The Fragility of Modern Education in the Time of COVID-19

The Fragility of Modern Education in the Time of COVID-19

David C. Geary
David C. Geary
14 min read

Modern education is arguably the most massive feat of social engineering ever attempted by humanity and one of the most important, when effective. Academic competencies at the end of schooling can have life-long influences on employability, wages, and the ability to advance in one’s career.1,2,3,4 These influences, of course, benefit the individual, but also shape the communities in which educated individuals reside and have wider effects on gross domestic product and rates of technological and other innovations.4, 5 It is not simply years of schooling or having a credential (e.g., high school diploma) that produce these effects, it is the actual reading, mathematics, and other academic skills and knowledge that students take with them as they head off for college or the work force.5

With this in mind, consider that the strategies designed to slow the spread of COVID-19 have disrupted the schooling of as many as three out of four of the world’s students,6 The long-term impacts of these disruptions will not be known for some time but there are well-founded reasons to believe they will include declines in academic competencies due to a reduced opportunity to learn and an uptick in the dropout rates of struggling students.6, 7 These predictions follow from studies that show these same outcomes with smaller-scale (e.g., due to a natural disaster) and even common (e.g., summer vacation) disruptions of children’s and adolescents’ schooling.6, 8, 9 The widespread COVID-related disruptions could result in a long-term dampening of these students’ earnings and readiness for college,4, 10 and will likely affect struggling students and students from lower-income households more strongly than their better-off peers.6, 8 If so, the potential for a widening of educational and economic inequalities and the social tensions that accompany them is high.

The COVID disruptions will also highlight the fragility of modern education. This is because academic development does not proceed as easily or in the same way as, say, language development or the development of spatial abilities, such as those that support getting you to where you need to go and then finding your way back home. These differences and the fragility of academic learning follow from the evolutionary novelty of schooling and have important but largely overlooked implications for educational philosophy, instructional practices, and for more fully appreciating the potential unintended consequences of attempts to slow the spread of COVID-19.11, 12

Evolution and education

Formal education emerged in early empires (e.g., Mesopotamia) at least 5,000 years ago and involved the training of scribes in literacy and numeracy. The scribes were educated to support the bureaucratic management of these societies and to laud the exploits of its elites. Scribes were relatively high status and likely had more wives and surviving children than the typical citizen of these empires but were proportionately few in number.13 Over the centuries, as societies became more economically and socially complex, schools expanded in covered content and student population, but progress was slow and fitful. For instance, universal secular education, as we know it today, emerged slowly across Europe during the past 400 years, as related to the goals of increasing national unity and military and economic competitiveness vis-à-vis that of other nations.14 In many cases, these goals were not achieved until well into the 19th century and in some cases the early 20th;15 in fact, the process of developing a universally available educational system is still a work in progress in some parts of the world.

The 5,000-year history and gradual expansion of schooling provided some opportunity for natural selection to favor the evolution of cognitive and motivational traits that would facilitate engagement with and success in school learning. Although higher levels of educational attainment have been generally (though not always) associated with fewer children over the past 150 years, this was not always the case.16 Prior to this, better academic competencies and attendant gains in occupational status and income were often associated with larger families and reductions in child mortality that in turn resulted in positive selection for traits that facilitated school learning.17, 18, 19 Even so, the potential for evolutionary selection to operate on these competencies has been comparatively recent and often restricted to only some segments of the population.

As a result, there is no reason to expect a universal or even broad-based inherent motivation to find academic learning particularly interesting or easy. This is why I have made a distinction between biologically secondary abilities that are culturally-specific and generally only emerge with instruction in school and biologically primary abilities that are universal. These primary abilities emerge without formal education, much cognitive effort, and through children’s common activities, such as socializing with friends or exploring the environment.11, 12, 20

The basic idea is illustrated by a contrast of reading and language development. The latter is a human universal and emerges from an inherent brain architecture that forms prenatally;21 brain imaging studies confirm its specialization for processing language in the first months of life.22 The normal development of language competencies and its surface structure (e.g., the language eventually spoken) emerges effortlessly from this architecture as children engage in everyday social activities.23

As noted, reading and writing systems initially emerged in early empires as a bureaucratic tool and to socially communicate with and attempt to influence the behavior of other people. We might then expect that the evolutionary foundation for people’s ability to develop and learn reading and writing includes the primary systems for social communication, such as the language system. This is the case—learning to read and write involves, in part, the school-dependent adaptation of aspects of the language system (among others) for reading and generating written words.24

However, the inherent biases and scaffolds that guide the acquisition of a natural language are not sufficient for learning how to read and write. This is why the majority of children acquire these (and other) academic competencies most effectively with systematic, organized, and teacher-directed explicit instruction on phoneme (language sounds) identification, blending, and word decoding (sounding out words).25, 26 Skilled reading also requires fluency and text comprehension. Fluency is the fast and automatic retrieval of word meanings as they are read, which is related in part to the frequency with which the word has been encountered or practiced in the past.27 Text comprehension requires an understanding of the meaning of the composition and is dependent, in part, on the ability to identify main themes in the text and distinguish highly relevant passages from less relevant ones. As with more basic reading skills, many children require explicit instruction in the use of these strategies to aid in text comprehension.27, 28 Unlike language’s built-in scaffolds, the scaffolds that support learning to read and write have to be constructed by teachers and guided by well-developed school curricula. Absent such scaffolds, children will not acquire these or most other academic competencies.

To make matters worse, reading and writing are relatively easy compared to content domains, such as physics and mathematics, that fitfully emerged as mature disciplines over several millennia.29, 30 Not only are the abstract concepts associated with these domains far removed from evolved primary systems, primary biases often interfere with learning these evolutionarily novel concepts. For instance, when asked about the motion of a thrown ball, most people believe there is a force propelling it forward and another propelling it downward. The downward force is gravity, but there is no force propelling it forward, once the ball leaves the thrower’s hand.31 The concept of a forward-force, called “impetus,” is similar to pre-Newtonian beliefs about motion prominent in the 14th to 16th centuries. Careful observation, use of the scientific method, and often arduous explicit reasoning are necessary to move from an intuitive understanding to scientific theory and knowledge. In his masterwork, the Principia, Newton said as much: “I do not define time, space, place and motion, as being well known to all. Only I must observe, that the vulgar conceive those quantities under no other notions but from the relation they bear to sensible objects.”32 The “vulgar” only understand physical phenomena in terms of primary systems and biases and Newton went well beyond this.

The point is that Newton’s efforts transformed the physical sciences and in doing so created a gaping crevice between the scientific understanding of gravity and motion and the primary systems for tracking and everyday understanding of motion. Fortunately, it is not necessary for students to reconstruct Newton’s efforts. But, those who hope to go into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields must to come to understand them and much more. Cognitive and brain imaging studies indicate that giving up primary intuitions and grasping Newton’s insights about motion do not come easily, even for very capable college students.33 The same is true for the theory of evolution, the scientific method, and many other evolutionarily novel innovations and knowledge.34,35

This evolutionarily novel knowledge must be taught to students each and every generation. Disruptions to educational efforts, as with COVID-related closings of schools, or simply poor education due to lax standards, student disinterest, or anything else that reduces the opportunity to learn result in the construction of weak scaffolds and adults who are ill-prepared for life in the modern world. It is not just individuals who are at risk. Without rigorous and sustained educational efforts all of this knowledge could be lost to humanity in just a few generations until the next tranche of geniuses rediscovered it.

Educational philosophy

Unlike physics or mathematics, education is far from a mature discipline. The field has yet to find a conceptual mooring that will provide long-term stability and direction for research and instructional practices. The resulting floundering leaves the field susceptible to fads, cults of personality, out-sized political influences, and produces never ending debate regarding the best instructional approaches.36 The reading and math wars in the United States were one result of this chaos and stemmed, in part, from disagreements about whether academic learning should be guided largely by children’s interests or by teachers and a rigorous, explicit curriculum.37, 38 The child-centered approach is still vogue in some educational circles today and finds its modern roots in Rousseau’s 1762 publication of Emile.39 If this romantic view were correct, learning how to read and write would flow seamlessly from the same brain and cognitive systems and experiences that result in natural language development: They do not.37

The fatal flaw is the failure to appreciate the distinction between primary (e.g., language) and secondary (e.g., reading) abilities. This is not to say that an evolutionary perspective provides the answers on how to best educate students. In fact, an evolutionary perspective highlights that we cannot know a priori what approach will work best for the learning of, for instance, word decoding in reading or fractions concepts in mathematics. One contribution comes from providing direction on more and less plausible approaches to instruction. With an evolutionary framing, extreme child-centered approaches, such as whole reading and whole math, would have never left the starting gate and the poor educational outcomes of untold numbers of students subjected to these fads would have been avoided.

Perhaps more critically, an evolutionary perspective puts the fragility of modern education in full relief and places the burden on the adults in the room, not the evolved biases and preferences of children. It is up to teachers, professors, administrators, politicians, and curriculum developers to understand (by experimentally testing) and implement the most effective approaches to academic development. There has in fact been some progress here, but much remains to be determined.40, 41 The main point is that unlike language, spatial and other primary abilities, students’ academic development and through this their trajectory in life is dependent on a rigorous and well-structured curriculum in key academic areas and on the implementation of these curricula in effective ways.

An evolutionary approach also helps us to better understand why classroom instruction can become riddled with ideological bias. One of the motivations for the early formation of secular educational systems was to unify students around a national identity.14 The unity and the skills and knowledge fostered by schooling provided nations with a competitive advantage over less-organized ones. Indeed, the human ability to organize around an ideological identity almost certainly evolved in the context of group-level competition and the advantages to being part of a large, cohesive group.42, 43

In many nations, especially wealthy and secure ones, the goal of national unity has given way to intense competition among groups of elites who are struggling for control of the national narrative and the nation’s resources.43 Unfortunately, the struggles of these competing groups often work their way into schools, largely as a means to till the soil to produce future voters or compliant subjects. The goals are not the best educational interests of students, but rather to keep elites in power by increasing the size of their in-group.

The evolved bias to rally around ideologies and the susceptibility of modern schools to being swept into the ideological struggles of elites further weakens modern education. The opportunity to learn reading, writing, and arithmetic is squeezed to provide time for the ideological narratives underlying these power struggles. Once again, the adults in the room should step back and consider whether one educational strand or another is in the best long-term interests of the students or is a means to gain or maintain social-political influence.

Return to COVID

Imagine a group of people, with many young children, stranded on a remote island. The adults will do what they must to survive and the children—without adult interventions—will form social relationships and networks, explore the island, and watch adults and older children to learn how to hunt, forage, and do whatever is needed to be successful in this context.44 Their evolved brain and cognitive systems and motivational biases (e.g., to form friendships) will ensure that they develop language and other social skills, the ability to navigate around the island, to use rudimentary tools, and a host of other primary abilities.45 They will not, nor could they ever, learn how to read, write, spell, solve arithmetic problems, come to understand different forms of political system or myriad other skills and knowledge needed for success in the modern world.

The COVID-related disruptions of schooling have scattered hundreds of millions of children and adolescents across an archipelago of small islands that are not well-suited to fostering modern educational goals. There are reasons to be concerned about their social development and mental health, but these are likely to rebound, as children will naturally seek peer relationships and social and emotional support from them when eventually given the opportunity to do so. There is no guarantee that the same rebound will occur for students’ academic skills and knowledge. In fact, there is every reason to believe that the COVID-related weakening of the already brittle scaffolds of modern schooling will never be shored up for many children and adolescents. This is especially true for those without educational supports at home. The consequences could last a generation or more and spread well beyond the hallways of the local school building.


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David C. Geary

David C. Geary is a Curators’ Distinguished Professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences and the Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Program at the University of Missouri.