Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom is well known for her important work advancing the theory of collective action that now informs an impressive diversity of research into how human communities can work together on issues that matter (Poteete et al. 2010). From local resources, to climate change, to the creative commons of the internet, Ostrom’s work has infused thinking on many of the pressing issues of our times. She is less well known as being a passionate advocate for improvements to civic education, yet her views in this area could be equally as valuable to society. Curiously, there is an important link between Ostrom’s scientific work on collective action, and emerging perspectives in the evolutionary human sciences, such that this work may also have significant import for how we teach evolution science itself. This essay draws on Ostrom’s vision for advancing a civic education grounded in teaching the theory of collective action as a conceptual framework that transfers from the everyday lives of students to the global dilemmas of the modern world. Scientific and educational advances since Ostrom’s passing only further illuminate the prescience, need, and value of her thinking.

Ostrom’s insight for the civics classroom

In one of her lesser-known articles (cited a mere twelve times, according to Google Scholar); Ostrom (1998) asks a straightforward question:

“Why should we teach the theory of collective action as a critical element in courses on American government and political science more generally?”

She then offers an equally straightforward answer that contains within in it a subtle yet fundamentally important set of claims:

“My answer to this question is that the theory of collective action is a core explanatory theory related to almost every ‘political problem’ addressed by citizens, elected officials, political action groups, courts, legislatures, and families. Any time that individuals may benefit from the costly actions of others without themselves contributing time and effort, they face collective action dilemmas for which there are coping mechanisms.” (Ostrom 1998, p.1)

In this statement, Ostrom is doing something quite unique in the field of civic and political education. As civic education researcher, Peter Levine, notes:

“Many scholars other than Ostrom study civil society; there is a large literature on the topic. But not enough of it combines three matters: facts, values, and strategies” (Levine 2011, p.5)

By “facts”, Levine seems to mean an empirically-founded theoretical understanding of civic behavior itself. In this light, Ostrom offers the civics classroom two fundamental insights. First, civic education can be informed by the interdisciplinary scientific work and rich body of empirical evidence that has contributed to her theory of collective action. Second, because her theory of collective action is scale-independent, that is, it is relevant to cooperation at all scales of social organization, students in the civics classroom can be supported in understanding the relevance of this view of society across the many social circles of their own lives. In developing this more multilevel and transferable conception of what it means for humans to work together on societal issues, students can be equipped to integrate “facts, values, and strategies” in the way Peter Levine suggests is necessary for civic education. Still, the challenge remains of how exactly real-world educators can engage students in this perspective.

Teaching for transfer of learning in the 21st century 

When Ostrom described her vision of civic education at the end of the 20th century, little was known about the actual teaching practices that could help students develop the kind of conceptual understanding of collective action she was advocating for. In the ~20 years since then, advances in educational science have given us a better understanding of how teachers might approach teaching Ostrom’s theoretical framework in ways that help students apply it to all the many levels of cooperation they experience in their everyday lives and extended academic studies.

Recent work in social studies education from Hattie et al (2020) builds on an impressive breadth of educational research in relation to the kinds of practices that individual teachers and school systems can engage to move student understanding from the surface features that make every societal issue unique, to the deeper transferable concepts and relationships that many societal issues have in common. In many ways, the suggested pedagogical practices require student thinking to parallel the work of social scientists studying human cooperation more generally.

When Ostrom (1998, p.1) describes that “[a]ny time that individuals may benefit from the costly actions of others without themselves contributing time and effort, they face collective action dilemmas for which there are coping mechanisms”, she is pointing to a deep structural regularity about the relationships between the interests of individuals and groups that she has arrived at through a highly diverse inquiry into the nature of effective human cooperation across many contexts (from the field to the lab). Similarly, humans universally begin their life with an intuitive drive towards conceptualizing and theorizing about the cooperative social dynamics around them. As they gain experience, educators can help students identify and clarify the fact that specific concepts are relevant to human cooperation (e.g. a sense of group identity, a sense of fairness, transparency, trust, etc.), as well as the relationships among these concepts (e.g. how does our sense of fairness relate to our sense of group identity? How does transparency relate to trust?). In this way, students can acquire and connect the relevant understandings that are central to human cooperation in diverse contexts and test their evolving theories by transferring their knowledge to ever more examples of collective action, however similar or different they may be on the surface level.

But what does it have to do with evolution education?

This essay is part of a collection of essays about evolution education without borders, teaching evolution across traditional subject areas or disciplines. So, up to this point, you might ask – what does this discussion of collective action and civic education have to do with evolution education?

Ostrom was a deeply interdisciplinary scientist, with a passion for understanding the human condition as it relates to the collective action dilemmas we so frequently encounter. Just as evolutionary theory has influenced the human social sciences in a diversity of ways, it has also influenced how Ostrom and diverse academics conceptualize the interpretation and implications of her theory of collective action.

One conceptual connection of the theory of collective action to the domain of biology and evolution is made explicit in a 2013 article with evolutionary anthropologist David Sloan Wilson and social-ecological systems scientist Michael Cox, which elaborates a more fully-rounded evolutionary approach to understanding the stability and change dynamics of human cooperation across contexts and scales of organization. Importantly, by drawing on research far beyond just human social dynamics, Ostrom’s core design principles for cooperation (see image below) are further framed from a more generalized complex systems view, in which insights from the evolution of phenomena as diverse as multicellular organisms, the immune system, non-human animals, cancer, and the mind, are all framed within a perspective unified by a focus on core concepts in evolutionary processes.Elinor Ostrom identified eight core design principles that appear to be important factors in human cooperation. Ostrom first identified these principles in the context of natural resource use but later generalized them across wide-ranging contexts of human interaction. 

The Wilson, Ostrom, & Cox (2013) conceptualization of the conditions that foster (or hinder) cooperation across levels and contexts in both biology and society, demand of evolution educators a closer look at the scope of our science in teaching across traditional subject areas.

Another conceptual connection to evolution is hinted at in the subtitle of her 1990 book “Governing the Commons.The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action” and then again in a 2013 article where she asks “Do institutions for collective action evolve?”

Understanding this view of evolving conditions for collective action requires us to take seriously the transferability of evolutionary processes to the domains of culture and politics. As Ostrom (2013) highlights “For rule configurations to evolve, there must be processes that (1) generate variety, (2) select rules based on relatively accurate information about comparative performance in a particular environment, and (3) retain rules that perform better in regard to criteria such as efficiency, equity, accountability, and sustainability.” Any evolution educator will notice the centrality of the concepts of variation, selection, and inheritance/retention (though some evolution educators may none-the-less be skeptical of teaching such as an example of evolution, see our related article on transfer of learning for an extended discussion of this skepticism).

Ostrom’s work is an effort to go against cookie-cutter policy solutions for resource governance, given the diversity of resource systems and user groups around the world, and to highlight the importance of small, locally driven “policy experiments” of devising, testing, and selecting rules that work in terms of what people locally might care about. After all, evolution is a process that is decentralized and highly contextualized, and so Ostrom’s vision of a polycentric governance system also embodied these principles. In a very real way, Ostrom’s vision is the policy equivalent of breeding and domestication processes, which has, since Darwin, been a key analogy of how natural selection works, with (more or less) conscious human intervention.

So, in Elinor Ostrom’s classroom, teaching the theory of collective action would also entail evolutionary concepts and processes that, so far, are usually only found in the biology curriculum, and sometimes not even made fully explicit there.

Achieving Ostrom’s vision is itself a collective action problem

Ostrom was a visionary scientist who elevated a research program that was simultaneously of foundational scientific importance for understanding who we are as a highly diverse, cultural, and cooperative species, as well as of practical importance for how we can better manage those shared resources that matter to us as individuals and communities. Her vision for a civic education grounded in the interdisciplinary human sciences offers subtle yet critical value to educators across traditional divides.

For civics educators, Ostrom’s work (and the continued efforts of the broader Prosocial World community) offers a practical and scientifically informed approach to helping students develop a modern understanding of the local, societal, and global sustainability dilemmas that pervade our world.

For evolution educators, Ostrom’s work provides a novel context to engage students in a deeper conceptual understanding of the essential evolutionary processes across biology and cultural contexts. Understanding the biological origins and cultural evolution of cooperation offers a unique direction for students to connect evolution science to their everyday lives.

For school leaders, Ostrom’s work provides an integrative understanding of the many cooperation and collective action challenges that emerge within the social ecosystems of schools every school day, and year. Indeed, understanding the conditions that help or hinder our human abilities to work together and learn together towards the things that matter, may just be a core foundational skill for cultivating successful schools.

Viewed this way, we are optimistic that a new culture of more integrated and interdisciplinary teaching is emerging in regards to the cultural evolution of school communities as agents of change through social learning. This new culture is grounded in evolving discussions of the best available human science perspectives on social change and focused on empowering global discussions around local adaptation strategies for solving the collective action dilemmas we face at these levels and every level in between.

Read the entire Evolution Education series:

  1. Evolution Education Without Borders: A Collection of Essays on Teaching Evolution as an Interdisciplinary Science
  2. Finding Purpose in Evolution Education
  3. It’s Time to Fix Evolution’s Public Relations Problem
  4. Evolving Minds: Learning as Evolution, Evolution as Learning
  5. Education is an Evolutionary Science. Why Don’t We Teach It That Way?
  6. Transfer of Learning in Evolution Understanding: A Challenge Not Just For Students
  7. Elinor’s Classroom: Developing a Connected Concept of the Commons for 21st Century Civic Education


Hattie, J., Stern, J., Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2020). Visible Learning for Social Studies, Grades K-12: Designing Student Learning for Conceptual Understanding. Corwin.

Levine, P. (2011). Seeing Like a Citizen: The Contributions of Elinor Ostrom to “Civic Studies”Good Society, 20 (1), 3-14.

Ostrom, E. (1990). Governing the Commons. The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge, MA, USA: Cambridge University Press.

Ostrom, E. (1998). The need for civic education: a collective action perspective. In Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis (pp. 98-26).

Ostrom, E. (2013). Do institutions for collective action evolve? Journal of Bioeconomics, 16(1), 3–30.

Poteete, A. R., Janssen, M. A., & Ostrom, E. (2010). Working together: collective action, the commons, and multiple methods in practice. Princeton University Press.

Wilson, D. S., Ostrom, E., & Cox, M. E. (2013). Generalizing the core design principles for the efficacy of groups. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, 90, S21–S32.