Applied evolution in the classroom

There is a saying in evolutionary biology that “Every genotype requires a viable phenotype.” In other words, each genetic mutation needs to result in creatures that can survive — otherwise the mutation dies out.

Even if, say, four particular steps of evolution would have led to a super-being, that path of evolution will never happen should any of the first three steps produce a fatal vulnerability.

It occurred to me today that this concept has something to teach us about education. Very often an educator will introduce a lesson in the following general way: “Later this semester we’re going to get to the fun stuff, but first you need to learn these basics.”

What often follows is a grueling and demoralizing exercise — equations are written, theorems proved, complex formulas worked through. Students become bored, disenchanted, distracted. They surreptitiously check their iPhones for incoming texts. Nobody wins.

Even if the stuff that comes later in the semester turns out to be fun, the damage has been done. Students who lost the narrative during the earlier lesson are almost certainly not going to be able to pick it up later. They will be unprepared for what comes next.

I would argue that every lesson needs to be fun and exciting on its own terms. I know that in practice this can be difficult.

But it is necessary.

One Response to “Applied evolution in the classroom”

  1. The trick is to figure out how to motivate and make interesting the boring stuff. So for years I did the usual math of the computer science undergraduate and hated it. Then I took economics and suddenly the 1st derivative really meant something to me. (Economists sortof co invented calculus, in the sense that they were blissfully unaware of the work being done in the area by other people, that is why they have their own terminology and notation for it). Easier said than done, but I bet it could be done. Lets pick some topic that needs to be gotten through and figure out an entertaining way to present it.

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