Helping students understand genetics using learning progressions

By Katie Van Horne - May 2011


Duncan, R. G., Rogat, A. D., & Yarden, A. (2009). A learning progression for deepening students’ understandings of modern genetics across the 5th–10th grades. Journal of Research in Science Teaching46(6), 655–674.


This article describes a learning progression that promotes understanding of genetics from late elementary school into high school.

What are the core ideas of learning genetics? How can we build coherent learning experiences to support these ideas? Learning progressions are an approach to outline how learners come to understand abstract concepts over time. 

Since the publication of the National Research Council consensus volume, Taking Science to School, learning progressions have been a new approach to learning sequences across courses and grade levels. Learning progressions describe possible ways learners may come to understand specific concepts and practices over time. The authors of this article argue for developing and studying learning progressions in genetics as a way to promote genetic literacy at a time when genetics are a prominent scientific topic in everyday life. The authors are conducting this work around two driving questions supported by the literature: “(1) how do genes influence how we, and other organisms, look and function? and; (2) why do we, and other organisms, vary in how we look and function?” Using previous work on learning in genetics, the article provides eight big ideas and describes how learners might make progress toward those ideas from 5th–6th grade to 7th–8th grade, and then to 9th–10th grade. Empirical testing is underway to refine and validate the learning progression.

Learning progressions in any domain push for a coherent set of materials that build on each other. The authors specify by grade level but, for informal educators, this means coherence across designed learning experiences. Broadly, the authors describe how they expect big ideas to play out across grade bands of learners. Fifth and sixth graders understand genes as instructions for organism development and function. In the progression, seventh and eighth graders focus on understanding both micro- and macro-causal mechanisms in genetics. In ninth and tenth grades, learners understand chemical properties of genes, from how genes make proteins to molecular causality and inheritance and mutation.

The authors call for new curriculum materials in genetics, especially for the lower grades where learning about genetics has not been a priority. Taking Science to School (NRC 2007) provides evidence that younger learners are capable of abstract reasoning and thus advocates for more complex learning experiences and materials for these learners.