Pupils' understanding of evolution, inheritance and genetics

The 2014 national curriculum for science includes new elements on Evolution and Inheritance (Key Stage 2) and Evolution and Genetics (Key Stage 3).

This two-part project aims to develop practical guidance for teaching these areas, and to suggest learning sequences. Study 1 focuses on primary schools and is now complete, while Study 2 focuses on the transition from primary to secondary school and is currently underway.

Study 1 - Key Stages 1 and 2 (primary schools)

Following a literature review of teaching and learning in this field, the researchers worked with 12 primary teachers to develop and trial 'concept probes'. These probes were used to find out what pupils initially thought about evolution and inheritance. The probes were then developed and refined following interviews with pupils (across the 5-11 age range) and teachers. More details can be found in the Formative assessment probes report.

The researchers also consulted Key Stage 3 and 4 teachers of evolution and inheritance, to establish expectations of 'secondary readiness' of primary pupils' learning. More details can be found in the Report on feedback from KS3-KS4 biology teachers.

The researchers also produced a final report, covering all aspects of the project.

Some aspects of this project are similar to a Nuffield primary science initiative from the 1980s, the Science Processes and Concept Exploration (SPACE) project

Study 2 – Key Stages 2 and 3 (primary and secondary schools)

This study focuses on Years 5-9 (ages 10-14) and will examine progression in children's understanding of two foundational concepts:

  • macroevolution, the 'big picture' of evolutionary change
  • informal ideas about DNA including its role in inheritance, as absorbed by pupils through out-of-school entertainment, popular and communications media

Evidence from Study 1 and elsewhere suggests that exploring these areas is essential for allowing children to assimilate some of the big ideas central to biological science.

As with Study 1, the researchers will collaborate closely with teachers to ensure the classroom validity of emerging strategies. They will also monitor whether teachers and children are working scientifically, and will interview teachers to collect direct evidence about the perceived impacts of both studies.

The outputs of Study 2 will include a substantial final report, video resource, and practical guidance for teachers.

Project details


Professor Terry Russell and Dr Linda McGuigan, Centre for Lifelong Learning, University of Liverpool

Funding programme:


Grant amount and duration:

Study 1: £32,000
December 2013 – June 2015

Study 2: £23,577
September 2016 - December 2017