Direct instruction supports early elementary students' thinking about evolution

By Bronwyn Bevan - March 2011


Berti, A. E., Toneatti, L., & Rosati, V. (2010). Children's conceptions about the origin of species: A study of Italian children's conceptions with and without instruction. Journal of the Learning Sciences19(4), 506–538.

This study takes up the question of how early elementary school-aged children develop theories of the origin of species and evolution. It may be of interest to ISE educators who are developing strategies for engaging their audiences with aspects of evolution, such as natural selection. The article provides background on the research literature about teaching and learning of evolution. The results of this study suggest that direct instruction or interactions with Darwinian models, even at a young age, can support children's understanding of evolutionary theory.

The researchers note that Darwinian models of evolution are difficult for many, both children and adults, to grasp. Work to date has investigated developmental (e.g., age-related) and cultural barriers that affect children's understanding of evolutionary theory. Bruner (1960), AAAS (2001), and current work on Learning Progressions all suggest that to prepare for understanding the complexities of evolutionary theory children should be introduced to simpler concepts such as random variation and species relatedness at a young age. The results of the Italian study discussed here suggest that direct instruction may be as important as developmental or cultural concerns.

The article provides background on some of the established conceptual barriers as well as cultural patterns that have been noted to affect understanding of evolution. Conceptual barriers include the following: everyday versus scientific meanings of words such as adaptation and fitness; the ways in which children and adults witness changes within an individual—as opposed to species level— animal (e.g., the changes from a kitten to a cat or a caterpillar to a butterfly); and the complexity of Darwinian conceptions of evolution. They note that popular science, as well as science textbooks, often use metaphoric, anthropomorphic, and teleological patterns to explain evolution, which can compound misconceptions especially around natural selection. For example, conceptualizing evolution as purposeful adaptation versus the result of natural selection in the context of random variations pervades much thinking about the processes of evolution. Culturally, barriers include the ways in which adult or community views of evolution may influence children's views.

The study contrasts results found in the United States (Evans, 2008), the Netherlands (Samarapungavan & Wiers, 1997), and Italy. The Dutch studies found that, at an age when they had received no formal instruction in evolution, most Dutch children held "essentialist" views of evolution. For example, they assumed that current animals had always existed, whereas Dutch adults were more likely to embrace Darwinian views. The results of this study suggested that there were developmental (age-related) barriers to understanding evolution. In the United States, studies (see Evans, 2008 for a summary) documented children moving from essentialist views, to more creationist, and finally to more mixed views as they advanced from early elementary, to late elementary, and then to middle school age. Controlling for children from non-fundamentalist versus fundamentalist families (the latter of whose creationist views did not change over time), these studies found that children's changes in views could be attributed to changes in intuitive understandings developed in a broader view of the biological world as they grew older. Thus this study also attributed an understanding or lack of understanding about evolution to developmental forces. But in neither case did Dutch or U.S. children encounter evolution in school or other formal instruction.

The question driving the current study was the ways in which access to formal instruction affected children's beliefs, versus the developmental or cultural influences investigated in prior studies. The curriculum in Italy includes an introduction to "Earth before man" in the third grade. Thus the researchers felt that to compare second graders to third graders would show the ways in which formal instruction operated to shape understanding of evolution. They anticipated that second graders would hold creationist beliefs and that third graders would hold more mixed views, beginning to incorporate evolutionary views into their thinking about the origin of species.

Corroborating their hypothesis, their study did find significant differences between second graders' and third graders' understandings. This finding, they argue, highlights the role of direct instruction and cultural mediation in supporting understanding of evolution. Children who were introduced to concepts of animal species evolving over time from other animal species were more likely to hold views of evolution. However, most of them could not provide a mechanism to explain how evolution took place, and those who did appealed to a Lamarckian mechanism (e.g., use and disuse) mirroring that which was provided by their teachers and textbooks. The researchers also note that one-third of second graders held mixed views, which suggests that school is not the only source of information about evolution (p. 531; though their study did not determine what other sources students might have had).

For further reading, see: 

Bruner, J. (1960). The process of education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Samarapungavan, A., & Wiers, R. W. (1997). Children's thoughts on the origin of species: A study of explanatory coherence. Cognitive Science, 21 (2), 147–177.