Special Educational Needs – Part 1: Evolution of our Brain and Definitions

The very first principle of the Mind, Brain, and Education science is:

Human brains are as unique as faces

Tokuhama-Espinosa, 2014

Indeed they are. Our brains have been evolving for millions of years. In fact, according to the most current records, our Homo Sapiens brain only appeared on this planet around 200,000 years ago after evolving from a line of predecessors dating back to our oldest known ancestor, Australopithecus afarensis, who lived around 3 to 4 million years ago (Howard-Jones, 2018).

A recent paleontological study suggests that our brains have not changed in size since the arrival of H. sapiens, which means we’ve had around the same brain, at least in terms of volume, as the hominids who lived 200,000 years ago (Neubauer, Hublin, & Gunz, 2018). Impressive, isn’t it?

Now think for a moment what education looked like 200,000 years ago? Was there any formal system of education? Did kids go to school? What about 100,000 years or 50,000 years ago? How about even 10,000 years ago? For the longest time, our brains were used to tasks immediately related to ensuring our survival as a species. Nothing like the educational systems we have today was available for at least 198,000 thousand years or so (or even 199,750 years ago! Read my post here. What changed everything? First, the Agricultural Revolution. Later, the invention of writing

So we’re basically saying that despite some advancements in technology for the time, such as better tools and techniques to survive, most of our history as H. sapiens has been devoted to a nomadic and illiterate lifestyle. As a matter of fact, around 95% of our time on this planet has been about hunting, looking for shelter, mating and reproducing. What does that have to do with education and educational needs? Think about it for a second. What is likely to happen to all these brains, as unique as faces, when a formal standardized system of education, based on recently socially/culturally constructed fundamental abilities is introduced?

In other words:

How are our brains supposed to get completely adjusted to something that started being imposed on us in the last 5% of our time as a species on this planet?

The answer is simple: our brains can’t. Not all of them anyway. Some brains are quite special and may even have given us an evolutionary advantage. Think of people who couldn’t stay still for long periods of time. They may have been involved in important discoveries and inventions that allowed us to get to where we are now. Think of people who may have had exceptional reasoning and memory skills. Their brains might have led us to invent mathematics and writing. These examples refer to Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) children and adults, for instance.

This short journey we took to the beginnings of our species as we know it can teach us, hopefully, a very important lesson: the incredible variability of brains we have as H. sapiens is a product of evolution and it is well adapted to the needs of 95% of our history. It was when we started to create systems and introduce new skills that things got a lot more complicated.

Don’t get me wrong, though. I believe education is the single most effective product of our species that allowed us to develop as we have, and writing and math are definitely at the heart of it. Nonetheless, I don’t like some of the labels attached to kids and adults who cannot adapt to this recent invention of ours. Let’s talk about Special Educational Needs (SEN) and what you need to know as a teacher and/or parent in this 4-post series.

Special Educational Needs (SEN)

SEN is the term used to refer to people, particularly children, who have some type of learning difficulty or disability and require certain changes in the way and/or content they’re taught. That includes a wide array of conditions, such as the previously mentioned ADHD and ASD, as well as Dyslexia, Dyscalculia, Down Syndrome, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Epilepsy, Cerebral Palsy, many physical and emotional difficulties among others.

Important terminology related to SEN

You may come across terms like: Individual Education Program (IEP), Special Education, Learning Difficulties or Disabilities, Special Needs Education, Exceptional Education, Atypicals or Atypical brains. They all refer to SEN either as synonyms or in slightly different ways. From now on, I shall use atypical and typical to differentiate students with and without SEN. I encourage you to do some research on the terms if you’re looking for more specifics.

Some initial considerations

The very first step we need to take is stop labeling people with SEN. When I say “stop labeling”, I’m referring to words such as “retarded”, “idiot”, “feeble-minded” and things like that. Of course we need to have a label for their condition and a proper diagnosis from a specialist. But we must understand that these conditions are the consequence of a long evolutionary chain of events and that they can also learn with their difficulties.

Secondly, we must be aware of two terms I’ll be using quite a lot in the following posts of this blog series:

ACCOMMODATION: changes in HOW the student will accomplish the task

EXAMPLE: Using a large font size for dyslexic students in a text

MODIFICATION: changes in WHAT the student will do instead of others with typical brains

EXAMPLE: Adapting the text to the student’s needs

Check out this website for more tips

Accommodation and modification are some of the best tools we can use to help students in these conditions. Speaking of conditions, I will focus on the three conditions I consider quite recurring in classrooms around the world and that normally make teachers uneasy: ADHD, DYSLEXIA, ASD. Each blog post after this one will focus on one of these conditions, what causes them, what symptoms students normally display, how we can work with them, and some useful tips on how to make them successful learners.

Oh, and the best part is that I’ll include an interview with someone who studies the topic 🙂

I suppose my final message here is that the wonderful variability of our brains needs to be celebrated and serves a purpose in our species. Maybe it’s to make us more humble or to equip special individuals with tools that may change the world. Be it as it may, we need to not only integrate them into our society but actually include and learn from them.

Have you ever had any atypical student in your classroom? How did you manage? Please share


Howard-Jones, Paul. Evolution of the Learning Brain: Or How You Got To Be So Smart... Routledge, 2018.

Neubauer, S., Hublin, J. J., & Gunz, P. (2018). The evolution of modern human brain shape. Science advances4(1), eaao5961.

Tokuhama-Espinosa, T. (2014). Making classrooms better: 50 practical applications of mind, brain, and education science. WW Norton & Company.

2 thoughts on “Special Educational Needs – Part 1: Evolution of our Brain and Definitions”

  1. Excellent information, useful and complete. For people like you and me, who love the power of brain, neuroscience and especial priorities for kids, this material is of special importance. I did, and I still do have kids with SEN, we Will have even more in the future. That is why this article and the posts you send through the links are so valuable. Thanks a lot for sharing,André.

  2. Pingback: Behave! The neuropsychology of misbehavior and 8 tips on how to remedy it – Education Development Courses

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