Saturday, September 08, 2012

Cultural application of recapitulation theory

Recapitulation theory--"often expressed as 'ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny'—is a biological hypothesis that in developing from embryo to adult, animals go through stages resembling or representing successive stages in the evolution of their remote ancestors."
In biology one can see resemblance between more primitive life forms and more advanced as embryos develop in stages. Complex life resembles less complex forms in its earliest stages. One of the ways that human beings are different from so many other species of animal life is that so much of our individual development is reliant on social context. And this is where Lev Vygotsky and Social Development Theory comes in, and not knowing quite how to express what I have in mind, I'll call what I'm thinking, cultural recapitulation.

In the early days of manual arts theory and program development, many psychologists and educators believed that children would best develop through the same steps and sequences through which the species originally developed. Beginning with very simple technologies and then advancing purposefully to more complex ones paralleled the natural tendency of the individuals within the human species to follow the developmental track laid by ancestral man. So children making and using simple tools was thought to be a way to touch the roots of our humanity.

Biological recapitulation theory served as a rationale for the idea of cultural recapitulation, in which children as they developed were to pass through the same sequences of development as early man. And so, just as early man discovered the usefulness of fire, so too, each child was to discover on his or her own the usefulness of fire. So tools and processes and intellectual grasp was to proceed from simple to complex, from known to unknown, from easy to more difficult, and concrete to abstract. You really don't have to be a proponent of biological recapitulation theory to understand the relevance of this progressive development of the individual.

What T.W. Berry had to say about cultural recapitulation in his book, The Pedagogy of Educational Handicraft is as follows:
"Let us recall to mind one of the most remarkable discoveries of modern evolutionary science, the great law that the life-history of the individual passes through the same stages as that of the race (on this point the teaching of physiology and psychology is identical); let us apply it to the present case and what will it lead us to expect? Surely that the earliest mental development of a child should be connected with manual activity and the use of constructive implements, and that this activity, though leading up to higher forms of intellectual work, should never, while educational development is still in progress, be wholly superseded."
The other day, as teachers and I were discussing upcoming projects, second grader, Ana came running, asking that we come and watch, as she performed new moves on the monkey bars, expressing new confidence. It is so important in all aspects of human development that someone be there to watch, and as we were there watching closely, she would hang with one arm thence and swing her legs over the bar and hang upside down with her arms dangling. It is fascinating to watch as we have learned to observe that new levels of physical expression parallel new levels of intellectual expression and understanding. Which come first, chicken or egg? Who knows. Chicken and egg are parallel expressions of the same phenomena.

Today I had the pleasure of visiting another woodworker in his shop, to see his work and observe how his tools are arranged. It seems we all do the best we can with what's available to us. And the advantage of being an experienced woodworker is that I can learn so much from what others do.

Make, fix and create...

1 comment:

  1. It's wonderful that the kids in the school feel comfortable running up to teachers to ask for attention.

    And woodworkers really do learn from each other. Jigs and sleds and storage systems along with what is finally produced.