Looking beyond exams: how the history of learning can help

The history of evolution gives insight into how we should assess learning and our knowledge, skills and dispositions

Tabatha Sheehan Head of English at Westonbirt School

Over 64000 years ago humanity’s distant ancestors were capable of art, creating communication, cooking, hunting and sourcing food, crafting tools and forming communities.(1) They were artists; linguists; cooks; mechanics; engineers and athletes. When we consider the ways that humans have evolved in their learning of such skills, we can primarily connect this to the five senses and how they are inherently cognitive and chemical reactions to the world around us.(2)

It may seem an absurd comparison, given the seemingly vast evolutionary differences to the human species now, but if we judged a Neanderthal’s intelligence or capability by asking them to write us an essay under strict, timed conditions we would be doing them an incredibly cruel disservice.

But is the difference in the current human species’ learning ability really that extensive? The first known writing system is believed to have existed in Mesopotamia circa 3200BC(3) – humans invented this primarily to record information and allow us to repeatedly access and interact with it. Even then and following that, most teaching, instructing and learning was auditory, visual, kinaesthetic and discursive. Writing was not intended to become a method of examination; instead it was used as a discussion prompt or a list of instructions to manually follow.

How then has writing become our primary method in examining learning?

This brief history into how we learn, evolved and shared information, is an opportunity to consider how our evolution should be an obvious indicator in how we can further evolve and grow and how we must reconsider how exams impact the developments of our species. Our examination system has limited itself to one over-arching method: writing, despite the fact that our species history quite clearly indicates the need for a variety of assessment methods and opportunities to ensure evolution and survival. 

Furthermore, the technological evolution has made us more multi-modal and whilst the pandemic may have boosted a re-evaluation of technology in teaching, we have yet to integrate this into our assessment methods. There are more and more ways for students to learn – we can still do as our ancestors did, but we now have the options to do that and much more with technology.

Neurology and evolutionary biology show us time and again that a variety of learning and output methods are the best way to strengthen and develop all our neuron groups and create faster connection and growth in the plasticity of our brains.(4) Our limitations in our method of examining and the regimented styles of exam specifications directly and negatively impact opportunities for teachers to deliver and assess in a variety of manners. We could quite literally be preventing further evolution. 

Rethinking assessments must be drawn back to the way humans have learnt and evolved so far – we must look at evolutionary history and understand that our development and our growth as a species is littered with variety.

This can be made more obvious when looking at economic, as well as biological, neurological and anthropological history: there are thousands of jobs that require different skills. How can we send our young people out into this vastly changing world without having prepared them for it? How can we assess their ability to create art, to cook, to build, to perform, to experiment in the name of art, science and society, if we are not evaluating these skills in schools? Why are we using one primary method of examination that has little place in our history for such a task? 

We must look back at our ancestors, at how they survived their world and how they evolved within and beyond it, to ensure the next generations can capably do the same. 


(1) Smith, K. 2018. ‘Neanderthals were artists.’ Accessed on February 21st 2021: https://arstechnica.com/science/2018/02/neanderthals-were-artists-and-thought-symbolically-new-studies-argue/

(2) Gordon, Michael. 2012, ‘Looking back: finding the senses’ in The Psychologist, volume 25. Accessed on February 21st 2021: https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-25/edition-12/looking-back-finding-senses

(3) Clayton, E. ‘Where did writing begin?’ Accessed on February 21st 2021: https://www.bl.uk/history-of-writing/articles/where-did-writing-begin

(4) Kolb, B and Gibb, R. 2011, ‘Brain Plasticity and Behaviour in the Developing Brain’. Accessed on February 21st 2021: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3222570/

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