Changing Educational Policy Requires Changing Our Worldview

Peter Gray, one of the most important thinkers on child development and education from an evolutionary perspective, will be giving a free online seminar this Friday at 6-7:30 PM EDT titled The Anxiety Epidemic in Children: What are the Causes? 

There is still time to register for the event. One option is to join a group that reads and discusses material beforehand and meets with Peter for 30 minutes after his seminar and general Q&A. Here is my reflection on the material.


I first heard Peter Gray speak at a conference in 2008 and invited him on the spot to a workshop that I was organizing on early childhood education. At the workshop, he was a maverick among mavericks. Everyone was approaching early childhood education from an evolutionary perspective, but Peter’s analysis cut deeper into the culture of modern schooling and parenting than the others.

Fast forwarding to the present, I am somewhat discouraged by the lack of transformative change. Progress has been modest at best and the limiting factor is not a lack of data. The limiting factor is the overarching worldview that people have inside their heads, which governs the perception and processing of information. Unless the worldview is changed, then the capacity for educational policy change is very limited.

A comparison with genetic evolution is apt. Every organism’s genotype allows for a certain degree of flexibility in how it responds to its environment, described by academic terms such as “phenotypic plasticity” and “norm of reaction”. This flexibility provides a limited repertoire for behavioral change, but going beyond this repertoire requires genetic change.

So it is with our worldviews. Whatever you have inside your head provides a degree of flexibility in how you act. Going beyond this limited repertoire requires changing what’s inside your head. This is what it means to think of our meaning systems as the cultural equivalent of our genes (called Dual Inheritance Theory).

It follows that learning about and internalizing an overarching evolutionary worldview, which might seem far removed from action, is actually a pre-requisite for action. Without an evolutionary perspective, the logic of starting academic training early and creating a competitive environment for academic achievement is so compelling that it’s the only thing that “makes sense”. When the evidence suggests otherwise, there is no interpretive framework for explaining why. From an evolutionary perspective, these same practices appear “crazy” and Peter Gray’s vision is the only thing that “makes sense”. I put these words in scare quotes to emphasize that nothing is sensible or crazy all by itself—only against the background of your worldview, or “symbotype”, to use a new term that emphasizes the comparison with genotypes.

Something else that struck me about Peter’s blogs is that the fundamental problems are largely age-independent, afflicting pre-K students and high school students alike. We can extend this age range into adulthood. Lately, I have been focusing on business from an evolutionary perspective, including a new collaboration with Raj Sisodia, one of the founders of the Conscious Capitalism movement. Many (thankfully, not all) workplace environments promote competition among individuals in the same way as advanced academic programs—with the same toxic results.

While the lack of change up to now is discouraging, it is encouraging to think that a single paradigm change—adopting an overarching evolutionary worldview—can reveal the craziness of our current practices and the obviousness-in-retrospect of new practices across so many social contexts.