A Sociobiological Approach for At-Risk High School Students

PLoS/One: A Program for At-Risk High School Students Informed by Evolutionary Science
Improving the academic performance of at-risk high school students has proven difficult, often calling for an extended day, extended school year, and other expensive measures. Here we report the results of a program for at-risk 9th and 10th graders in Binghamton, New York, called the Regents Academy that takes place during the normal school day and year. The design of the program is informed by the evolutionary dynamics of cooperation and learning, in general and for our species as a unique product of biocultural evolution. Not only did the Regents Academy students outperform their comparison group in a randomized control design, but they performed on a par with the average high school student in Binghamton on state-mandated exams. All students can benefit from the social environment provided for at-risk students at the Regents Academy, which is within the reach of most public school districts.
One body of knowledge that we drew upon to design the Regents Academy is based on the work of Elinor Ostrom [19], [20], who received the Nobel Prize for economics in 2009. Ostrom is a political scientist by training but has become part of the evolutionary science community. Working primarily with groups attempting to manage common pool resources, she identified eight design features that contributed to the success of each group, which can also be used by groups attempting to achieve other shared objectives. Briefly, the design features are: 1) a strong group identity, including understanding and agreeing with the group’s purpose; 2) benefits proportional to costs, so that the work does not fall unfairly on some individuals and unearned benefits on others; 3) consensus decision-making, since most people dislike being told what to do but will work hard to achieve their own goals; 4) low-cost monitoring, so that lapses of cooperation can be easily detected; 5) graduated sanctions to correct misbehaviors, which begin with friendly reminders and escalate only as needed; 6) conflict resolution that is fast and perceived as fair by group members; 7) sufficient autonomy for the group to make its own decisions without interference from other groups; 8) relations among groups that embody the same principles as the relations among individuals within the group. These design features are consilient with the general evolutionary dynamics of cooperation and the social environment of small-scale human societies throughout our own history as a species. Any educational program, including one for at-risk high school students, can potentially benefit from implementing these design features.

A second body of knowledge that we drew upon concerns development and psychological functioning, e.g., in benign vs. harsh environments [21]-[23]. The dysfunctions that arise from harsh environments are often interpreted as breakdowns of normal development and psychological functioning. While this is sometimes the case, evolutionary science offers an alternative possibility. Humans, like all species, are adapted to cope with harsh environments, but these adaptations involve tradeoffs with respect to long-term individual welfare and conduct toward others. Learning and cooperation to achieve long-term goals are eclipsed by the need to survive and reproduce over the short term. Some adaptations to harsh environments operate early in life and are difficult to reverse, such as the insecure attachment styles first documented by pioneering evolutionary psychologist John Bowlby [24], which has led to an extensive body of recent research [25]. Other mechanisms operate in response to immediate circumstances and can be modified by providing a safer and more secure environment [26], [27]. Most at-risk adolescents have experienced hardship throughout their lives, making it difficult for them to adapt to a safe and secure environment. Moreover, even if such an environment can be provided at school, the rest of their lives often remain harsh. Providing a safe and secure school environment might therefore not be sufficient, but it is surely necessary for at-risk students to cooperate and to achieve long-term goals.
A third body of knowledge that we drew upon concerns basic principles of learning that apply to many species [28], along with more specific adaptations for learning and cultural transmission in human groups [16], [29]-[34]. In a longitudinal study of students who were identified as gifted at the beginning of high school, Csikszentmihalyi et al. [35] examined the factors that led some to fulfill their promise and others to become merely average by the end of high school. It was primarily those who enjoyed what they were doing over the short term that developed their talents. The prospect of a long-term benefit, such as a career in science, was not sufficient to sustain day-to-day activities that were unrewarding. If this is true for the most gifted students, then it applies with even greater force for the most at-risk students [36]. If cooperation and learning outcomes aren’t rewarding over the short term (what B.F. Skinner called “selection by consequences” [37]), positive outcomes cannot be expected over the long term. In addition, human groups evolved adaptations for social learning and spreading information for thousands of years before the advent of any formal school program. In modern times, complex bodies of information are culturally transmitted in hunter gatherer and many traditional societies largely without formal instruction [38]. Knowing how this occurs can help teachers shape their curriculum, instruction, and assessment to better maximize their students’ natural tendencies to learn, and to make learning and teaching more spontaneous and self-organizing in modern classroom environments [39], [40].