“Of all the Mammalia yet known it seems the most extraordinary in its conformation; exhibiting the perfect resemblance of the beak of a Duck engrafted on the head of a quadruped.”
Back when the platypus was first ‘discovered’ by scientists and recorded as a species, it was considered a hoax. Back then, it was fairly modish to graft bits of different animals together to try to convince people that they were real.
Faced with a furry looking egg-laying mammal with paws and the beak of a duck, the Platypus defied and subverted the existing categorisation; birds have beaks, this is no bird, and reptiles lay eggs, but this is no reptile.
Placing the platypus was a difficult and meticulous task, an exciting intellectual foray into categorisation.
Now, however, knowing that the platypus is a mammal, albeit an unusual one, we would be inclined to simply categorise it as such with pupils. We may talk about its characteristics, about the multiple ways in which it defies its own category, but we place it as mammalian.
Teaching the Platypus can serve as a metaphor for those teaching moments when we address the intangible or the contradictory. When we explain why we commonly join up the a and the e in Caesar, we are highlighting a fluke in lexicography whereby the formerly commonplace fusion of a and e is now limited to a small number of examples.
In learning about the platypus, pupils are called upon to examine more critically the ‘essence’ of things. So many categories are artificial, or at the very least, their boundaries are far more permeable than we make them out to be.
So much historical learning is geographical. So much of what makes for a complex and accomplished piece of writing is very simple. So much horror writing is tinged with humour, like the beak on a mole.
Through the platypus, and through the wider examination of that which strikes us as strange, weird and category-defying, we can support children to think more analytically about the nature of categories themselves, and the boxes we use compartmentalise the world around us.