The Evolutionary Importance of Mixed-Age Learning – Lessons from a Church Basement

So in spite of how ridiculous Kramer appeared when he famously beat out the karate competition consisting of a bunch of 7-year olds (Seinfeld allusion – you had to be there …), I’ve joined my daughter Megan (11) and son Andrew (8) in taking Tae Kwon Do lessons in a local church basement – under the tutelage of Steve Murphy – who’s, without question, the real deal.

Megan and Andrew started before I did – so this puts them at “yellow belt” and myself at “beginner” (no belt in sight as far as I can tell!). The kids have been doing it for a few years and have all kinds of advanced forms down. I’m lucky if my front kick makes it 4 inches off the ground (and I’m lucky if it’s done with the correct foot on any given occasion …).

But I joined for several reasons – partly to develop my physical and inner self – and, largely, to simply be with my kids as we all advance on this great journey together.

Steve, a seasoned blackbelt built like a Probowl MVP,  runs the show – and he does it about as well as it can be done – with intense warmups (including upwards of 80 pushups and 30 nasty crunches) followed by practicing basic movements, forms, and then relatively advanced activities – activities that happen to underscore my ignorance strongly. But that’s OK – I don’t mind being in the dark a bit every now and then – it’s humbling in a good way. And it’s sometimes nice to not be the one who’s supposed to know the answer!

Steve naturally follows the “mixed-age learning” method that has typfied Tae Kwon Do for centuries. Peter Gray (1988), a renowned evolutionist at Boston College, has demonstrated that this approach is simply natural given our evolutionary heritage. In all pre-westernized cultures that have been studied, learning and play (which are often indistinguishable) occur in mixed-age settings – with individuals from various ages helping teach individuals from various other ages.

Compare that with our typical kind of education today in westernized societies – in which a student is surrounded, all day and every day, by individuals of his or her same age. For years.

Education doesn’t happen that way in the Amazon jungles – and it nearly certainly didn’t happen that way on the Savanna in Africa during the 99% of time that our species evolved from the common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees.

It is natural for us to learn in mixed-age settings – and there are clear benefits to this style. The younger ones can learn from those only slightly ahead, feeling a higher self of efficacy when trying to master tasks. The folks in the middle have a choice of mentoring younger individuals, clearly developing a sense of mastery while honing skills – or taking on challenging tasks by working with relatively seasoned individuals in the group.

Gray (1988) has found that this kind of “natural” educational system actually has many extraordinary intellectual and social advantages – and it’s nice to see that such systems are not dead in these United States. Care for an awesome full mind/body education that takes place in a safe, supportive mixed-age and mixed-skill context? Let me know and I’ll tell you how to get to the church basement!


Gray, P. (2008). The Value of Age-Mixed Play. Education Week,  27, 26-32.

Glenn Geher

About Glenn Geher

Glenn Geher is professor and chair of psychology at the State University of New York at New Paltz. In addition to teaching courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, and conducting research in various areas related to evolutionary psychology, Glenn directs the campus’ EvoS program, one of the most successful, noteworthy, and vibrant features of a campus that prides itself (rightfully) on academic vibrance. In Building Darwin’s Bridges, Glenn addresses the details of New Paltz’s EvoS program as well as issues tied to the future of evolutionary studies in the rocky and often unpredictable landscape of higher education.
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4 Responses to The Evolutionary Importance of Mixed-Age Learning – Lessons from a Church Basement

  1. Avatar Chris Lynn says:

    Soon soon, I promise. ;) I wrote one & just need to clean it up a bit & send Daniel a photo & bio to set it up.

  2. Glenn Geher Glenn Geher says:

    Thanks for the posts, Chris. Sure, if we can figure out a way to get our blogs “liked” or “tweeted,” that’d probably be a good thing.

    And I’m glad that your boys are doing the karate thing down South. I was 100% certain that I’d remain on the sidelines for the first two years – so you never know how things may play out! It really is a great real-life example of mixed-age learning in action.

    Oh, and by the way, when is your EvoS blog starting??? ;-)

  3. Avatar Chris Lynn says:

    Btw, you gotta have your people add some share buttons in here so we can “like” & “tweet” you, that is if you swing that way…

  4. Avatar Chris Lynn says:

    My kids are taking karate too, and here in Alabama it’s nice to see that model. The sensei is actually the chair of the Communications Studies department, so that is a familiar hierarchical relationship, but then there are students with more advanced degrees and much higher incomes put in a position of deference to her. And it is always interesting to see when new adult students join and get paired with my 8-year-old son who is an orange belt who is showing him the ropes. I especially like it because my kids recently transferred over from a private school based on Gardiner’s multiple intelligences model (i.e., acknowledges variation in our “modular” specialties) that age mixed to a public magnet school. It’s been a rough transition for one, and we find ourselves wishing there were even more options, like the unschooling model of Sudbury Peter Gray has written and spoken about frequently. I wonder how the Sudbury school in Woodstock is doing now? It was still new & finding a groove back when we lived up there & not right for us at the time, but it was really nice that an affordable alternative was available the principles of which resonate with me. I remember having this gripe in high, but perhaps it is all the more poignant as a parent, that education models are not snap-on tools, that we need a varied environment to reflect the variation among our learning proclivities or watch some of our kids founder (& screw survival of he fittest, I want to see them all thrive). Anyway, the sensei keeps telling me to join too, & I keep making the excuse that I don’t have he time until after tenure. So kudos, Glenn. It does sound like fun!

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