Life Science—Biology Concept and Skill Progressions

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Initial Ideas

Conceptual Stepping Stones

Culminating Scientific Ideas

Before instruction, students often believe and can:

Students who view the world in this way believe and can:

Students who fully understand this topic believe and can:





High School

Evidence of Common Ancestry

Evidence of Common Ancestry

Students can explain that fossils provide evidence about plants and animals that lived long ago. (NRC, 2010)

Evidence of Common Ancestry
Students understand that scientists have identified many plants, animals, and fungi.
Students can explain that fossils provide evidence about the types of living organisms both visible and microscopic, that lived long ago and the nature of the environments in which they lived. (NRC, 2010)
Students can explain that fossils can be compared to one another and to living organisms according to their similarities and differences. (NRC, 2010)

Evidence of Common Ancestry
Students can explain that thousands of layers of sedimentary rock provide evidence for the history of the Earth changes in plants and animals whose fossil remains are found in the rock.
Students understand that fossils are remains or traces of organisms that provide evidence of past life.
Students know that the collection of all fossils and their placement in chronological order (e.g., dating or location in sedimentary layers) is known as the fossil record.
Students understand that because of unique geological conditions that are required for preservation, not all organisms left fossils that can be retrieved. (NRC, 2010)

Evidence of Common Ancestry
Students know that organisms resemble their ancestors because genetic information (DNA) is transferred from ancestor to offspring during reproduction. (NRC, 2010)
The similarities and differences on DNA sequences, amino acid sequences, anatomical evidence, and fossil evidence provide information about the branching sequence of lines of evolutionary descent. (NRC, 2010)
Students are able to organize various collections of organisms into taxa using phylogenetic data and then organize species of organisms into clades to infer their common ancestry.

Genetic Variation within a Species1 (NRC, 2010)

Genetic Variation within a Species
Students notice that there is variation among living things of one kind within a population (NRC, 2010)
Students are able to describe qualitative differences in a collection (Lehrer & Schauble, 2010).
Students are able to identify and justify particular attributes by selecting and characterize attributes to be described (such as wings or legs) and comparing 2 or more states of the same attribute (Lehrer & Schauble, 2010).

Genetic Variation within a Species
Students understand that individuals of the same kind differ in their characteristics, and sometimes the differences give individuals an advantage in surviving and reproducing. (NRC, 2010)
Students are able to develop or appropriate a measure of an attribute and apply to a collection (such as length of antennae or width of wingspan) (Lehrer & Schauble, 2010).
Possible Misconception:

Students typically explain speciation using anthropomorphic and teleological reasoning.

Genetic Variation within a Species
Students understand that individuals within a population vary on many characteristics. Many, but not all of these characteristics are inherited (Lehrer & Schauble, 2010).
Students understand that individuals (within a population) with certain traits are more likely than others to survive and have offspring. (NRC, 2010)
Students are able to structure a collection of measures as a distribution (such as beak length, hand span, etc.) by displaying measures of an attribute in a way that makes aggregate properties in the collection measurable, and by using statistics that describe qualities of the distribution, such as central tendency or spread.2 (Lehrer & Schauble, 2010).
Students are able to relate statistics describing the distribution to biological events or processes and are able to develop models for the same distribution of observed values (Lehrer & Schauble, 2010).
Students are able to compare competing models of observed distribution and develop and apply criteria for assessing relative fit and validity of competing models (Lehrer & Schauble, 2010).

Genetic Variation within a Species
Students understand that sexual reproduction not only allows the continuation of traits in a population but also provides a source of genetic variation among the individuals of a population through genetic recombination. They also know that variation within a population of organisms can also result from genetic mutations that create variation in the expression of traits between organisms of the same species. (NRC, 2010)
Students understand that directed variation, called natural selection, results (mostly) from habitat variables3, and acts to bias otherwise random genetic drift. The interplay between random genetic variation and directed variation is the foundation of life’s diversity. (Catley et al, 2005)
Students understand that natural selection can occur only if there is variation in the genetic information between organisms of the same species in a population and variation in the expression of that genetic information as a trait. Genetic variation within a population influences the likelihood that a population will survive and reproduce offspring. (NRC, 2010)

Change at the organism and population level through natural selection and adaptation1

Change at the organism and population levels through natural selection and adaptation

Students understand that living things can survive only in environments in which their needs are met. (NRC, 2010)

Students learn that the world has many environments and distinct environments support different types of living things. (NRC, 2010)
Students are able to observe an individual organism and describe it at a given moment in time. They can focus on present condition or state (Lehrer & Schauble, 2010).
Students are able to distinguish distinct episodes of change and represent them as stages (Lehrer & Schauble, 2010).
Children are able to use differences in measures of an attribute to characterize growth. For example, they compare successive heights of a growing plant or animal. They are able to use these successive differences to compare and represent the growth patterns of two different organisms of the same species or two different organisms from different species (Lehrer & Schauble, 2010).4

Change at the organism and population levels through natural selection and adaptation

Students understand that structures, such as mouthparts or leaves, perform functions that allow individuals to survive. Structure-function relations are the cornerstone of adaptation. (Catley et al, 2005)

Children know that for any particular environment, some kinds of plants and animals survive well, some survive less well, and some cannot survive at all. (NRC, 2010)
Students understand that changes in an organism’s habitat are sometimes beneficial to it and sometimes harmful. (NRC, 2010)
Possibility of Misconception

Students often think that organisms are able to change themselves within their lifetime (self-directed design) because something has changed in the environment or in response to the organisms’ perceptions of need.
Students are able to develop resemblance-based representations of change of particular attributes that support indirect comparison by indexing change in one or more attributes at two or more points in time, but via verbal/textual description or by representations intended as copies; qualitatively comparing one or more copy-type representations of the same continuous attribute made at different points in time; and coordinating two or more representations of change (Lehrer & Schauble, 2010).
Students are able to describe change based on count or difference of one or more measured attributes by interpreting change as difference between two measures; comparing net change in more than one individual; and coordinating descriptions of change in counts or measures on two or more organisms or within attributes of the same organism (Lehrer & Schauble, 2010).

Change at the organism and population levels through natural selection and adaptation
Students can explain that natural selection arises from three well-established observations: (1) There is genetically-based variation in traits within every species of organism, (2) some of these traits give some individuals advantage over others in survival and reproduction, and (3) those individuals that survive to adulthood will be more likely to have offspring which will themselves be more likely than others to survive and reproduce.
Students are able to compare rates of change across a population, or compare the rates of change for more than one organism by describing change as rate or changing rate; coordinating time-elapsed with counts or measures of change, and determine the rate of change; and interpreting a graph or table of rate of change (Lehrer & Schauble, 2010).
Students are able to invent derived or composite measures and use the measures to describe population change by developing categories that depend on representational correspondence to measure change over time; coordinating change in one measured variable with change in a measure of second measured variable (multi-variate); describing differing patterns of change and to determine ratio of change in first to change in second measure relative to time; and interpreting graphs of change in first measure to change in second measure relative to time (Lehrer & Schauble, 2010).
Students area able to coordinate, compare and contrast different models of change (multi-model) by relating change in one model to corresponding change in a second, contrasting the affordances, and explaining affordances and limitations of different models (Lehrer & Schauble, 2010).

Change at the organism and population levels through natural selection and adaptation
Students are able to explain that not all offspring survive to reproductive age in part because of competition for resources. Those individuals with characteristics that provide them with some reproductive advantage over others in that particular environmental situation will survive to reproduce, whereas others will die.
Natural selection leads to a diversity of organisms that are anatomically, behaviorally and physiologically well-suited to survive and reproduce in a specific environment. (NRC, 2010)
Students understand that populations change over time as frequencies of advantageous alleles increases. These could accumulate over time to result in speciation.5
Students understand that change occurs at different scales of time and organization: They understand that the species and not the organism is the unit of evolutionary change; Growth refers to change in single organisms or collections of organisms within a lifespan. (Catley et al, 2005)



Students know there are different kinds of places in the world that represent different climates.

Students are aware that there are different kinds of plants and animals live in different places and need different things to live. (NRC, 2010)


Students know that organisms and populations of organisms live in a variety of habitats. (NRC, 2010)


Students understand that biodiversity consists of different life forms (species) that have adapted to the variety of conditions on Earth. Biodiversity includes 1) genetic variation within a species, 2) species diversity in different habitats, and 3) ecosystem diversity (e.g. forests, grasslands, wetlands). (NRC, 2010)


Students understand that biodiversity results from the formation of new species (speciation) minus extinction. (NRC, 2010)






High School

Key Vocabulary

animal, plant, living, change, environment, measure, growth pattern, fossil, variation, population, attribute, survive, organism, stage, characteristic

habitat, microscopic, structure, function, beneficial, harmful, fungi, reproduce, antennae, wingspan, leaf, adaptation, representation

trait, reproduction, biodiversity, genetic variation, species, model, sedimentary rock, chronological, dating, geologic condition, preservation, inherited, offspring, distribution, statistic, natural selection, variable, ecosystem

speciation, clade, extinction, resource, anatomical, ancestor, DNA, amino acid, taxa, phylogentic, recombination, mutation, bias, competition, physiological, allele, scale


(1) Misunderstanding the distinction between individuals and species underpins many alternative conceptions of evolutionary processes. The use of clear, unambiguous and consistent language when dealing with evolutionary education is critical. In particular, when teaching about individual organisms specify that individuals comprise a species or population (part of a species). Further, when reference is made to collections of organisms; i.e. populations, species, or higher taxa, that these terms be consistently used. As the species and not the organism is the unit of evolutionary change it is particularly important to make this clear. Taxon (taxa), a versatile but under-utilized term, can be correctly used to denote any taxonomic category from species to phylum. Its use should be encouraged.

(2) Progress in describing population change is dependent on developing the mathematics needed to characterize distribution.

(3) Ecology’s role in evolution is pivotal for understanding natural selection, the means by which variability is directed.

(4) According to Schauble (in Catley et. al, 2005) understanding an attribute and understanding how to measure it are related ideas.

(5) Students may think that dominant alleles always increase in frequency from generation to generation, thinking that dominant alleles, over time, “dominate” recessive alleles out of existence in a population, that the most abundant phenotype in a population represents the dominant trait, and that deleterious alleles will be eliminated quickly (Christensen, 2000). Gene pool frequencies are inherently stable; allele frequencies will remain unaltered indefinitely unless evolutionary mechanisms such as mutation and natural selection cause them to change  (Hardy -Weinberg Equilibrium Model). These concepts, however, are not typically addressed in high school biology.

Authors and Reviewers

Dr. Erin Marie Furtak, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado (contributor)

Dr. Leona Schauble, Vanderbilt University, Tennessee (contributor)

Anderson, D. L., Fisher, K. M., & Norman, G. J. (2002). Development and Evaluation of the Conceptual Inventory of Natural Selection. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 39(10), 952-978.

Cately, K., Lehrer, R., & Reiser, B. (2005). Tracing a prospective learning progression for developing understanding of evolution. Paper commissioned by the National Academies Committee on Test Design for K-12 Science Achievement. Center for Education, National Research Council.

Ferrari, M., & Chi, M. T. H. (1998). The nature of naive explanations of natural selection. International Journal of Science Education, 20(10), 1231-1256.

Lehrer, R., & Schauble, L. (2010). Seeding evolutionary thinking by engaging children: In modeling its foundations. Prepared for 2010 National Association for Research on Science Teaching.

Mayr, E. (1997). This is Biology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

McCormick, B. (2009). Modeling exponential population growth.(science experiment on natural selection and population dynamics )(Report) The American Biology Teacher. 71 (5), 291-294.

National Research Council (NRC; 2010). A Conceptual Framework for New Science Standards (Draft).

Shtulman, A. (2006). Qualitative differences between naive and scientific theories of evolution. Cognitive Psychology, 52, 170-194.
Concept and Skill Progression for Ecology
The progression is organized in three core ideas: that there is a complex set of interactions within an ecosystem; that stability of ecosystems are determined by availability of resources and habitat; and that the flow of matter and energy in an ecosystem obey the laws of physics and chemistry.

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