Cave men in classrooms by Prof. Roger Schank

Roger Schank, founder of the Institute for the Learning Sciences at Northwestern University, John P. Evans Professor Emeritus in Computer Science, Education and Psychology, and author of about twenty books, gives us an offering on evolution and education on The Pulse, the blog of District Administration, an educational organization. His posting, Cave Man Didn’t Have Classrooms, borrows from the idea that we are gastro-intestinal ‘cave men’ eating twenty-first century (read: ill adapted) diets, using it to criticize the Western approach of education. As he puts it, cleverly, we are ‘still’ cave men (we’ll be back to that point): ‘We just wear better clothes.’

I take seriously the idea that, biologically, we are still cave men. And, mentally we are cave men as well. Just as we were evolved to live off the land without excessive alteration to what we find there, so have we evolved to think and learn in a certain way, a way that may not be consonant with how we think we think, and how we learn in the modern world.

He goes on to paint absurdist images of ‘cave men’ learning through lectures in class rooms to highlight the fact that human brains may not learn well by sitting quitely and listening. Prof. Schank writes:

Why do these images seem absurd? Because, we imagine, that cave men taught their children by example. We imagine that they took them along on the hunt when they were ready and that they practiced, by playing, prior to that. We assume, that learned to build shelters by doing simple tasks first and that they learned to defend against predators by watching and later helping. We don’t really have to imagine this very hard, as there are primitive societies where this still takes place today. In fact, prior to the idea of mass compulsory education, like that of mass feeding, we knew how to educate children properly, that is in the way that their minds were set up to work after 1,000,000 years of evolution. Instruction in cave man society, indeed in all societies until very recently, was by long-term apprenticeships. Knowing was not valued. Doing was seriously valued.

He highlights the fact that, in hunting and gathering societies — and also in most professions, sports, and basically anything we learn outside the classroom — people tend to learn by watching, copying, experimenting, hearing stories, and getting ‘just-in-time advice offered by a more senior practitioner.’ What he is pointing out specifically is not just how knowledge was (or is) transmitted, but the very nature of knowing in most naturalistic settings. I’ll come back to my problems with the evolutionary ‘cave man’ argument in a second, but I think his main point about naturalistic epistemology is pretty dead on. Prof. Schank explains:

To put this another way, the cave man’s mind was never prepared for, or concerned with, knowing. There was no test. There were no game shows. There was no Nobel Prize. There was action. The winner was the person who brought down the elk or buffalo. He didn’t have to know how to do it, at least not consciously. He had to be able to do it. What knowledge he had was unconscious. He may not have been able to say what he knew that helped him throw a rock straight. He could just do it. He practiced a lot.

On this, I tend to agree with him, but not because our ancient ancestors were necessarily hunting elk or buffalo; in fact, our ancestors may have been eating fruit, or sneaking carrion quickly when no one bigger was looking, or scaring other predators off their prey by pelting them with rocks… Rather, I agree with Schank because I believe that a classroom setting for knowledge, testing of what one ‘knows’ in some kind of explicit, competitive way, recalling facts under pressure (for example, on a standardized test), is probably pretty odd, not just from an evolutionary perspective, but from the point of view of most applied knowledge. To recall abstract, de-contextualized information, most of which is not relevant to any practical activity that we will do, is a highly specialized, and, typically, useless way of knowing. As a former ‘champion’ on this sort of testing, I know that it doesn’t necessarily translate into any sort of useful knowledge.

This is probably one of the reasons for the oft-cited increase in IQ scores over time (the ‘Flynn effect’ after educational researcher James R. Flynn; for more information, here’s a site at Indiana University on the subject): our skill as a community in taking relatively useless standardized tests of explicit ‘knowledge’ is improving, as one would expect of any community continually subjected to the same sorts of demands. (For a different example, I would encourage the interested to look at my piece on the development of no-holds-barred fighting techniques with the rise of ‘ultimate fighting’ or ‘mixed martial arts’ tournaments like the Ultimate Fighting Championship or Pride FC; Downey 2007)

As Daniel Lende pointed out in an earlier post, I tend to think that models of education in the West, and for that matter, anthropological understandings of culture, depend too much on ideational content or explicit ‘knowing that.’ I think that far more of human learning and culture is motor skill, perceptual refinement, and even physiological change.

For example, I have heard that teachers in early primary education spend a great deal of their time, not teaching children concepts, but disciplining them and teaching them how to behave. Usually, this is seen as a kind of behavioural ‘drag’ on ‘real’ education; all the time spent disciplining the kids could be spent better on teaching them a foreign language, or violin, or fractions. That is, behavioural learning tends to be thought of as separate from intellectual or academic content, which is what education is ‘really’ about. I think that this model of socialization is pretty shallow and does not account for much of what children must learn. Even earlier time periods make this more clearly, as Esther Thelen’s critiques of Piaget’s experiments have shown compellingly (see Thelen 1995).

The intriguing thing about the distorted picture of learning, the one that Schank is so vividly criticizing, is that this understanding is shaping Western knowledge practices, including our forms of education, our incentive structures for children and educators, and how our children typically spend a decade-and-a-half of their lives when their brains and bodies are most volatile and developing most quickly. That is, from a dynamic systems perspective, which includes modeling both bottom-up and top-down influences on developing systems (like children), the distorted view of knowledge is having an effect on the organic structure of the brain, just as are other influences, on different scales, like endocrine shifts, metabolic processes, microsocial interaction with parents, and a host of others. In other words, cultural assumptions about how knowledge works (and why it or what forms of it it are valuable) are affecting institution construction, incentives affecting ‘rational’ choice processes, behaviour, material culture, and — ultimately — the organic structure of children’s brains, including capacities for recall, intellectual skills, and neuroarchitecture.

So, this leads me to my problem with Prof. Schank’s piece, although I think I fundamentally agree with some of the things he argues about the forms of intelligence: his evolutionary framing for the argument. The overaching assumption he is building upon — that we are fundamentally shaped by evolutionary pressures — is hard to argue against. Of course, humanity is as affected by evolution as any other species. But the conclusion, that we are thus fixed in a permanent Paleolithic mental or physical condition, is not one that I would agree with, although it is argued by such theorists as Leda Cosmides and John Tooby (see, for example, Cosmides, Tooby, and Barkow 1992). The argument that the body and brain of humans are fundamentally fixed and out-of-step with modern, sedentary, ‘Information Age’ (fill in the blank with your favourite description of modernity) depends upon our organism (body and brain) being wholly determined by a fixed, essential DNA ‘code.’

If, however, we believe that all the ‘information’ that determines the shape of our bodies and brains is not entirely in the nucleus of the egg and sperm cells that came together to form us, then there’s no reason to assume that we are environmentally out-of-step. For example, the faunal contents of our guts, the microbes that process so much of our food and without which we cannot survive, are not determined by our DNA. In fact, they are not even ‘us’ in the sense that they are separate, living organisms with their own DNA, species, habitat (us), and reproduction (see, for example, Scientists Study the Friendly Microbes Living in Our Guts). And it’s also clear that what we eat shapes our DNA, as the case of lactase production in milk-drinking populations, highlights.

Or, for another example, the environments that humans create end up holding a lot of the ‘information’ that shapes how our offspring develop. John Odling-Smee, Kevin Laland, and Marcus Feldman, for example, in their book, Niche Construction: The Neglected Process in Evolution, offer us another way to consider the organism (human, or non-human) as not simply the passive object of evolution, as Richard Lewontin argued, but also an active participant in that process. So to assume that we are the products of our DNA, shaped by evolution and thus slow adapting, is a view of human development that is not universally shared (see, for example, Susan Oyama’s brilliant, The Ontogeny of Information: Developmental Systems and Evolution, which I’ll probably flog ad naseum on this blog).

To return to the example of diet, some studies point to these microbes in our guts as being linked to obesity (see Turnbaugh et al. 2007 for a review of the microbiome project; for an audio news segment on the subject of obesity, go to the Washington University site). More complex models of human digestive disfunction and the obesity epidemic would likely have to be dynamic models of our changing stomach contents and metabolic processes as well as our industrial agriculture, sedentary lifestyles, and other socio-cultural factors (see, for example, Martin et al. 2007).

So Prof. Schank is right about many things — the lack of fit between our model for education and the way that the vast majority of practical knowledge works and the interesting relationship between diet and knoweldge, and what they both teach us about evolution. I just don’t think he’s exactly right about the lessons that the examples offer. Far from being determined by ‘a million years of evolution’ (seemingly an arbitrary number when it could be must longer, but modern Homo sapiens are much younger), we are shaped by our ideas about things like diet and education, just as we are shaped by our diets and education. Even our understandings of evolution are one of the ideas that affect the resulting organisms.


Cosmides, Leda, John Tooby, and Jerome H. Barkow.
1992. Introduction: Evolutionary Psychology and Conceptual Integration. In The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. Jerome H. Barkow, Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby, eds. Pp. 3-15. New York: Oxford University Press.

Downey, Greg.
2007. Producing Pain: Techniques and Technologies in No-Holds-Barred Fighting. Social Studies of Science 37(2):201-226.

Martin, François-Pierre J., Marc-Emmanuel Dumas, Yulan Wang, Cristina Legido-Quigley, Ivan K. S. Yap, Huiru Tang, Séverine Zirah, Gerard M. Murphy, Olivier Cloarec, John C. Lindon, Norbert Sprenger, Laurent B. Fay, Sunil Kochhar, Peter van Bladeren, Elaine Holmes, and Jeremy K. Nicholson.
2007. A top-down systems biology view of microbiomemammalian metabolic interactions in a mouse model. Molecular Systems Biology 3 (112) (pdf version).

Odling-Smee, John, Kevin Laland, and Mark Feldman.
2003. Niche Construction: The Neglected Process in Evolution. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Oyama, Susan.
2000. The Ontogeny of Information: Developmental Systems and Evolution. Second revised expanded edition. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Thelen, Esther.
1995. Motor Development: A New Synthesis. American Psychologist 50 (2): 79-95.

Turnbaugh, Peter J., Ruth E. Ley, Micah Hamady, Claire M. Fraser-Liggett, Rob Knight, and Jeffrey I. Gordon.
2007. The Human Microbiome Project. Nature 449 (18 October 2007):804-810. (abstract and pdf)

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Trained as a cultural anthropologist at the University of Chicago, I have gone on to do fieldwork in Brazil and the United States, and look forward to a new project in New Zealand. I have written one book, Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art (Oxford, 2005). I have also co-edited several books, including, with Dr. Daniel Lende, The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology (MIT, 2012), and with Dr. Melissa Fisher, Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy (Duke, 2006). My research interests include psychological anthropology, sport, dance, human rights, neuroscience, phenomenology, economic anthropology, and just about anything else that catches my attention.

7 thoughts on “Cave men in classrooms by Prof. Roger Schank

  1. Along these lines I think it is also important to think not about “what” we are adapted for but rather how the myriad of adaptations, structural plasticity and experiential shaping, all interact in producing neurological function associated with behavior (here I agree fully with Greg). Looking backward at any specific point of adaptation and then trying to explain a lack of fit with “modern” contexts misses the point of an adaptively and inherently flexible system whose operations (behavior) are contingent and co-existent with a series of emergent properties (the human “mind”). A good example of some places to start looking for issues of learning and function might be Tetsuro Matsuzawa’s recent work demonstrating differing types of social cognition formation in chimpanzees and humans.

    From the abstract
    This paper aims to compare cognitive development in humans and chimpanzees to illuminate the evolutionary origins of human cognition. Comparison of morphological data and life history strongly highlights the common features of all primate species, including humans. The human mother-infant relationship is characterized by the physical separation of mother and infant, and the stable supine posture of infants, that enables vocal exchange, face-to-face communication, and manual gestures. The cognitive development of chimpanzees was studied using the participation observation method. It revealed that humans and chimpanzees show similar development until 3 months of age. However, chimpanzees have a unique type of social learning that lacks the social reference observed in human children. Moreover, chimpanzees have unique immediate short-term memory capabilities. Taken together, this paper presents a plausible evolutionary scenario for the uniquely human characteristics of cognition.

    It is social referencing that seems core for human cognitive development (and probably learning as well). If this is the case, then “classroom learning” or test based learning as a unit might not be the most salient thing to focus on, but rather the social and interactive context in which information is transmitted in the classroom, the structures of assessment, etc… Some major learning in humans can (and does) go on in a classroom, but the context and they way the classroom is structured then becomes very important. (see also Herrmann, E., Call, J., Hernandez-Lloreda, M.V., Hare, B. and Tomasello, M. (2007) Humans have evolved specialized skills of social cognition: the cultural intelligence hypothesis. Science 317:1360-1366)

  2. The arguments against “traditional” classrooms in which teachers talk and students listen are by now pretty plentiful. Two things strike me: first, that the kind of informal learning described by the good doctor, and well documented in the anthropological literature, depend critically upon the desire of the learner to learn whatever skill it is that they see others using. How social systems stimulate interest seems to me to be as important as understanding how learning (and teaching, in such contexts) goes on. Second, given the many apparent strikes against the lecture-style or “bank deposit” model of instruction, why does it work at all? No doubt many, many people find it boring and uninteresting. On the other hand, you can’t argue that learners and thinkers haven’t emerged from seemingly unpromising instructional contexts. Maybe the idea of the “bank deposit” isn’t always a bad one, in that there are times when you just have to dump a lot of information into someone else’s head, and they just have to memorize it, and that’s that. (I’m reminded of the experiences of Paul Stoller becoming a sorcerer, as described in his book, “In Sorcery’s Shadow. It wasn’t all relaxed, enriching, learning-by-doing; much of the early going was listening, memorizing and regurgitating….)

  3. RE: Greg and Response 1 – rather than address the main point of the Schank argument you seem to prefer to expound upon largely irrelevant corollaries. Why?

    If Greg’s point – “If, however, we believe that all the ‘information’ that determines the shape of our bodies and brains is not entirely in the nucleus of the egg and sperm cells that came together to form us, then there’s no reason to assume that we are environmentally out-of-step.” Really? Evidence of some environmental influence on the mind is enough to convince you that that things aren’t so bad after all. This is the academic culture – pick at trifling minutiae and find a means of dissent so you can show off your own ideas rather than sticking to the matter at hand. There’s no glory in listening to and agreeing with others, is there. This exemplifies a separate point Schank often likes to make – nobody remembers what a lecturer says in class, they only remember their own contribution to the discussion.

  4. Kevin —

    Can I suggest that you read the post. Really. If you don’t see a pattern of agreement in this, then you need some help with your reading comprehension.

    And ‘This is the academic culture’ — ‘Irrelevant corollaries… trifling minutiae…’ Again, did you read the post, or did you just search for Schank’s name and try to heap scorn on anyone not sufficiently adulating? I liked Schank’s piece, as I think the posting makes ABUNDANTLY clear; I just didn’t agree with the evolutionary narrative that he employs. Relax, Kevin — no one’s making fun of your man.

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