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Pupils’ understanding of evolution and inheritance

Researchers: Professor Terry Russell | Dr Linda McGuigan

Project overview

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 – Key Stages 1 and 2 (primary schools)
December 2013 – June 2015 | £32,000

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. Additionally, the researchers followed up with teachers for their views on the impact of the study on their practice.

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)
September 2016 – January 2019 | £23,577

The main output from Study 2 is a substantial final report: Understanding evolution and inheritance in the national curriculum K23-KS3, 2019 (pdf)

Other outputs from Study 2 include practical guidance and digital resources for teachers to support classroom argumentation around the subject of evolution. These are available to view on the Ideas About Evolution website.

Study 2 focused on Years 5-9 (ages 10-14) and examined the 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 collaborated closely with teachers to ensure the classroom validity of emerging strategies. They also monitored whether teachers and children were working scientifically, and interviewed teachers to collect direct evidence about the perceived impacts of both studies.

Latest on this project



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

  • Director, Education
    Nuffield Foundation

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We aim to improve people’s lives by funding research that informs social policy, primarily in Education, Welfare and Justice. We also fund student programmes that give young people skills and confidence in science and research.

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