The OpenEvo
Educational Policy Synthesis

How should humans learn about evolution and sustainability science in the 21st century?

The OpenEvo Educational Policy Synthesis offers a concise summary from experts and practioners on core concepts and values that can inform locally adapted answers to this question. This guidance is backed by the extensive and evolving OpenEvo database of research-informed improvement principles and strategies to help teachers and students drive innovation in local school communities.


Teaching and learning about human origins, and the evolutionary processes of human cognitive, behavioral, and cultural change, presents a centrally important challenge to educators around the world. These topics are of clear significance to the lives of all students, and are as well, deeply complex, entailing many perspectives across science and society. 

Historical structures, both in evolution science and in the design of general education, have led to a nearly global norm in which evolution education resides solely within biology education. Further, the teaching of evolution science in the biology classroom tends towards a gene-centric model of change that may not be adequate for students to attain the interdisciplinary nature of evolutionary theory in the 21st century. 

Advances in both evolution and education science now point to new opportunities for engaging students in understanding the core concepts of evolutionary processes and the structure of scientific applications of evolutionary theory to the world, especially within the interdisciplinary domain of sustainable development. As with all scientific advancement, there exists a robust and lively debate over many aspects of teaching evolution as an interdisciplinary science, yet despite these complex debates, it is critical to empower educators with clear guidance on navigating and engaging students in appropriately scaffolded discussions of 21st century issues in the human evolutionary and sustainability sciences. 

Finally, the disciplinary fragmentation of the human sciences and educational design has left most general educators, across traditional subject areas, without the professional support and curricular infrastructure to engage the opportunities presented by teaching evolution and sustainability as interdisciplinary scientific themes. Thus, scientists, teachers, schools, and the global education community, must work together to advance a more open, networked, and interdisciplinary evolution education ecosystem of research and development adequate to the challenges of our times. 

The foundations for the OpenEvo Educational Policy Synthesis come from the integration of three expert conceptualizations of these complex topics. By relating the aims of the Jena Declaration, the EvoKids Policy Resolution, and the OpenEvo Educational Design Concept, we have then begun to identify core Focal Policy Areas to support the science-driven practical improvement of learning about evolution and sustainability.

Focal Policy Areas

We are focused on three core domains of educational policy that present complex and systemic challenges and opportunities for teaching evolution and sustainability as interdisciplinary scientific themes in general education. These high-level focal policy areas are then supported by our evolving database of improvement strategies, research thesis ideas, methods, and teaching resources to help schools and communities around the world make their own informed decisions about designing these important interdisciplinary dimensions of 21st century curriculum design.

Within the context described above,  we suggest that schools and scientific communities can actively work together to develop a focus in the following areas of school improvement through interdisciplinary evolution and sustainability science education:

Focus on understanding the complex causality of human behavior across diverse contexts

Focus on the aspects and everyday experience of human behaviors relevant to human well-being and sustainable development (eg, prosociality, cooperation, sense of belonging, trust, curiosity and creativity, learning and teaching, empathy and compassion, sense of fairness, perspective taking, flexibility, self-control, goals and values, health, prevention). Focusing on human behaviors helps students relate to and understand the causes of biological and societal phenomena.

Explore and reflect on the many causes and consequences of human behavior and on the complex causal relationships in human evolution, behavior, and social-ecological systems: How do immediate internal and external factors, as well as individual development and evolutionary history, function as causes of human behavior? Why do these mechanisms and patterns of behavior exist compared to other possibilities? What consequences do behaviors have for individuals and their environment, in the short-term and in the long-term? Diverse teaching tools such as causal maps and payoff matrices help in reflecting on these questions. Exploring complex causality helps students understand and relate causal factors in the emergence of human behaviors.

Focus on ethical reflection in evolution and sustainability education

Given the turbulent ethical history of evolutionary anthropology, students should be explicitly engaged in understanding the scientific and socio-cultural contexts in which evolutionary theory was applied in unethical ways in the past as well as the modern scientific bases for understanding race as a social construct emerging from cultural evolutionary processes, rather than representing a sound biological concept
(see Jena Declaration).

Focus on the community-based cultural evolution of global well-being and sustainability

Given the diversity and urgency of sustainability challenges at all scales of society, students should be explicitly engaged in reflecting on the opportunities and limits of applied evolutionary sciences as related to the full range of sustainability challenges facing our species and planet. Such learning explorations should explicitly include critical reflections on the diversity of historical and modern viewpoints (in science and across cultures) regarding the relation between evolutionary processes and human values (see Eirdosh & Hanisch 2020).

Focus on interdisciplinary pluralism in curricula design

Given the complex conceptual history of evolution science in the human domain, students should be explicitly engaged in understanding the similarities and differences between gene-centric conceptions of evolution and interdisciplinary, trait-centered conceptions of evolutionary change in complex adaptive systems, especially within the domains of human behavior, cognition, and culture (see Hanisch & Eirdosh 2020 and Hanisch & Eirdosh in review). 

Focus on interdisciplinary coherence in curricula design

Given the conceptual complexity of learning evolution science, students should be explicitly engaged in evolution education, including human evolution education, as a unifying, interdisciplinary perspective in the natural and social sciences starting in the first year of formal education and continuing every year thereafter.
(see EvoKids Resolution and OpenEvo Educational Design Concept).

Focus on engaging collective action for interdisciplinary educational innovations

Given the overlapping interests of evolution education with broader global aims of educational development, and given the challenges of implementing evolution education innovations across the diverse classroom contexts of the world, cooperation among all stakeholders of the evolution education community (researchers, teachers, policy makers, even students) should be prioritized to advance an open, networked, and interdisciplinary approach to supporting effective, scientifically grounded, and meaningful evolution education for all students around the world.