Punctuated Equilibrium: Life, scientists, students

I’m not an evolutionary biologist so forgive me if I get this wrong. I believe that some evolutionary biologists either currently or at one time believed that evolution progressed with spurts of activity in which certain events caused a higher level of evolutionary pressure causing an increased rate of appearance of new organisms. I’m quite certain this is not completely correct, but I’m using this thinking in a different context anyway.

I’ve been teaching a course in which we are exploring the history and philosophy of science and in rereading some of the course materials, I’ve wondered if science itself might experience episodes of rapid evolution and new idea generation. For example, in the time after a paradigm shift I suspect a flurry of activity is created as the new paradigm is explored. Then, after some time, the flurry of new ideas slows as the questions are answers and normal science sets in. 

Of course, given the connection between paradigm shifts and learning, I wonder if students might experience a flurry of insight soon after a conceptual change event. For example, if students believe moon phases are cause by the Earth’s shadow, but through dissonance generating activities and development of more accurate views, might the students suddenly have multiple insights (e.g. eclipses, day/night, light on the Earth, etc) if guided in that direction?

Of course science is a community and the learning load is spread amongst the community. For students, they may run into a cognitive load issue. I suspect teachers can capitalize on conceptual change events to make connections to multiple ideas, but we may want to think carefully about the order we engage students in these ideas in an effort to reduce the cognitive load. Of course, there is no magic bullet, but maybe I can better leverage individual cognitive shifts with some more advanced planning around what other insights might be related to the initial shift in thinking. 

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