Cristine Legare, The University of Texas at Austin

The Culture of Schooling

What if we looked more closely at how children acquire values, norms, and beliefs about the world, and how the kinds of schools they attend affect this?

How does introducing science in schools impact how children think about religion? How do scientific beliefs coexist with religious beliefs?

Grant Title
The Consequences of Formal Education for Science and Religion
Legal Organization
The University of Texas at Austin
Project Dates
Start Date: 01 October 2019
End Date: 31 October 2023
Grant Amount
Area of Focus
Science & Religion in Context

Usually, formal education starts with “the three Rs,” reading, writing, and arithmetic. And in some of the world, there is an increasing focus on STEM education – science, technology, engineering, and math. 

Throughout the world, formal schooling is commonly understood as a process for learning the content, knowledge, skills, and norms required for being a productive and successful adult in society. Perhaps it’s no surprise then, that studies of the impact of education tend to focus on things such as demographic and economic outcomes.

Much less is known, however, about how the quality and quantity of education shapes the beliefs, values, and behaviors that people adopt, both inside and outside of the classroom. This vast and mostly wide-open area of inquiry presents an important research opportunity for cognitive scientists, according to Cristine Legare, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and director of its Center for Applied Cognitive Science.

This initiative is an opportunity to understand the sorts of things that predict greater coexistence.
– Cristine Legare Ph.D., professor of psychology at The University of Texas at Austin

“Education is transformative in multiple respects,” Dr. Legare points out. “It introduces new ideas. It challenges existing ideas and sometimes changes them. And many of these ideas are relevant to how we think about human nature, cultures, and the pressing problems that face our species and our world more generally. What children learn in schools about how the biological world works, how the physical world works, how humans interact and work in the world, and even about the origins of life and our place in the universe … encompasses the bedrock of understanding everything that people care about.”

With funding from the Templeton Religion Trust, in partnership with Issachar Fund, Dr. Legare is directing a research initiative designed to delve deeply and broadly into better understanding how cultural influences shape the environment and content of the classroom, which in turn shapes attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of groups of people.

An international and interdisciplinary team is collaborating in this far-reaching initiative that spans 14 diverse field sites ranging from urban Japan to Hadza hunter-gatherers in Tanzania to small-scale societies in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where formal education has only recently been introduced.

The scope of the research includes schools that are completely secular, those that are directly associated with religious institutions, and many that combine secular and religious inputs in various ways. Religion-based schools have been the predominant model for providing education throughout history and remain widespread in much of the world today. Because of a research tradition biased towards western schools, the relevance of religious institutions in shaping educational systems and values has been widely under-appreciated.

“The core reason that we are studying formal education in so many different societies – large scale, small scale, Eastern, Western, and everything in between — industrialized, industrializing, not industrialized at all – is to try to understand the ways in which the demographics … the level of economic development, the constellation of cultural values, and religious beliefs and behaviors are all shaping beliefs, identities, values, and meaning, and how those are changing in an increasingly interconnected, globalizing world,” Dr. Legare explains.

“We want to understand the impact of the amount, kind, and content of formal schooling on psychological outcomes: the reasoning, beliefs, values, and behavior of individuals and groups. The only way to measure these processes and impacts is by studying populations that vary in their exposure to formal education. In 2021, education is not yet a universal experience, although it’s rapidly becoming one. And we still don’t know a lot about the consequences.”

Education is transformative in multiple respects. It introduces new ideas and changes existing ideas. And these ideas are relevant to how we think about human nature, human cultures, and the pressing problems that are facing our species and the globe.
– Cristine Legare Ph.D., professor of psychology at The University of Texas at Austin

A Broad and Deep Investigation

The team-based approach of the project integrates theories and methods across the cognitive sciences. Broad in scope, it includes gathering data from teachers, parents, and other adults in the communities, as well as current and former students.

Specifically, the researchers hope to find answers to these questions:

  1. What is the impact of formal education on the kinds of reasoning people use, the beliefs and values they adopt, and the kind of behaviors they engage in?
  2. How are scientific and religious beliefs, values, and behaviors acquired and transmitted?
  3. What is the impact of formal education on scientific and religious belief formation and revision across a lifespan?
  4. What are the predictors of individual differences in how people think about science and religion?
  5. How and why does participating in formal education (secular and religious) impact social, demographic, economic, and political outcomes at the population-level?

In addition to tracking and measuring variations within each population – for example, comparing children of the same age who started school in different years – the project also involves cross-cultural comparisons. Because populations vary in so many ways other than their educational systems, the researchers are intentionally focusing these comparisons on populations that are ethnically, linguistically, and socioeconomically similar but have experienced different access to formal schools – for reasons as varied as geographical features, parental control, or what Dr. Legare describes as “just pure historical accident.” Comparing cultures that are more similar than different makes isolating the causal effects of formal education much more precisely traceable, she explains.

Linda Abarbanell, Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at San Diego State University, regularly visits Chiapas, Mexico to survey members of the Tselta Mayan community. As part of her research, she asks questions about how religious and scientific beliefs related to illness, natural disaster and other topics are influenced by education.

“In the Culture of Schooling Project, we’re particularly interested in looking at how formal education around the world shapes the kind of core values and beliefs that people have. And in my particular context where I work here in Tenejapa, I’m interested seeing how the shifts in education, shifts in beliefs about science, shifts in beliefs about religion all have an impact on the healthcare beliefs and practices that people have,” Dr. Abarbanell says.

What the collective research showed is that there is no such thing as a “simple” belief. Complex cultural alliances and identities influence what and how we cognitively process information throughout our lives.

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Vivian Afi Dzokoto, PhD, a cultural and clinical psychologist and Professor in the Department of African American Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, is another subgrantee of the Culture of Schooling Project. Her research looks at a peri-urban school in Accra, Ghana, and a rural school in Salt Pond, Ghana to better understand the influence of parents and schools on beliefs related to science and religion.

“In other words, we’re looking at cohort effects,” she says. “Meaning, if you take a parent and a child, is the relationship between their scientific thoughts and their religious thoughts similar to each other, which then suggests that there is a lot of parent-child influence? Or rather, are the signs of the relationship between scientific thought and religious thought in a child similar to their peers, in which case it would suggest that the formal education system has a great deal of influence on how children’s belief systems are shaped?”

Dr. Dzokoto attests that children learn from multiple settings – and those threads of knowledge intertwine to form a beautiful pattern of overarching knowledge they will use to engage in the world.

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Laying New Groundwork

Dr. Legare’s interest in this research topic is both academic and personal. Extensive travel has stimulated her curiosity and informed her insights into the many ways education changes people, both cognitively and as participants in a culture. A key objective of this project is to build a global network of cognitive scientists who share those interests and can contribute to a deeper, fact-based, and more holistic understanding of the impacts of education.

It’s critically important, Dr. Legare maintains, that formal education is more widely understood by parents and whole societies as a conduit for transmitting values and beliefs as well as academic content and skills. Recognizing that reality, she says, also means acknowledging that there’s currently very little reliable information about the process of cultural transmission, particularly the extent to which what’s learned in school is coexisting or conflicting with beliefs already embedded within a population.

“This initiative is an opportunity to understand the sorts of things that predict greater coexistence of complex religious and scientific concepts, which from my perspective is critical to reducing conflict, promoting human wellbeing, and creating 21st century global citizens,” she says.

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