microgenetic, ontogenetic, and sociogenetic civic learning

At a Center for Ethics & Education conference last week in Kansas City, I learned from Larry Nucci about an important taxonomy. In my summary:

  • Microgenetic learning means obtaining particular knowledge, skills, concepts, values, etc. through particular experiences. A student doesn’t know about Abe Lincoln, reads a book about him, and knows and remembers the president’s story. That is an example of microgenetic learning. We often measure it with assessments before and after lessons or courses. However, it happens at more precise moments, so it’s possible to zero in on the learning events and understand the learning mechanisms.
  • Ontogenetic learning means becoming something different. A small child doesn’t know how to read but becomes literate, a reader. An undergrad doesn’t know much about medicine but ultimately turns into a skilled, practicing physician. Typically, the timescale of ontogenesis is longer than that of microgenesis, but that’s not the essential difference. In theory, ontogenetic change could happen suddenly, as perhaps for Paul on the road to Damascus. The definition is a change in who the person is, not just what he or she knows.
  • Sociogenetic learning is change at the level of a community or society. A community is oral and becomes literate, or pagan and becomes Christian, or analog and becomes digital. Such changes imply that different ontogenetic learning outcomes will become possible, valued, and typical. For instance, a Roman pagan ca. 100 BC couldn’t learn to be a Christian, but his descendants three centuries later could and even had to become Christians. That implied some new microgenetic experiences, like reading scripture and listening to sermons.

These levels of learning can relate in many complex ways. For instance, people can learn specific skills for civic engagement that help them to become activists, and as activists they can change what their society values. Then microgenesis -> ontogenesis -> sociogenesis. Probably more common is the reverse pattern: a society starts to value something, it establishes a new standard of success, and that leads schools to assign new lessons.

This diagram from Saxe 2012 illustrates the various possible pathways.

In fields like literacy and STEM education, which have received heavy investment, scholars have given attention to all three domains. However, I perceive a trend toward the microgenetic level in those fields. It’s increasingly common to apply Learning Sciences and Cognitive Sciences to understand how child A learns skill B at time C. If that trend comes to dominate, there will be need for a critique. We’ll be at risk of missing the forest for the trees and–especially–overlooking what people should learn ontogenically to produce a good society.

In civics, which is underfunded and understudied, most of the research is ontogenetic. It’s most common to use surveys to determine whether children or young adults have become good citizens of one kind or another, and then ask whether civics courses, democratic school climates, or other large influences are related to those outcomes. Practitioners and scholars are certainly interested in microgenetic questions, but that research is scattered and limited, mostly for lack of resources.

Meanwhile, there is a robust debate about sociogenetic changes in civic life. Scholars and pundits debate how the American polity and political culture have changed, what that means for citizens, and how our polity compares to others. Just as an example, Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone offers a sociogenetic thesis: it’s about how Americans have come to engage more individualistically and less collaboratively since the 1960s. The underlying reasons include changes in technology and the economy (not shifts in civic education).

The sociogenetic debate about citizenship still tends to be somewhat disconnected from microgenetic and ontogenetic research. I didn’t know this vocabulary when Jim Youniss and I edited the volume Engaging Young People in Civic Life, but our explicit goal was to connect debates about civic education to debates about changes in civic life. We thought that developmental psychologists tended to assume that civic life was historically constant, and political scientists and sociologists tended to view civic education as historically constant. However, regimes and modes of education change, and these changes affect each other. It’s even possible for kids to gain skills through microgenetic civic learning that enable them to change what the society values.

Ultimately, we need civic education research that combines the microgenetic, ontogenetic, and sociogenetic levels and yields practical advice for practitioners, policymakers, and advocates.

Figure from Saxe, G. (2012). Cultural development of mathematical ideas: Papua New Guinea studies. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. My main source is Larry Nucci (2016) Recovering the role of reasoning in moral education to address inequity and social justice, Journal of Moral Education, 45:3, 291-307, DOI: 10.1080/03057240.2016.1167027

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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