Pupils' understanding of evolution and inheritance

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. 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)

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.

Project details


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

Grant amount and duration:

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

Study 2: £23,577
September 2016 - January 2019

Project website