Education: Remember the Cavemen (Part 1)

A rich archeological dig site sits among the iron hillsides on the Northern Cape province of South Africa, where excavators have discovered artifacts dating back to the Stone Age and other ancient eras. Archeologists recently concluded that sharpened stones uncovered there were likely used as spears about 500,000 years ago – a whopping 250,000 years earlier than previously thought.

With people today plugged into their ubiquitous iPods or surfing the Internet on their 4G smartphones, a chiseled chunk of stone might not seem like a big deal.But a weapon that could be thrown from a distance rather than requiring direct contact was a major disruptive innovation half a million years ago. It may not have been part of the industrial or tech revolutions, but it meant fewer near-death encounters with angry mammoths and saber-toothed tigers – plus, it led to an increase of meat in hunter-gatherers’ diets, giving the brain the necessary protein supply to grow and develop to where we are today.

Hunter-gatherers changed the course of human evolution – which I’d say as far as standards go, makes them one of the most innovative generations. Their natural way of learning gives us a blueprint for improving our education system and shows us that the key to introducing innovation to our children lies in returning to our evolutionary roots.

It all starts with play – with a 21 century twist.

Peter Gray , a Boston College research professor in educational psychology, found that isolated hunter-gatherer bands in Africa – who still live like their ancestors – do not draw a line between work and play. The children don’t go to school or take part in organized education, but rather learn by playing with older children and mimicking grown-ups. Creativity runs rampant because it’s encouraged, and children organically transition into adult hunter-gatherer roles.

“They just naturally play it,” said Gray, who published “Free to Learn” in March.“They play at the things that seem to be important to the culture.

Gray said our species has lived this way for 99 percent of our history, making today’s education systems problematic because they discourage the creative freedom and natural development that has always been a part of our hunter-gatherer human nature. Our society’s educational ethos values recitation, not exploration and imagination. It was not designed to support and cultivate free-thinking minds, as faculty often punish those who don’t do as they’re told, even when it means going against their instincts.

Exploratory learning will open the floodgates to innovation, with the Internet as our civilization’s spear. With more than three-quarters of Americans owning either a laptop or desktop, we are at a unique place in our lifetime where almost all the information anyone would ever need is free and accessible online. And with educational video games and interactive programs, such as iCivics andReading Rainbow Kidz , we can use the concept of fun to give our children important knowledge. My daughter’s teacher even had her class play iCivics games at home to learn how our government works, and my daughter had such a blast that she kept playing well beyond the required assignment.

The ability to learn for fun on demand isn’t just limited to basic skills. Advanced classes are now offered across the Internet – for free – so people can take classes whenever they want, wherever they want. And these Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are not skimping on quality – best-selling authors, celebrities and world-renowned professors from universities like Stanford and Harvard are just some of the people teaching in virtual classrooms.

Take Sebastian Thrun , a former Stanford professor who also developed the driverless Google car. He launched the online education platform Udacity after noticing that students who physically showed up to his Stanford class scored lower that those who attended virtually. Just a few weeks after Udacity went live, more than 160,000 students from more than 190 countries enrolled in its first course that covered artificial intelligence. Udacity now offers classes on everything from introduction to statistics to HTML5 game development to how to build successful startups.

Udemy , another major MOOC player and one of our Lightbank portfolio companies, adds crowdsourcing to the mix. Most of its classes cost nothing more than your time, and its open-source setup allows people to sign up for courses with respected experts as well develop a platform to teach their own subject.Udemy easily integrates video, PowerPoint, PDFs, audio files and live lectures so anyone can share their passions by teaching online – and students can access it on any device with an Internet connection.

Other sites are teaching specific skill sets free of charge, such as Codeacademy .It’s making it easy for anyone to both teach and learn coding, such as JavaScript and Python, and it launched a partnership with nine companies – including NPR, YouTube and Bit.ly – a few months ago to help aspiring developers build sites and other functioning online products that are in high demand.

Others only need Wikipedia and Google at their fingertips to learn complex concepts and disrupt entire industries. At age 15, Jack Andraka used those two resources to teach himself about pancreatic cancer. The Maryland teenager went on to develop a diagnostic testing strip that detects illnesses with almost 100 percent accuracy. In 2012, Andraka won first place and $75,000 at the world’s largest high school science research competition for his testing method , which is more than 168 times faster and more than 2,600 times less expensive than others.

This ambition-driven, exploratory-learning approach has created several successful business leaders who made their marks without a college degree – including Virgin Group’s Richard Branson, Apple’s Steve Jobs, Microsoft’s Bill Gates and many others. PayPal founder and early Facebook investor Peter Thiel believes in that approach so much that he pays young, passionate entrepreneurs $100,000 to forgo college and play in the real world. Through the Thiel Fellowship , participants also get at least two years of access to visionary thinkers, investors, scientists and other mentors to help them turn their brilliant ideas into concrete realities. Instead of sitting in a classroom and studying textbooks, the fellows live out the concepts and learn through doing.

British writer G.K. Chesterton once said, “Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another.” Are we losing our soul? Or, rather, are we inheriting a soul that will facilitate the progress of the human race?

My concern is that we, as human beings, are falling prey to unconsciously following what has come before us instead of challenging the status quo.Classrooms are becoming outdated relics of our past, frozen in the pages of black-and-white history books as the Internet creates vivid colors and amazing hues right outside the schoolhouse doors. We should not fight the creativity from our hunter-gatherer roots. Setting people free to live, learn and explore with modern tools like the Internet will educate them about the things they need to know the most – and embracing play as a crucial element of learning will help us shatter the current limitations of our education system.

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