Self-help app for caveman brains

I’m a meta-learner–I love learning about learning. I’m even a meta-teacher–I have to resist the urge to teach uninvited about teaching. I’ve loved teaching college freshmen about the meta– prefix when I urge them to be more metacognitive–to understand their own understanding. They have recognized and labeled the cinematic exemplar of meta- as “Inception.” But what is the word for learning about teaching? I wish I knew because it’s something I’m grappling with as I decide how best to help modern cavemen outsmart their instincts.

I’ve certainly learned plenty about teaching children and young adults (pedagogy) through formal graduate work and faculty development workshops. Adult education research, or andragogy, has shown us the need for different approaches for grownups with other priorities, expectations and experiences. Andragogy scholars have made the case for weaving context, experience, commitment and intention into any learning environment. Online learning has forced traditional lectures and print media to make space for interaction, problem-solving and agency1. Practical, immersive, direct experience, social learning options and accountability are effective. While andragogy scholars may be focused on non-traditional college students and online delivery in formal academic degree programs, my interest is in how to apply what they know to building an informed citizenry of resilient, inquiring, self-reflective minds. So if I’m aiming for “a change in the meaning of one’s experience of the world”2 when it comes to practical applications of evolutionary psychology to self-help, then I don’t think writing a book is what will work, especially since I am not a recognized scholar in this discipline.

I have continued to learn about teaching by being a student. Everything I’m noticing is making the Outsmarting Instinct project harder to design. I’m grappling with what form it will take and what my criteria for success will be. Fortunately I recognize that “grappling” in a creativity fog is as necessary as it is frustrating. I must be grappling with this design problem lately because I’ve noticed that when I take a course or attend a workshop, I’m paying as much attention to how the presenter delivers their lesson as I do to the topic they are teaching. I’m noting the scope, sequence, media and pace they chose, and evaluating whether it works (for me, anyway) and whether I can apply their model to one of my projects.

Most recently this happened during an online Zoom course produced by a nonprofit nature organization. I noted their use of polling and chat and virtual tours and a test at the end, which I used heavily when teaching college students. In spite of being online, we were real humans interacting in real time. This went far beyond assigning a book or YouTube links and having us come back for a test in a week. These features contributed to an environment of expectation, social learning and accountability that are now normal in K-163 education. I also attend small group Cajun fiddle lessons, most recently online and pay-as-you-go. The advantage there is having scheduled, real-time, intentional experiences but that are organic and flexible. The teacher, who is a professional musician with an intuitive teaching sense, doesn’t come with a prepared lesson. Rather, decisions about the song, pace and complexity are made with the input of those who attend that week. I’ve also noted how good my dance-exercise teachers have been when they offer a range of accessibility-challenge and familiarity-novelty options. All of these experiences of teacher-as-student are informing but, frankly, complicating my decisions about how to effectively deliver a self-reflective experience based in evolutionary psychology.

Another model for inspiring personal growth that could work for Outsmarting Instinct is an app like Noom that was developed as a psychological approach to losing weight and keeping it off. The Noom approach worked for me, and I subscribed at least as much for the weight loss support as the opportunity to peek under the hood, as a user. Its bells and whistles had daily tasks, accountability, personal coaching, research lessons, goal-setting, social inspiration and sharing.

So I have plenty of models by which I, as a student, have been learning about teaching for personal enrichment. How should I design a learning experience to help people recognize and, when necessary, outsmart their caveman instincts? I’ll need more than a diatribe, book or blog. I’ll need a system with extra bells and whistles that work for adults. I’ll need a system that is big but feels small, is structured but is at least partly unscripted and organic, is multi-modal and optionally social, accommodates universal features of cognition but honors and exploits local context, is ambitious and energetic but relaxed, is responsive, and personal but is sustainable by me.

Well that about summarizes the impossibility of my task. No wonder I haven’t gotten very far.


1“Sense of agency refers to the feeling of control over actions and their consequences” Agency is relevant to teaching for active learning.

2A definition of learning I picked up from my PhD advisor, science educator Jim Wandersee

3Kindergarten-4-year college

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