Punctuated Equilibrium, Progress and Schools

Punctuated Equilibrium is a theory in evolutionary biology that seems to fit well with progress in students’ learning.

What is Punctuated Equilibrium

Punctuated Equilibrium was first proposed in the 1970s by Nile’s Elderedge and Stephen Jay Gould. They argued that while most of us think that evolution happens gradually, the fossil record showed  evolution happens in spurts. Stasis (or equilibrium) is the norm, then there are bursts of activity (the equilibrium is punctured) and then stasis reigns again.

There is a helpful post here explaining it in more detail but the difference between gradualism and punctuated equilibrium can be shown as per the below

As a model, it has been attacked by Dawkins and Bennett. They called Punctuated Equilibrium “evolution by jerks” (to which Stephen Jay Gould’s response was that Gradualism was “evolution by creeps”).

That said, the punctuated equilibrium dynamic seems to happen outside of the natural world too. In industry, there is often stasis, then a new environment (often triggered by an innovation) leads to a burst of new prototypes before these are whittled down to a smaller handful of product categories.  Bicycles seem to be a good example of this. As BicycleHistory says:

Between 1817 when Nicéphore Niépce created his first velocipede and 1880 when first “safety bicycles” became highly popular across Europe, bicycle designs were highly varied

It seems is might be a useful lens through which to assess learning too

Punctuated Progress

David Didau has written a number of good posts about the myth of progress.  He points out that, as in Hugh Macleod’s Gaping Void Cartoon, while we act like progress is linear, it’s more confusing that that.

It’s a great diagram for pointing out the shortfalls of thinking about progress as linear, but it doesn’t help much in terms of “where next”. I’m curious to know if the punctuated equilibrium model is more helpful.

There are some obvious ones such as that if progress is characterised by periods of stasis, then there will be lessons in which students are not performing substantially differently.  Threshold concepts look to be a tidy fit with the model and I’m going to have a further read to see how these might help. If anyone has any pointers, I’d love to hear.

What is a tiger for?

Still more from John Kay’s Obliquity:

“For years I struggled with the idea that if a profit could not be the defining purpose of a corporation, there must be something else that must be its defining purpose. If business did not maximise profit, what did it maximise? I was making the same mistake as those victims of the teleological fallacy who struggled for centuries with questions like ‘What is a tiger for?’ Tigers, as we no understand, are not the product of any purposive design … Tigers are good at being tigers because adaptation has hones them to be well adapted to the daily life of tigerdom. There is not more, or less, to it than that.


A good oil company is good at being an oil company, just as a good university is good at being a university, a good harpist is good at playing the harp and a good dentist is good at filling teeth. There is no defining purpose to these activities distinct from the activities themselves.

The 21st Century Learning Initiative Blog » The Evolution of Despair

It was 14 years since Time Magazine published The Evolution of Despair, by Robert Wright, the rapidly rising star of the new discipline of evolutionary psychology. [It] attracted great attention. As an evolutionary psychologist, he quoted the Unabomber – the man who, as his personal demonstration against the dehumanising aspects of modern life, conducted a seven-year bombing spree across America in the 1980s: “I attribute the social and psychological problems of modern society to the fact that society requires people to live under conditions radically different from those under which the human race evolved.”

There is, Wright wrote, a gentler side to human nature and it is this which seems to be increasingly the victim of repression; “The problem with modern life is less that we are over-socialised,” he wrote, but that we are under-socialised – or that too little of our ‘social’ contact is social in the natural, intimate sense of the word.”

Source: here

The 21st Century Learning Initiative Blog » The Evolution of Despair

It was 14 years since Time Magazine published The Evolution of Despair, by Robert Wright, the rapidly rising star of the new discipline of evolutionary psychology. [It] attracted great attention. As an evolutionary psychologist, he quoted the Unabomber – the man who, as his personal demonstration against the dehumanising aspects of modern life, conducted a seven-year bombing spree across America in the 1980s: “I attribute the social and psychological problems of modern society to the fact that society requires people to live under conditions radically different from those under which the human race evolved.”

There is, Wright wrote, a gentler side to human nature and it is this which seems to be increasingly the victim of repression; “The problem with modern life is less that we are over-socialised,” he wrote, but that we are under-socialised – or that too little of our ‘social’ contact is social in the natural, intimate sense of the word.”

Source: here

The Play’s the Thing » American Scientist

Let me explain a thing or two about humanists like me. There are legions of us who reach for our guns when we hear the word genome. That’s because we’re all too familiar with the history of eugenics, and we flinch whenever someone attempts an “evolutionary” explanation of Why Society Is the Way It Is; we suspect them, with good reason, of trying to justify some outrageous social injustice on the grounds that it’s only natural. Likewise, there are legions of us who clap our hands over our ears when we hear the term evolutionary psychology. That’s because we’re all too familiar with the follies of sociobiology, and we’ve suffered through lectures claiming that our species is hardwired for middle-aged guys dumping their wives for young secretaries and students (I sat through that lecture myself) or that men run the world because women have wide hips for childbearing, whereas men can rotate three-dimensional shapes in their heads (okay, that one is a mash-up of two different lectures).

Source: here

The Play’s the Thing » American Scientist

Let me explain a thing or two about humanists like me. There are legions of us who reach for our guns when we hear the word genome. That’s because we’re all too familiar with the history of eugenics, and we flinch whenever someone attempts an “evolutionary” explanation of Why Society Is the Way It Is; we suspect them, with good reason, of trying to justify some outrageous social injustice on the grounds that it’s only natural. Likewise, there are legions of us who clap our hands over our ears when we hear the term evolutionary psychology. That’s because we’re all too familiar with the follies of sociobiology, and we’ve suffered through lectures claiming that our species is hardwired for middle-aged guys dumping their wives for young secretaries and students (I sat through that lecture myself) or that men run the world because women have wide hips for childbearing, whereas men can rotate three-dimensional shapes in their heads (okay, that one is a mash-up of two different lectures).

Source: here

Evolution and history compulsory

Evolution is already taught in secondary schools and many primary schools, but under the curriculum changes, it will become compulsory for primary pupils.

Professor Sir Martin Taylor, vice-president of the Royal Society, said: "We are delighted to see evolution explicitly included in the primary curriculum.

"One of the most remarkable achievements of science over the last two hundred years has been to show how humans and all other organisms on the earth arose through the process of evolution."

Source: here

Humanity’s Other Basic Instinct: Maths

Traditionally, scientists have thought that we learn to use numbers the same way we learn how to drive a car or to text with two thumbs … The oldest evidence of people using numbers dates back about 30,000 years: bones and antlers scored with notches that are considered by archaeologists to be tallying marks. More sophisticated uses of numbers arose only much later, coincident with the rise of other simple technologies. The Mesopotamians developed basic arithmetic about 5,000 years ago. Zero made its debut in A.D. 876. Arab scholars laid the foundations of algebra in the ninth century; calculus did not emerge in full flower until the late 1600s.

Despite the late appearance of higher mathematics, there is growing evidence that numbers are not really a recent invention—not even remotely. Cantlon and others are showing that our species seems to have an innate skill for math, a skill that may have been shared by our ancestors going back least 30 million years.

Source: here

Letters of Note, Darwin & The Tendency to Generalize

On the wonderful Letters of Note blog, this caught my fancy.  It is an excerpt from a letter from Charles Darwin.  It was not approach to collecting and generalisation especially.  How many smatterers and wandering collectors are there online who make the loose speculations Mr D abhors?  Well, one here …

I must be allowed to put my own interpretation on what you say of “not being a good arranger of extended views”  which is, that you do not indulge in the loose speculations so easily started by every smatterer & wandering collector. I look at a strong tendency to generalize as an entire evil.

[via Kottke]

Letters of Note, Darwin & The Tendency to Generalize

On the wonderful Letters of Note blog, this caught my fancy.  It is an excerpt from a letter from Charles Darwin.  It was not approach to collecting and generalisation especially.  How many smatterers and wandering collectors are there online who make the loose speculations Mr D abhors?  Well, one here …

I must be allowed to put my own interpretation on what you say of “not being a good arranger of extended views”  which is, that you do not indulge in the loose speculations so easily started by every smatterer & wandering collector. I look at a strong tendency to generalize as an entire evil.

[via Kottke]