On the importance of mixed-age learning and how to make the most of it in an EvoS program

Mixed-age learning is something that came naturally to our ancestors but must be rediscovered in modern education. Even though children from all cultures have much to learn, formal schooling didn’t exist until recently. Moreover, there is often little adult instruction of any sort. Instead, children spend most of their time in mixed age groups and learn from each other. Not only do younger children learn from older children, but older children learn by teaching younger children, just as all professors know that the best way to learn new material is to teach it.

Against this background, segregating children into same-age groups is pathological. Peter Gray, who wrote the first introductory psychology textbook from an evolutionary perspective (now in its fifth edition: Gray 2007), has become passionate about this point based on the experience of his own son, who became a rebel in public school and then thrived at an alternative school that (without intending to) recreated the learning environment of hunter-gatherer society. Peter has conducted research and written eloquently about this subject. His academic articles (Gray and Chanoff 1986, Gray and Feldman 2004) and Psychology Today blog (http://blogs.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn) should be read by everyone interested in childhood education. A video presentation by Peter is available at http://evolution.binghamton.edu/evos/MiamiWorkshop.html.

The importance of mixed-age learning does not stop at childhood.  When my daughter started taking karate lessons, I decided to join her rather than sitting on the sidelines. I was amazed at how well the dojo worked as a learning system in which everyone, from white belt to black belt, simultaneously functioned as both student and teacher.

Graduate education functions much the same way. Most of what graduate students learn comes not from formal classes, but from informal interactions with peers of different skill levels. It never stops. I was trained as an aquatic ecologist but now I am studying human evolution. Most of my colleagues have also switched organisms and research topics, all by learning from more experienced peers.

Once I began to appreciate the importance of mixed-age learning, I realized that it might partially account for the success of our EvoS program, especially the “Current Topics” course built around the EvoS seminar series. As I have described in more detail elsewhere (Wilson 2005, 2007), the EvoS seminar series brings approximately ten distinguished speakers to campus every semester.  Students in the 2-credit “Current Topics” course read one or more articles in preparation, write a commentary, attend the seminar, and attend a light dinner and continuing discussion after the seminar, which is also open to the rest of the EvoS community.  The course is restricted to students in the EvoS program and must be taken twice to earn the certificate, which means that the experience is repeated twenty times, for subjects ranging from molecular biology to moral psychology, providing a vivid demonstration of the breadth of evolutionary theory.

I now realize that the dinner and continuing discussion provides a learning environment like a martial arts dojo. The audience includes the full spectrum, from freshmen just entering the program (white belts) to graduate students and faculty (black belts). Everyone has prepared by reading, writing, and listening to the seminar, and now they are directing questions to the speaker in a convivial unthreatening atmosphere.  Novices who are hesitant to speak can listen and compare themselves to their more advanced peers, who in turn can explain their points in public discussion or private conversation. There is also a convention of choosing some students at random to speak. Everyone must be prepared to ask a question and those who are mortified to be chosen are usually relieved to discover that their question was a perfectly good one.

The “Current Topics” course is one of the most popular components of the EvoS program and is frequently described by the students as their best intellectual experience at college.  It is also an impressive experience for the EvoS speakers. After all, when most scientists are invited to give a talk, it is usually a departmental seminar attended by a few dozen faculty and graduate students, followed by a small reception or dinner with a small group. EvoS seminars are attended by a large audience of undergraduate students, graduate students, and faculty from all disciplines. The dinner and continuing discussion takes place in a large room in the University Union. The discussion can last an hour, can achieve a very high level of discourse, and usually ends with loud spontaneous applause. Many of our EvoS speakers are amazed that most of the people in the audience who are asking such sophisticated questions are undergraduate students.

The “Current Topics” course is just one example of how an EvoS program can take advantage of mixed-age learning.  Among its other virtues, mixed-age learning can be simple, enjoyable, and inexpensive—emerging spontaneously, much as it did before the days of formal education. 

Literature Cited

Gray, P. (2007). Psychology (5th ed.). New York: Worth.

Gray, P., & Chanoff, D. (1986). Democratic Schooling: What happens to young people who have charge of their own education? American Journal of Education, 94, 182-213.

Gray, P., & Feldman, J. (2004). Playing in the zone of proximal development: qualities of self-directed age mixing between adolescents and young children at a democratic school. American Journal of Education, 110, 108-145.

Wilson, D. S. (2005). Evolution for Everyone: How to increase acceptance of, interest in, and knowledge about evolution. Public Libarary of Science (PLoS) Biology, 3, 1001-1008.

Wilson, D. S. (2007). Evolution for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives. New York: Delacorte.


About David Sloan Wilson

David Sloan Wilson applies evolution to all aspects of humanity in addition to the rest of life, in his own research and as director of EvoS, Binghamton University’s evolutionary studies program. His latest book is The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time. In addition to this EvoS-related blog, he also blogs for the Huffington Post. His most recent posts can be found here.
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