Illustration: Elia Barbieri/The Guardian
What are some of the things humans can do that other animals can’t? Humans can count, humans can read, humans can reason. These advanced abilities are often attributed to the human brain as a piece of hardware. However, just as the usefulness of Excel, Google, or ChatGPT are not found in computer circuits but in the software that runs on them, most of our cognitive abilities are not the result of anatomical evolution either. The brain itself has scarcely changed since the rise of modern humans, if anything shrinking in the past few thousand years. Instead, much of our thinking is the result of successive cultural software upgrades; of thousands of years of evolving knowledge, skills and ways of thinking passed down through generations.
Take numbers. Our ancestors had a limited counting system, just as some small-scale societies do today. They counted 1, 2, 3 … and then “many”. Those that went further used stones, notches or body parts, but these systems don’t make the concept of zero obvious, let alone negative numbers, despite their usefulness in all sorts of calculation.
Then, in the 17th and 18th centuries, a new concept was developed – the number line, with digits arranged in sequence, horizontally. Moving from objects in front of us to positions in space made both zero and negative numbers more intuitive and teachable, even to young children. A world of complex arithmetic was opened up.
Or, take reading. In the famous “Stroop Test” people are shown a list of colour names (“red”, “blue”, “green” and so on) where the ink either matches the word, or clashes with it. People are asked to say the colour of the ink and not the written word, and it’s a struggle: reading overrides colour perception. A psychologist from Mars seeing this data might assume that reading is the innate human skill, and colour perception is not. We make the same kind of mistake with many other aspects of our ability to think. Over many generations, we’ve made ourselves smarter than nature intended – and we should be looking for ways to maintain this.
The cognitive operating system most of us now run was delivered by the expansion of schooling after the Industrial Revolution. Human babies have to catch up on the past several thousand years of human history in order to function in society, and schools have been an efficient way to download that cultural package. Schools have completely changed our psychology and behaviour. They also made us more intelligent, as measured by IQ tests.
A review of 142 studies from 2018 with more than 600,000 participants concluded that “education appears to be the most consistent, robust, and durable method yet to be identified for raising intelligence”. This review is consistent with more recent and compelling data collected by my colleagues and me in Namibia and Angola in a community that has only recently received education. Among the Himba pastoralist people without access to schools, 18-year-olds and eight-year-olds perform identically on even the most culturally independent IQ tests. It’s not that older children aren’t more skilled, it’s that, in the absence of school, they’re not more skilled in ways captured by IQ tests. IQ tests, in other words, are measuring what schools are delivering. But it’s not so much that IQ tests are culturally biased – it’s that there is no such thing as culture-free intelligence.
In the 1980s, intelligence researcher James Flynn noticed that IQ test scores were increasing over time. This became known as the Flynn effect. As schools got better and became accessible to more and more people, average IQ increased. Our societies reflected this new baseline: even entertainment became more complex. Think of the “Wham, Bam” Batman of the 1960s compared with the Dark Knight of the 2000s. Today’s lowest-brow TV has more characters and more convoluted storylines than anything our parents watched. But then progress stopped.
The Flynn effect has plateaued in the developed world. Innovations in education have stagnated. Schools remain fossils from a world before the internet and certainly before AI. In Britain, Venki Ramakrishnan, the head of the Royal Society, described Britain’s A-level system in which most students take just three subjects as no longer “fit for purpose”. Such systems, sculpted for an industrial society, falter in the face of a postindustrial, information economy. Schools were built for a world before the vast library of human knowledge became instantly accessible at our fingertips, through the computers on our desks and smartphones in our pockets.
Paradoxical as it may seem, plagiarism might be the answer. Plagiarism is how Estonia went from being a country where only half of households had access to a telephone in 1991 to one whose students top the western world in the OECD’s Pisa tables in mathematics, reading and science, beating the rest of Europe, the US, UK, Canada and Australia. It also has the highest number of $1bn startups per capita in the world. It has achieved this while spending far less per student than the OECD average.
How? Estonia’s education system operates a form of radical decentralisation. Municipalities and schools have autonomy, but are encouraged to collaborate, sharing best practices, and scouring the world for ideas to bring back and adapt. Teachers are given opportunities to travel and learn from education systems elsewhere. In a rapidly changing world, a startup-like ecosystem such as this, with institutions innovating, copying and recombining the best methods, is much more likely to succeed.
In a radical rethink of education for the 21st century, dozens of Estonian schools have swapped homework with schoolwork. Knowledge and delivery of material happens at home, on the bus, or on a family holiday, through recorded lectures and interactive material from the best educators in the country and the world. In the classroom, children engage in collaborative problem-solving and try out real-world applications of their skills regardless of age. Teachers, now freed from being deliverers of knowledge, become facilitators, helping students practise their skills, find information using the internet or AI, and work through problems. My middle school teacher warned me about the importance of mental maths because I wouldn’t be carrying a calculator in my pocket. He didn’t foresee the iPhone.
With the world’s best teachers and a universe of knowledge available at the tap of a finger, the real skill lies not in better retention but in targeted navigation – knowing who to learn from. The most valuable skills are no longer the ability to memorise reams of knowledge, historical facts, or scientific formulae. Instead, they consist of learning where to find this knowledge and how to use it; becoming more sceptical and vigilant for hallucinating AI, misinformed humans, or obsolete paradigms; or simply how to focus in a distracting world.
Learning isn’t something that should remain static. Advances in knowledge and the way it is delivered have allowed human beings to keep getting more intelligent. Education is the software that our brains run, and faced with ever more daunting challenges, we can’t afford to settle for an outdated version.
Michael Muthukrishna is associate professor of economic psychology at the London School of Economics. His book A Theory of Everyone will be published on 28 September by Basic . To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.