is almost impossible to get, and generally wasted, in any event. It’s like Feynman teaching intro physics. He was instructing the best of the best at Caltech, and only the very best of them really understood him. For the other 99.99%, measuring bouncing springs and problems with ropes and pulleys is probably more useful than being taught about the principle of least action, and seeing how one can derive quantum mechanics from a Hamiltonian formulation of Newtonian physics (that’s not in the FLoP, in case you’re looking for it – it was in a nifty little book I found in the physics library, but I can’t remember if it was by Dirac or someone else).