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Peter O. Gray

Research Professor of Psychology
Boston College

The Human Ancestral Environment for Education, and Its Relevance for Education Today

Friday, October 2, 2009
Lecture Hall 2, 4:00 PM

Abstract

Education, defined broadly as the transmission of culture from generation to generation, has been fundamental to the survival of our evolutionary line for at least a million years. An analysis of the ways by which children in contemporary hunter-gatherer cultures become educated allows us to make reasonable inferences concerning our evolutionary ancestors’ mode of education. That analysis also helps us to make sense of many aspects of human child nature today, especially human playfulness and curiosity. I shall also talk about my observations of learning at the Sudbury Valley School, where children’s educative instincts operate optimally.

Biography

I have long been involved with kids’ education and recreation. In high school I worked summers as a camp counselor, waterfront director, and swimming instructor. In college, in New York City, I worked as a recreation director at two different youth centers. As a graduate student, I organized a summer biology program for high-school kids from disadvantaged neighborhoods in New York City, which served as a stepping stone to college for some of them. My college major, at Columbia University, was psychology, but my Ph.D., from the Rockefeller University, is in the biological sciences. I was a full-time psychology professor at Boston College for 30 years, but then retired to a “Research Professor” position, in 2002. Within psychology, I am very much a generalist. I am author of an introductory psychology textbook (Worth Publishers), now going into its 6th edition. My earliest published research had to do with hormone-brain interactions in the control of emotions and drives in laboratory rats and mice, but my more recent research has to do with child development and education. I am especially interested in children’s self-education and in the conditions that optimize it–an interest that carries forth from my early experiences as a recreation supervisor. For the past year and half I have been writing a regular blog for Psychology Today, entitled Freedom to Learn. My avocations today include long-distance bicycling, kayaking, and cross-country skiing.

Readings

  1. Play as a Foundation for Hunter-Gatherer Social Existence
  2. Nature’s Powerful Tutors: The Educative Functions of Free Play and Exploration

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