life as a lobster

Jordan Peterson is a controversial figure. He’s made some provocative statements in interviews and discussions. And inconsistent ones. One inconsistency was in his (in)famous interview with Cathy Newman of Channel 4 news, on the subject of the gender pay gap. Peterson says it doesn’t exist (5m45s). Later, when Newman refers to his comment, he denies that’s what he said. He should, of course, have said that’s not what he meant. But then he adds “Because I’m very, very, very careful with my words” (8m27s).  Verbal slips are easy to make. I guessed Peterson might be more careful in his writing, and might present a clearer picture of his worldview. So I read 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos.

The rules emerged from Peterson’s experience as a clinical psychologist and had proved popular on the Quora website. Each rule gets a chapter in the book, explaining its rationale. Peterson’s worldview is grounded in ancient myths that have stood the test of time and resonate with us today. Fundamental, for him, is the yin-yang principle; the interdependence of two opposite forces, notably order/chaos and masculine/feminine. He’s also intrigued by the account in the book of Genesis of chaos, order, man, woman and the consequences of sin.

lobster life

Peterson draws further support for his philosophical framework from comparative zoology – in the form of lobsters. Lobsters are crustaceans, an ancient sub-phylum believed to have arisen around 350m years ago. Male lobsters compete for territory using aggressive displays and sometimes fights, resulting in a social dominance hierarchy. Female lobsters choose dominant male lobsters to mate with, so high status lobsters get the best territory and “all the girls”. A lobster’s social status is mediated by serotonin, a neurotransmitter with a role in the human nervous system. In lobsters and humans, social status correlates positively with serotonin levels.

What this means for Peterson, is that biology determines culture. “…the dominance hierarchy, however social or cultural it might appear, has been around for some half a billion years. It’s permanent. It’s real. The dominance hierarchy is not capitalism…communism…the military-industrial complex. It’s not the patriarchy – that disposable, malleable, arbitrary cultural artefact. It’s not even a human creation; not in the most profound sense. It is instead a near-eternal aspect of the environment, and much of what is blamed on these more ephemeral manifestations is a consequence of its unchanging existence…There is little more natural than culture. Dominance hierarchies are older than trees.” (p.14)

If lobsters and humans exhibit dominance hierarchies mediated by serotonin, Peterson reasons, the dominance hierarchy must be what drives their behaviour and its outcomes. “There is an unspeakably primordial calculator, deep within you, at the very foundation of your brain… It monitors exactly where you are positioned in society… If you’re number one… you’re an overwhelming success. If you’re male, you have preferential access to the best places to live and highest-quality food. People compete to do you favours. You have limitless opportunity for romantic and sexual contact. You are a successful lobster and the most desirable females line up and vie for your attention.” (p.15)

Note that Peterson is not talking to lobsters here – in the next paragraph he refers to the “verbal tricks and strategies” available to high status females. But in Peterson’s model serotonin doesn’t result in the disorder of unfettered competition; it leads to order because high status humans in whom “the serotonin flows freely“, are “confident and calm, standing tall and straight. You can delay gratification, without forgoing it forever. You can afford to be a reliable and thoughtful citizen.” (p.17)

The passages I’ve quoted are in the chapter about Rule 1: Stand up Straight with Your Shoulders Back. Peterson’s argument is essentially that Nature is Nature and the sooner we come to terms with that, the better. The argument is a persuasive one. But the evidence Peterson marshals for it is highly selective. What he doesn’t say is as important as what he does say. Let’s start with serotonin.


Serotonin is far more ancient than lobsters. It’s made by all bilateral animals, which first appeared around 550m years ago. It’s also found in many plants and some species of amoeba. Most of those organisms don’t have dominance hierarchies. That’s because serotonin’s role is primarily to mediate the perception of resources – usually food. It’s no accident that most human serotonin is produced in the gut, where it regulates intestinal movement. In the brain, the serotonin pathway works in concert with dopamine pathway that mediates reward. It’s only a couple of short steps in neurological terms, to associate food with territory, then territory with social dominance signals. So it’s not surprising that neurologically more complex animals have made that connection.

male and female

Then there’s male and female. Peterson claims “when we first began to perceive the unknown, chaotic, non-animal world, we used categories that had originally evolved to represent the pre-human animal social world. …Our most basic category – as old, in some sense as the sexual act itself – appears to be that of sex, make and female. We appear to have taken that primordial knowledge of structured, creative opposition and begun to interpret everything through its lens.” (p.40, Peterson’s emphasis.)

Peterson assumes that if a category distinction is used by an entire species, or by several species, it must be ‘inbuilt’. This is a risky assumption. It was what zoologists assumed about imprinting (newly hatched birds following their mother/other conspecific/primary carer) until Konrad Lorenz discovered they would follow his wading boots if they were the first thing the hatchlings saw. And there’s been a heated dispute for decades over whether the structure of language is hardwired or constructed or both, but you’d never know from Peterson’s account that there is any biological evidence suggesting that the male/female categories, (as opposed to male/female biological characteristics) might be constructed rather than inbuilt.

He overlooks research showing that infants construct categories from the features of things in their environment such as sounds (e.g. Kuhn, 2004) or objects (e.g. Rakison & Oakes, 2008). The research shows that categories develop as the children’s knowledge of the environment increases. This suggests that if young animals are surrounded by conspecifics that generally show sexual dimorphism, they will start to form the categories male/female. It doesn’t follow that there are no alternatives. On the contrary, some crustaceans are hermaphrodites and parthenogenesis (producing viable, but unfertilised eggs) is not uncommon. Similarly, although sexual dimorphism is typical of human beings, there’s a range of biological variations on that theme in homo sapiens.

Peterson also conflates sex with gender. Sex is a set of biological characteristics. Gender is a social construct. Biology largely determines sex. It plays an important role in determining gender, but many other factors come into play.  Peterson doesn’t have much time for social constructs, which is odd, because that’s what myths are.


Peterson’s focus is on order/chaos and masculine/feminine; order is inherently masculine (“the primary hierarchical structure of human society is masculine” p.40) and chaos, presumably, inherently feminine. There are many other opposites in life of course; pleasure/pain, loss/gain, activity/rest etc. But pleasure, gain and rest don’t feature much in Peterson’s world. We’re told “life is suffering” (pp.161, 227) and reminded that it’s “nasty, brutish and short” (p.177). There are many references to the fall of Adam and Eve, Cain’s resentment and murder of his brother, and the suffering of Jesus on the Cross.

Peterson says myths are “moral in their intent, rather than descriptive” (p.xxvii). For him “the great stories of the past” have “more to do with developing character in the face of suffering than with happiness” (p.xxvii). He can’t seem to decide whether his worldview is prescriptive or descriptive; whether it’s about what life should be like, or what it is like.  On the one hand, he can’t emphasise enough the grim factual realities of life – “life is suffering” and “dominance hierarchies are older than trees“. On the other hand, he blithely ignores facts about serotonin, crustacean reproduction, and human cognition that don’t support his model.

And despite citing considerable evidence showing that lobster dominance hierarchies hinge on whichever lobsters are more physically powerful, he denies Jacques Derrida’s claim that power is a prime determinant of human social status on the grounds that … it shouldn’t be. “In well-functioning societies, competence, not power is a prime determiner of status” (p.313). Wasn’t that Derrida’s point – that few societies are well-functioning?

For Peterson, “life is suffering” and the way to deal with that is “to stand up straight with your shoulders back is to accept the terrible responsibility of life, with eyes wide open” (p.27). I understand why he wouldn’t advocate untrammelled hedonism as a guiding principle, but in reality life is more of a mixed bag. Once our basic needs are met we don’t spend all our time fighting over who gets first dibs on resources or mates; we sing, dance, tell stories, play games, solve problems and make stuff. We often do those things very well, to our enjoyment and the benefit of others.

Nor do people usually select mates by behaving like lobsters. It might feel like women get to do all the choosing if you’re a young man with low social status living in North America, but for much of human history, women have rarely had much choice about anything. One mate selection strategy popular with top human lobsters was droit du seigneur. Not popular with anyone else, however, so most communities make other arrangements.


Much of what Peterson says is true, and most of his 12 rules are sensible, in principle at least. His arguments are plausible and convincingly made. But although his worldview is based on evidence, it’s based on only some evidence. He doesn’t consider evidence that doesn’t support his hypotheses.

He plays to the disappointment, resentment and fears of young white, North American males.  Their feelings might be real, and might need attending to, but that doesn’t make them normative. Peterson’s entire worldview appears to be constructed around how tough it is to be one of them.

His worldview is also internally contradictory. He points out “Here’s the fundamental problem: group identity can be fractionated right down to the level of the individual. That sentence should be written in capital letters. Every person is unique – and not just in a trivial manner: importantly, significantly, meaningfully unique. Group membership cannot capture that variability. Period.” (p.316)

Absolutely.  So where does that leave Peterson’s sweeping generalisations? Maybe he needs to be more careful with his words.


Kuhl, P. (2004). Early language acquisition: Cracking the speech code. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 5, 831-843.

Rakison DH & Oakes, LM (eds) (2003). Early category and concept development: Making sense of the blooming, buzzing confusion.  Oxford University Press.





biologically primary and secondary knowledge?

David Geary is an evolutionary psychologist who developed the concept of biologically primary and biologically secondary knowledge, popular with some teachers. I’ve previously critiqued Geary’s ideas as he set them out in a chapter entitled Educating the Evolved Mind. One teacher responded by suggesting I read Geary’s The Origin of Mind because it explained his ideas in more detail. So I did.

Geary’s theory

If I’ve understood correctly, Geary’s argument goes like this:

The human body and brain have evolved over time in response to environmental pressures ranging from climate and diet through to social interaction. For Geary, social interaction is a key driver of evolved brain structures because social interactions can increase the resources available to individuals.

Environmental pressures have resulted in the evolution of brain ‘modules’ specialising in processing certain types of information, such as language or facial features. Information is processed by the modules rapidly, automatically and implicitly, resulting in heuristics (rules of thumb) characteristic of the ‘folk’ psychology, biology and physics that form the default patterns for the way we think. But we are also capable of flexible thought that overrides those default patterns. The flexibility is due to the highly plastic frontal areas of our brain responsible for intelligence. Geary refers to the thinking using the evolved modules as biologically primary, and that involving the plastic frontal areas as biologically secondary.

Chapters 2 & 3 of The Origin of Mind offer a clear, coherent account of Darwinian and hominid evolution respectively. They’d make a great resource for teachers. But when Geary moves on to cognition his model begins to get a little shaky – because it rests on several assumptions.

Theories about evolution of the brain are inevitably speculative because brain tissue decomposes and the fossil record is incomplete. Theories about brain function also involve speculation because our knowledge about how brains work is incomplete. There’s broad agreement on the general principles, but some hypotheses have generated what Geary calls ‘hot debate’. Despite acknowledging the debates, Geary’s model is built on assumptions about which side of the debate is correct. The assumptions involve the modularity of the brain, folk systems, intelligence, and motivation-to-control.


The general principle of modularity – that there are specific areas of the brain dedicated to processing specific types of information – is not in question. What is less clear is how specialised the modules are. For example, the fusiform face area (FFA) specialises in processing information about faces. But not just faces. It has also been shown to process information about cars, birds, butterflies, chess pieces, Digimon, and novel items called greebles. This raises the question of whether the FFA evolved to process information about faces as such (the Face Specific Hypothesis), or to process information about objects requiring fine-grained discrimination (the Expertise Hypothesis). Geary comes down on the Faces side of the debate on the grounds that the FFA does not “generally respond to other types of objects … that do not have facelike features, except in individuals with inherent sociocognitive deficits, such as autism” (p.141). Geary is entitled to his view, but that’s not the only hotly debated interpretation of the evidence.

folk systems

The general principle of ‘folk’ systems – evolved forms of thought that result from information being processed rapidly, automatically and implicitly – is also not in question. Geary admits it’s unclear whether the research is “best understood in terms of inherent modular constraints, or as the result of general learning mechanisms” but comes down on the side of children’s thinking being the result of “inherent modular systems”.  I couldn’t find a reference to Eleanor Rosch’s prototype theory developed in the 1970s, which explains folk categories in terms of general learning mechanisms. And it’s regrettable that Rakison & Oakes’ 2008 review of research into how children form categories (that also lends weight to the general learning mechanisms hypothesis) wasn’t published until three years after The Origin of Mind. I don’t know whether either would have prompted Geary to amend his theory.


In 1904 Charles Spearman published a review of attempts to measure intellectual ability. He concluded that the correlations between various specific abilities indicated “that there really exists a something that we may provisionally term “General Sensory Discrimination” and similarly a “General Intelligence”” (Spearman p.272).

It’s worth looking at what the specific abilities included. Spearman ranks (p. 276) in order of their correlation with ‘General Intelligence’, performance in: Classics, Common Sense, Pitch Discrimination, French, Cleverness, English, Mathematics, Pitch Discrimination among the uncultured, Music, Light Discrimination and Weight Discrimination.

So, measures of school performance turned out to be good predictors of school performance. The measures of school performance correlated strongly with ‘General Intelligence’ – a construct derived from… the measures of school performance. This tautology wasn’t lost on other psychologists and Spearman’s conclusions received considerable criticism. As Edwin Boring pointed out in 1923, ‘intelligence’ is defined by the content of ‘intelligence’ tests. The correlations between specific abilities and the predictive power of intelligence tests are well-established. What’s contentious is whether they indicate the existence of an underlying ‘general mental ability’.

Geary says the idea that children’s intellectual functioning can be improved is ‘hotly debated’ (p.295). But he appears to look right past the even hotter debate that’s raged since Spearman’s work was published, about whether the construct general intellectual ability (g) actually represents ‘a something’ that ‘really exists’. Geary assumes it does, and also accepts Cattell’s later constructs crystallised and fluid intelligence without question.

Clearly some people are more ‘intelligent’ than others, so the idea of g initially appears valid. But ‘intelligence’ is, ironically, a ‘folk’ construct. It’s a label we apply to a set of loosely defined characteristics – a useful shorthand descriptive term. It doesn’t follow that ‘intelligence’ is a biologically determined ‘something’ that ‘really exists’.


The motivation to control relationships, events and resources is a key part of Geary’s theory. He argues that motivation-to-control is an evolved disposition (inherent in the way people think) that manifests itself most clearly in the behaviour of despots – who seek to maximise their control of resources. Curiously, in referring to despots, Geary cites a paper by Herb Simon (Simon, 1990) on altruism (a notoriously knotty problem for evolution researchers). Geary describes an equally successful alternative strategy to despotism, not as altruism but as “adherence to [social] laws and mores”, even though the evidence suggests altruism is an evolved disposition, not merely a behaviour.

Altruism calls into question the control part of the motivation-to-control hypothesis. Many people have a tendency to behave in ways that increase their control of resources, but many tend to collaborate and co-operate instead, strategies that increase individual access to resources, despite reducing individual control over them. The altruism debate is another that’s been going on for decades, but you wouldn’t know that to read Geary.

Then there’s the motivation part. Like ‘intelligence’, ‘motivation’ is a label for a loosely defined bunch of factors that provide incentives for behaviour. ‘Motivation’ is a useful label. But again it doesn’t follow that ‘motivation’ is ‘a something’ that ‘really exists’. The biological mechanisms involved in the motivation to eat or drink are unlikely to be the same as those involved in wanting to marry the boss’s daughter or improve on our personal best for the half-marathon. The first two examples are likely to increase our access to resources; whether they increase our control over them will depend on the circumstances. Geary doesn’t explain the biological mechanism involved.

biologically primary and secondary knowledge

In The Origin of Mind, Geary touches on the idea of biologically primary and secondary competencies and abilities but doesn’t go into detail about their implications for education. Instead, he illustrates the principle by referring to the controlled problem solving used by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace in tackling the problem of how different species had arisen.

Geary says that such problem solving requires the inhibition of ‘heuristic-based folk systems’ (p.197), and repeatedly proposes (pp.188, 311, 331, 332) that the prior knowledge of scientific pioneers such as Linnaeus, Darwin and Wallace “arose from evolved folk biological systems…as elaborated by associated academic learning” (p.188). He cites as evidence the assumptions resulting from religious belief made by anatomist and palaeontologist Richard Owen (p.187), and Wallace’s reference to an ‘Overruling Intelligence’ being behind natural selection (p.83). But this proposal is problematic, for three reasons:

The first problem is that some ‘evolved’ folk knowledge is explicit, not implicit. Belief in a deity is undoubtedly folk knowledge; societies all over the world have come up with variations on the concept. But the folk knowledge about religious beliefs is usually culturally transmitted to children, rather than generated by them spontaneously.

Another difficulty is that thinkers such as Linnaeus, Darwin and Wallace had a tendency to be born into scholarly families, so their starting point, even as young children, would not have been merely ‘folk biological systems’. And each of the above had the advantage of previous researchers having already reduced the problem space.

A third challenge is that heuristics aren’t exclusively biologically primary; they can be learned, as Geary points out, via biologically secondary knowledge (p.185).

So if biologically primary knowledge sometimes involves explicit instruction, and biologically secondary knowledge can result in the development of fast, automatic, implicit heuristics, how can we tell which type of knowledge is which?

use of evidence

Geary accepts contentious constructs such as motivation, intelligence and personality (p.319) without question. And he appears to have a rather unique take on concepts such as bounded rationality (p.172), satisficing (p.173) and schemata (p.186).

In addition, Geary’s evidence is not always contentious; sometimes it’s his conclusions that are tenuous. For example, he predicts that if social competition were a driving force during evolution, “a burning desire to master algebra or Newtonian physics will not be universal or even common. Surveys of the attitudes and preferences of American schoolchildren support this prediction and indicate that they value achievement in sports … much more than achievement in any academic area” (pp.334-5), citing a 1993 paper by Eccles et al. The ‘surveys’ were two studies, the ‘American schoolchildren’ 865 elementary school students, the ‘attitudes and preferences’ competence beliefs and task values, and the ‘academic areas’ math, reading and music. Responses show some statistically significant differences. Geary appears to overegg the evidential pudding somewhat, and to completely look past the possibility that there might be culturally transmitted factors involved.


I find Geary’s model perplexing. Most of the key links in it – brain evolution, brain modularity, the heuristics and biases that result in ‘folk’ thinking, motivation and intelligence – involve highly contentious hypotheses.  Geary mentions the ‘hot debates’ but doesn’t go into detail. He simply comes down on one side of the debate and builds his model on the assumption that that side is correct.

He appears to have developed an overarching model of cognition and learning and squeezed the evidence into it, rather than building the model according to the evidence. The problem with the second approach of course, is that if the evidence is inconclusive, you can’t develop an overarching model of cognition and learning without it being highly speculative.

What also perplexes me about Geary’s model is its purpose. Teachers have been aware of the difference between implicit and explicit learning (even if they didn’t call it that) for centuries. It’s useful for them to know about brain evolution and modularity and the heuristics and biases that result in ‘folk’ thinking etc. But teachers can usually spot whether children are learning something apparently effortlessly (implicitly) or whether they need step-by-step (explicit) instruction. That’s essentially why teachers exist. Why do they need yet another speculative educational model?


Eccles, J., Wigfield, A., Harold, R.D.,  & Blumenfeld, P. (1993). Age and gender differences in children’s self‐and task perceptions during elementary school, Child Development, 64, 830-847.

Gauthier, I., Tarr, M.J., Anderson, A.W., Skudlarski, P. & Gore, J.C.  (1999). Activation of the middle fusiform ‘face area’ increases with expertise in recognizing novel objects, Nature Neuroscience, 2, 568-573.

Rakison, D.H.  & Oakes L.M. (eds) (2008). Early Category and Concept Development.  Oxford University Press.

Simon, H.A. (1990). A mechanism for social selection and successful altruism. Science, 250, 1665-1668.

Spearman, C.  (1904).  ‘General Intelligence’ objectively determined and measured.  The American Journal of Psychology, 15, 201-292.



genes, environment and behaviour

There was considerable kerfuffle on Twitter last week following a blog post by David Didau entitled ‘What causes behaviour?’  The ensuing discussion resulted in a series of five further posts from David culminating in an explanation of why his views weren’t racist. I think David created problems for himself through lack of clarity about gene-environment interactions and through ambiguous wording. Here’s my two-pennyworth.


Genes are regions of DNA that hold information about (mainly) protein production. As far as we know, that’s all they do. The process of using this information to produce proteins is referred to as genetic expression.


The context in which genes are expressed. Before birth, the immediate environment in which human genes are expressed is limited, and is largely a chemical and biological one. After birth, the environment gets more complex as Urie Bronfenbrenner demonstrated.  Remote environmental effects can have a significant impact on immediate ones. Whether a mother smokes or drinks is influenced by genetic and social factors, and the health of both parents is often affected by factors beyond their control.


Epigenetic factors are environmental factors that can directly change the expression of genes; in some cases they can be effectively ‘switched’ on or off.   Some epigenetic changes can be inherited.


Behaviour is a term that’s been the subject of much discussion by psychologists. There’s a useful review by Levitis et al here. A definition of behaviour the authors decided reflected consensus is:

Behaviour is: the internally coordinated responses (actions or inactions) of whole living organisms (individuals or groups) to internal and/or external stimuli, excluding responses more easily understood as developmental changes.

traits and states

Trait is a term used to describe a consistent pattern in behaviour, personality etc. State is used to describe transient behaviours or feelings.

David Didau’s argument

David begins with the point that behavioural traits in adulthood are influenced far more by genes than by shared environments during childhood. He says: “Contrary to much popular wishing thinking, shared environmental effects like parenting have (almost) no effect on adult’s behaviour, characteristics, values or beliefs.* The reason we are like our parents and siblings is because we share their genes. *Footnote: There are some obvious exceptions to this. Extreme neglect or abuse before the age of 5 will likely cause permanent developmental damage as will hitting someone in the head with a hammer at any age.”

In support he cites a paper by Thomas Bouchard, a survey of research (mainly twin studies) about genetic influence on psychological traits; personality, intelligence, psychological interests, psychiatric illnesses and social attitudes. David rightly concludes that it’s futile for schools to try to teach ‘character’ because character (whatever you take it to mean) is a stable trait.

traits, states and outcomes

But he also refers to children’s behaviour in school, and behaviour encompasses traits and states; stable patterns of behaviour and one-off specific behaviours. For David, school expectations can “mediate these genetic forces”, but only within school; “an individual’s behaviour will be, for the most part, unaffected by this experience when outside the school environment”.

He also refers to “how we turn out”, and how we turn out can be affected by one-off, even uncharacteristic behaviours (on the part of children, parents and teachers and/or government).   One-off actions can have a hugely beneficial or detrimental impact on long-term outcomes for children.

genes, environment and interactions

It’s easy to get the impression from the post that genetic influences (David calls them genetic ‘forces’ – I don’t know what that means) and environmental influences are distinct and act in parallel. He refers, for example, to “genetic causes for behaviour as opposed to environmental ones” (my emphasis), but concedes “there’s definitely some sort of interaction between the two”.

Obviously, genes and environment influence behaviour. What’s emerged from research is that the interactions between genetic expression and environmental factors are pretty complex. From conception, gene expression produces proteins; cells form, divide and differentiate, the child’s body develops and grows. Genetic expression obviously plays a major role in pre-natal development, but the proteins expressed by the genes very quickly form a complex biochemical, physiological and anatomical environment that impacts on the products of later genetic expression. This environment is internal to the mother’s body, but external environmental factors are also involved in the form of nutrients, toxins, activities, stressors etc. After birth, genes continue to be expressed, but the influence of the external environment on the child’s development increases.

Three points to bear in mind: 1) A person’s genome remains pretty stable throughout their lifetime. 2) The external environment doesn’t remain stable – for most people it changes constantly.  Some of the changes will counteract others; rest and good nutrition can overcome the effects of illness, beneficial events can mitigate the impact of adverse ones. So it’s hardly surprising that shared childhood environments have comparatively little, if any, effect on adult traits.   3) Genetic and environmental influences are difficult to untangle due to their complex interactions from the get-go. Annette Karmiloff-Smith* highlights the importance of gene-environment-behaviour interactions here.

Clearly, if you’re a kid with drive, enthusiasm and aspirations, but grow up on a sink estate in an area of high social and economic deprivation where the only wealthy people with high social status are drug dealers, you’re far more likely to end up with rather dodgy career prospects than a child with similar character traits who lives in a leafy suburb and attends Eton. (I’ve blogged elsewhere about the impact of life events on child development and long-term outcomes, in a series of posts starting here.)

In other words, parents and teachers might have little influence over behavioural traits, but they can make a huge difference to the outcomes for a child, by equipping them (or not) with the knowledge and strategies they need to make the most of what they’ve got. From other things that David has written, I don’t think he’d disagree.  I think what he is trying to do in this post is to put paid to the popular idea that parents (and teachers) have a significant long-term influence on children’s behavioural traits.  They clearly don’t.  But in this post he doesn’t make a clear distinction between behavioural traits and outcomes. I suggest that’s one reason his post resulted in so much heated discussion.

genes, environment and the scientific method

I’m not sure where his argument goes after he makes the point about character education. He goes on to suggest that anyone who queries his conclusions about the twin studies is dismissing the scientific method, which seems a bit of a stretch, and finishes the post with a series of ‘empirical questions’ that appear to reflect some pet peeves about current educational practices, rather than testing hypotheses about behaviour per se.

So it’s not surprising that some people got hold of the wrong end of the stick. The behavioural framework including traits, states and outcomes is an important one and I wish, instead of going off at tangents, he’d explored it in more detail.

*If you’re interested,  Neuroconstructivism by Mareschal et al and Rethinking Innateness by Elman et al. are well worth reading on gene-environment interactions during children’s development.  Not exactly easy reads, but both reward effort.


Bouchard, T. (2004).  Genetic influence on human psychological traits.  Current Directions in Psychological Science, 13, 148-151.

Elman, J. L., Bates, E.A., Johnson, M., Karmiloff-Smith, A., Parisi, D., & Plunkett, K. (1996). Rethinking Innateness: A Connectionist Perspective on Development.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Karmiloff-Smith A (1998). Development itself is the key to understanding developmental disorders. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 2, 389-398.

Levitis, D.A., Lidicker, W.Z., & Freund, G. (2009).  Behavioural biologists don’t agree on what constitutes behaviour.  Animal Behaviour, 78 (1) 103-110.

Mareschal, D., Johnson, M., Sirois, S., Spratling, M.W., Thomas, M.S.C. & Westermann, G. (2007). Neuroconstructivism: How the brain constructs cognition, Vol. I. Oxford University Press.






all snowflakes are unique: comments on ‘What every teacher needs to know about psychology’ (David Didau & Nick Rose)

This book and I didn’t get off to a good start. The first sentence of Part 1 (Learning and Thinking) raised a couple of red flags: “Learning and thinking are terms that are used carelessly in education.” The second sentence raised another one: “If we are to discuss the psychology of learning then it makes sense to begin with precise definitions.”   I’ll get back to the red flags later.

Undeterred, I pressed on, and I’m glad I did. Apart from the red flags and a few quibbles, I thought the rest of the book was great.  The scope is wide and the research is up-to-date but set in historical context. The three parts – Learning and Thinking, Motivation and Behaviour, and Controversies – provide a comprehensive introduction to psychology for teachers or, for that matter, anyone else. Each of the 26 chapters is short, clearly focussed, has a summary “what every teacher needs to know about…”, and is well-referenced.   The voice is right too; David Didau and Nick Rose have provided a psychology-for-beginners, written for grown-ups.

The quibbles? References that were in the text but not in the references section, or vice versa. A rather basic index. And I couldn’t make sense of the example on p.193 about energy conservation, until it dawned on me that a ‘re’ was missing from ‘reuse’. All easily addressed in a second edition, which this book deserves. A bigger quibble was the underlying conceptual framework adopted by the authors. This is where the red flags come in.

The authors are clear about why they’ve written the book and what they hope it will achieve. What they are less clear about is the implicit assumptions they make as a result of their underlying conceptual framework. I want to look at three implicit assumptions about; precise definitions, the school population and psychological theory.

precise definitions

The first two sentences of Part 1 are;

Learning and thinking are terms that are used carelessly in education. If we are to discuss the psychology of learning then it makes sense to begin with precise definitions.” (p.14)

What the authors imply (or at least what I inferred) is that there are precise definitions of learning and thinking. They reinforce their point by providing some. Now, ‘carelessly’ is a somewhat pejorative term. It might be fair to use it if there is a precise definition of learning and there is a precise definition of thinking, but people just can’t be bothered to use them. But if there isn’t a single precise definition of either…

I’d say terms such as ‘learning’, ‘thinking’, ‘teaching’, ‘education’ etc. (the list is a long one) are used loosely rather than carelessly. ‘Learning’ and ‘thinking’ are constructs that are more complex and fuzzier than say, metres or molar solutions. In marked contrast to the way ‘metre’ and ‘molar solution’ are used, people use ‘learning’ and ‘thinking’ to refer to different things in different contexts.   What they’re referring to is usually made clear by the context. For example, most people would consider it reasonable to talk about “what children learn in schools” even if much of the material taught in schools doesn’t meet Didau and Rose’s criterion of retention, transfer and change (p.14). Similarly, it would be considered fair use of the word ‘thinking’ for someone to say “I was thinking about swimming”, if what they were referring to was pleasant mental images of them floating in the Med, rather than the authors’ definition of a conscious, active, deliberative, cognitive “struggle to get from A to B”.

Clearly, there are situations where context isn’t enough, and a precise definition of terms such as ‘learning’ and ‘thinking’ are required; empirical research is a case in point. And researchers in most knowledge domains (maybe education is an exception) usually address this requirement by stating explicitly how they have used particular terms; “by learning we mean…” or “we use thinking to refer to…”.  Or they avoid the use of umbrella terms entirely. In short, for many terms there isn’t one precise definition. The authors acknowledge this when they refer to “two common usages of the term ‘thinking’”, but still try to come up with one precise definition (p.15).

Why does this matter? It matters because if it’s assumed there is a precise definition for labels representing multi-faceted, multi-component processes, that people use in different ways in different circumstances, a great deal of time can be wasted arguing about what that precise definition is. It would make far more sense simply to be explicit how we’re using the term for a particular purpose, or exactly which facet or component we’re referring to.

Exactly this problem arises in the discussion about restorative justice programmes (p.181). The authors complain that restorative justice programmes are “difficult to define and frequently implemented under a variety of different names…” Those challenges could be avoided by not trying to define restorative justice at all, but by people being explicit about how they use the term – or by using different terms for different programmes.

Another example is ‘zero tolerance’ (p.157). This term is usually used to refer to strict, inflexible sanctions applied in response to even the most minor infringements of rules; the authors cite as examples schools using ‘no excuses’ policies. However, zero tolerance is also associated with the broken windows theory of crime (Wilson & Kelling, 1982); that if minor misdemeanours are overlooked, antisocial behaviour will escalate. The broken windows theory does not advocate strict, inflexible sanctions for minor infringements, but rather a range of preventative measures and proportionate sanctions to avoid escalation. Historically, evidence for the effectiveness of both approaches is mixed, so the authors are right to be cautious in their conclusions.

What I want to emphasise is that there isn’t a single precise definition of learning, thinking, restorative justice, zero tolerance, or many other terms used in the education system, so trying to develop one is like trying define apples-and-oranges. To avoid going down that path, we simply need to be explicit about what we’re actually talking about. As Didau and Rose themselves point out “simply lumping things together and giving them the same name doesn’t actually make them the same” (p.266).

all snowflakes are unique

Another implicit assumption emerges in chapter 25, about individual differences;

Although it’s true that all snowflakes are unique, this tells us nothing about how to build a snowman or design a better snowplough. For all their individuality, useful applications depend on the underlying physical and chemical similarities of snowflakes. The same applies to teaching children. Of course all children are unique…however, for all their individuality and any application of psychology to teaching is typically best informed by understanding the underlying similarities in the way children learn and develop, rather than trying to apply ill-fitting labels to define their differences. (p. 254)

For me, this analogy begged the question of what the authors see as the purpose of education, and completely ignores the nomothetic/idiographic (tendency to generalise vs tendency to specify) tension that’s been a challenge for psychology since its inception. It’s true that education contributes to building communities of individuals who have many similarities, but our evolution as a species, and our success at colonising such a wide range of environments hinges on our differences. And the purpose of education doesn’t stop at the community level. It’s also about the education of individuals; this is recognised in the 1996 Education Act (borrowing from the 1944 Education Act), which expects a child’s education to be suitable to them as an individual.  For the simple reason that if it isn’t suitable, it won’t be effective.  Children are people who are part of communities, not units to be built into an edifice of their teachers’ making, or to be shovelled aside if they get in the way of the education system’s progress.

what’s the big idea?

Another major niggle for me was how the authors evaluate theory. I don’t mean the specific theories tested by the psychological research they cite; that would be beyond the scope of the book. Also, if research has been peer-reviewed and there’s no huge controversy over it, there’s no reason why teachers shouldn’t go ahead and apply the findings. My concern is about the broader psychological theories that frame psychologists’ thinking and influence what research is carried out (or not) and how. Didau and Rose demonstrate they’re capable of evaluating theoretical frameworks, but their evaluation looked a bit uneven to me.

For example, they note “there are many questions” relating to Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development (pp.221-223), but BF Skinner’s behaviourist model (pp.152-155) has been “much misunderstood, and often unfairly maligned”. Both observations are true, but because there are pros and cons to each of the theories, I felt the authors’ biases were showing. And David Geary’s somewhat speculative model of biologically primary and secondary knowledge and ability, is cited uncritically at least a dozen times, overlooking the controversy surrounding two of its major assumptions –  modularity and intelligence. The authors are up-front about their “admittedly biased view” Continue reading