Pedagogy Recapitulates Biology

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So there is this rule of thumb in biology, that ontology recapitulates phylogeny. A developing embryo seems to (roughly) follow a miniature course of evolution, resembling in form its genetic ancestors as it grows into an adult of whatever species. It is an observation, not a law, and one that I've wondered about.

I just found a new instance of it in a pedagogical question. Take a highly developed and complex part of physics. So parts are very intuitive, some features are very subtle and counter intuitive. Now try to teach it.

The question is, do you teach it the way it is, or the way it developed? Should a student follow an abridged guided version of history or take the knowledge, complete and self consistent as it is, and pick up where current knowledge leaves off? The problem with the first is that there are many things that are not true, which nevertheless account for everything a student knows at a certain point and make sense. Later such stepping stones turn out to be false (incomplete is a better word), and get nuanced by something more complicated.

The latter is inadequate because understanding is not the uploading of information to a brain, nor a list of facts. Understanding a subject means knowing what is primary, what is subtle, what is important and tricky and obvious and given, and what comes from what. And the history of a field is going to go through this same process. That said, we don't teach phlogiston or other well developed, long discredited and largely forgotten attempts at comprehending the world. Does individual learning recapitulate the development of scientific understanding?

Obviously, the answer isn't going to be one or the other. What happens is a dense mix of both. The question is interesting because it brings up more:

  • Why do we see individuals retracing the history of a field in their own development?
  • What steps get repeated and which skipped?
  • What is the difference between a community learning something unknown and an individual learning something known?

It was this last one that gave me the most intriguing idea: Compared to the environment I am in now, my distant ancestor organisms developed in a much different environment than the one I developed in.

In the language of pedagogy, The process I will go through is different than the process my academic forefather will go through because what is already known is different. Presumably, the mistakes and discoveries that get repeated in my learning are the more important ones out of all mistakes and discoveries that were made for the end result I'm approaching.

The idea of end result is tricky tying this back to the biological inspiration. Thats about as far as I am pondering all this.