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From Memorization to Inspiration: Teaching Paleobiology in the Twenty-First Century

  • Donald R. Prothero (a1)


For most of the twentieth century, paleontology instruction focused on memorization of taxa, morphology, and stratigraphic ranges. Consequently, paleontology got the reputation as a boring, stagnant, musty old field with this “idiographic” approach that focused on details at the expense of the broader implications. The “Paleobiology Revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s radically changed paleontological pedagogy. New generations of paleontologists who were weaned on the 1972 Raup and Stanley textbook (which had no systematic coverage of invertebrates) adopted a more dynamic, “law-like” or “nomothetic” approach. The emphasis on ideas, concepts, and controversies over memorization of names and dates makes paleontology far more interesting and relevant to geology majors, most of whom will not become paleontologists and will not need huge numbers of names to do their jobs. However, paleontology instructors still must include basic information about the major phyla of fossils or else the theoretical ideas lack any reference in reality. My own approach mixes both theoretical and systematic concepts, with lectures on major topics (taphonomy, ontogeny, population variation, speciation, micro and macroevolution, extinction, paleoecology, biogeography, functional morphology) alternating with lectures supplementing lab exercises.



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