Global ESD

Educational innovation and curriculum design, as part of our work within the Department of Comparative Cultural Psychology at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
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About Global ESD

Global ESD works internationally to support sustainability education initiatives that connect concepts in human evolution, behavioral ecology, and sustainability science. By linking scientific perspectives on social change with students and classrooms seeking to make the world a better place, our aim is to foster a more global discussion about where we are going in the light of where we all have come from. Global ESD co-founders Dustin Eirdosh and Dr. Susan Hanisch are also researchers within the Department of Comparative Cultural Psychology at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. 

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Teaching evolution as an interdisciplinary science

A new Curriculum and Education article in Evolution Education Outreach argues for the educational potential of teaching evolution as an interdisciplinary science - highlighting the problems with the gene-centered and biology focused mainstream of evolution education.

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Recent Comments

Dec 22, 2020

I greatly appreciate the contribution from Prof. Hurst and colleagues here, even where I maintain some significant criticisms of this work (full disclosure, I served as an open peer reviewer on this paper for NPJ Science of Learning).

Hurst's concern that researchers could be missing interaction effects in more standard pair-wise testing designs is indeed critical, but the solution being offered does not really solve the problem (not that Hurst is claiming they are solving it fully).

As we argue in our recent article in Evolution Education Outreach (EEO) on the Educational Potential of Teaching Evolution as an Interdisciplinary Science (summarized on NPJ SciLearn here: - there already exists a wealth of evidence that evolution science can and should be taught starting in the primary school. Here, I believe Hurst agrees with us that such primary grade evolution education is critical, and in the primary school context the "teach genetics first" mantra no longer holds. In this way, it is equally if not more likely that dominant interaction effects will occur at larger scales of curriculum design than within a unit on evolution. Hurst et al. may suggest that their intervention is more practical for teachers than wholesale curriculum reform, and yet if wholesale curriculum reform is what is needed, then optimizing lesson sequences or teaching practices at a lower level will not get us to where we would like to go in terms of evolution science literacy at scale. 

Against this background, Hurst's claim at the heading of this article is a generalization that does not hold water:

"Despite orthodoxy, active learning and human-centric subject matter do not make for the best way to teach evolution."

As we argue in our EEO article "evolution education is climbing the wrong mountain" by constraining the definition of evolution to an idealized gene-centric model grounded in 20th century thinking and not representative of 21st century advances in cultural evolution science (and other disciplines informed by evolutionary theory). Hurst's learning assessment tool is unabashedly grounded in this gene-centric view - and in this regard their "human-centric" treatment falls remarkably short from the kind of relevance and cognitive accessibility we describe as the educational potential of teaching evolution as an interdisciplinary science in the human domain.  

In sum, the work of Hurst et al. (2020) does call for an important push for empirical rigor in the evolution education research community, and for this it is more than worthy of publication, but it is not without fault. Empirical rigor without firm grounding in the underlying assumptions of the constructs to measured or the nature of curriculum change will only get us so far. Their grounding in an idealized gene-centric model of evolution necessarily constrains their exploration of the learning potential of human-centric approaches in evolution education. Additionally, their 'practical' focus on lesson sequencing and teaching approaches obscure the needed complexity our field must embrace to make the progress that students and teachers around the world need from our educational research community. 

The evolution education research community needs to get better at (A) grappling with the pedagogical implications of conceptual change in scientific perspectives of evolution in the human domain, and (B) advance a more open, networked, and interdisciplinary research community that has the social and conceptual capacity to provide systems thinking and research into whole curriculum design and school improvement efforts.

Until then - the Hurst et al. article, when contrasted against our own recent work, provides important fodder for productive disagreements about the research directions our field should be taking. 

-Dustin Eirdosh
Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthrpology
Dept. of Comparative Cultural Psychology

Jul 11, 2020
Replying to Jay Somasundaram

True. This article describes far transfer using one type of thinking (slow thinking, task positive network). This article describes far transfer by teaching an underlying methodology to be followed (the classic example is de Bono's six thinking hats). Project management methodology (requirements; analysis; design; construction; testing; implementation; maintenance; retirement) teaches how to create complex artifacts.  (Slow thinking far transfer could be characterized as critical thinking.)

However, far transfer is also possible through the other type of thinking (fast thinking, default mode network). Classic examples are the use of dreaming or music. How to use fast thinking can be taught. (Fast thinking far transfer could be characterized as creative thinking.)

Substantial learning (over-learning) may strengthen particular neural networks and therefore reduce the semi-random connections useful for creativity (why small children are often more creative?). However, far transfer, to be useful, needs the ability to identify and discard ideas that won't work - which does require deep subject knowledge. Furthermore, far transfer may also depend on two of the big five character traits - openness and disagreeableness (that is, a willingness to champion ideas in conflict with majority views).


Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow: Macmillan.

Fox, M. D., Snyder, A. Z., Vincent, J. L., Corbetta, M., Van Essen, D. C., & Raichle, M. E. (2005). The human brain is intrinsically organized into dynamic, anticorrelated functional networks. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 102(27), 9673-9678. 

de Bono, E. (1987, c1985). Six hats thinking. London.: Penguin.

Oakley, B., & Sejnowski, T. (Producer). (2014, 12 June 2017). Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects. Retrieved from 

Somasundaram, J. (2018). Paradigms from the Science of Learning: An Emerging Revolution in Education. ASEAN Journal of Education, 4(2), 1-14. 

Jay, thank you for this helpful and interesting comment, I am looking at your work and it seems to add a number of interesting concepts and nuances to this debate. I encourage other readers as well to look at the 2018 paper referenced here. 

Jun 10, 2020

Thank you for this well stated argument Rob. We think the science behind your argument is solid, but your conclusions are a bit too strong. Far transfer is indeed possible and really important, but it takes careful thinking about the kinds of concepts and conceptual networks that do transfer, and how widely these transfers can be made. Evolution science is a great example of a field that has leveraged far transfer for significant scientific and practical gain, and, we argue, this field offers perhaps the central opportunity for cultivating far transfer. Our NPJ Science of Learning response to your post outlines our argument further, we would love to get your take on it - as well as others in the Science of Learning community!


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