Not by Design Alone! Modelling Practices to Identify Students’ Frameworks of Evolution in Real-Life Contexts

  • Noa Ageitos Universidade de Santiago de Compostela, Spain
  • Laura Colucci-Gray Moray House School of Education and Sport, University of Edinburgh, UK
  • Blanca Puig Faculty of Education, Universidade de Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Keywords: modelling, evolution, adaptation, natural selection, evolution frameworks


Despite being a fundamental concept in biology, evolution continues to be one of the most challenging topics to teach in science education. Ideas of evolution emphasising anatomical or behavioural features of individuals, as opposed to the interplay between genetics and the environment, are reinforced through language and culture, making them robust and persistent in the student population at all educational levels. Model-based reasoning has been reported to be useful for students to make sense of process-based science content, combining epistemological with linguistic and value dimensions. However, there is a dearth of evidence in biology education showing how modelling can instigate epistemological maturity, specifically about issues of agency and design in evolution by natural selection. Drawing on this perspective, this study focuses on describing the nature of students’ ideas while modelling the resistance developed by a population of mosquitoes in a lagoon after an insecticide is introduced. Data collection includes students’ written reports and drawings, which were analysed with content and discourse analysis. The findings show that, at first, students believed adaptation to feature at will was a behavioural characteristic instigated by a pre-existing design. After modelling the process of natural selection, the explanations appeared to improve (from Lamarckian to Neo-Darwinian views), and most groups showed accurate explanations about adaptation.


Download data is not yet available.


Ageitos, N., Puig, B., & Colucci-Gray, L. (2019). Examining reasoning practices and epistemic actions to explore students’ understanding of genetics and evolution. Science & Education, 28, 1209–1233.

Andrews, T. M., Price, R. M., Mead, L. S., McElhinny, T. L., Thanukos, A., Perez, K. E., Herreid, C. F., Terry, D. R., & Lemons, P. P. (2017). Biology undergraduates’ misconceptions about genetic Drift. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 11(3), 248–259.

Beggrow, E. P., & Nehm, R. H. (2012). Students’ mental models of evolutionary causation: Natural selection and genetic drift. Evolution: Education and Outreach, 5(3), 429–444.

Bray Speth, E., Long, T. M., Pennock, R. T., & Ebert-May, D. (2009). Using Avida-ED for teaching and learning about evolution in undergraduate introductory biology courses. Evolution: Education and Outreach, 2(3), 415–428.

Brigandt, I. (2020). How are biology concepts used and transformed? In K. Kampourakis and T. Muller (Eds), Philosophy of science for biologists (pp. 79–101). Cambridge University Press.

Clement, J. (2008). Creative model construction in scientists and students—The role of imagery, analogy, and mental simulation. Springer.

Colucci-Gray, L., & Gray, D. (2022). Critical thinking in the flesh: Movement and metaphors in a world in flux. In B. Puig & M. P. Jimenez-Aleixandre (Eds.), Critical thinking in Biology and Environmental Education: Facing challenges in a post-truth world (1 ed., pp.21–39). (Contributions from Biology Education Research). Springer.

Cooper, R. A. (2016). Natural selection as an emergent process: Instructional implications. Journal of Biological Education, 51(3), 247–260.

d'Apollonia, S. T., Charles, E. S., & Boyd, G. M. (2004). Acquisition of complex systemic thinking: Mental models of evolution. Educational Research and Evaluation, 10(4–6), 499–521.

Depew, D. (2020). How do concepts contribute to scientific advancements? In K. Kampourakis and T. Muller (Eds), Philosophy of science for biologists (pp. 123–146). Cambridge University Press.

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

Gericke, N., Hagberg, M., & Jorde, D. (2013). Upper secondary students’ understanding of the use of multiple models in biology textbooks—The importance of conceptual variation and incommensurability. Research in Science Education, 43(2), 755–780.

Gilbert, J. K. (2008). Visualization: An emergent field of practice and enquiry in science education. In J. K. Gilbert, M. Reiner, & M. Nakhleh (Eds.), Visualization: Theory and practice in science education (pp. 3–24). Springer.

Gregory, T. R. (2009). Understanding natural selection: Essential concepts and common misconceptions. Evolution: Education and Outreach, 2(2), 156–175.

Gouvea, J. S., & Passmore, C. M. (2017). ‘Models of’ versus ‘models for’. Science and Education, 26(1–2), 49–63.

Jablonka, E & Lamb, M. J. (2005). Evolution in four dimensions: Genetic, epigenetic, behavioral, and symbolic variation in the history of life. MIT Press.

Kalinowski, S. T., Leonard, M. J., & Andrews, T. M. (2010). Nothing in evolution makes sense except in the light of DNA. [research support, non-U.S. Gov’t]. CBE Life Sciences Education, 9(2), 87–97.

Kampourakis, K. (Ed.) (2013). The philosophy of biology: A companion for educators. Springer.

Kampourakis, K., & Zogza, V. (2009). Preliminary evolutionary explanations: a basic framework for conceptual change and explanatory coherence in evolution. Science & Education, 18(10), 1313–1340.

Kampourakis K. (2020). Students' "teleological misconceptions" in evolution education: Why the underlying design stance, not teleology per se, is the problem. Evolution, 13(1), 1.

Konner, M. (2022). Is the history the same as evolution? No. Is it independent of evolution? Certainly Not. Evolutionary Psychology, 20(1), 1–18.

Lloyd, E.A. (2015). Model robustness as a confirmatory virtue: The case of climate science. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A, 49, 58–68.

Mayer, N. (2015). Rendering life molecular. Duke University Press.

Mead, L. S., & Scott, E. C. (2010). Problem concepts in evolution part II: Cause and chance. Evolution: Education and Outreach, 3(2), 261–264.

Mendonça, P. C. C., & Justi, R. (2013). The relationships between modelling and argumentation from the perspective of the model of modelling diagram. International Journal of Science Education, 35(14), 2407–2434.

Pérez Echeverría, M. P., & Scheuer, N. (2009). External representations as learning tools: An introduction. In C. Anderesen et al. (Eds.), Representational systems and practices as learning tools (pp.1–17). Sense Publishers.

Morrison, M., & Morgan, M. S. (1999). Models as mediating instruments. In M. Morrison & M. S. Morgan (Eds.), Models as mediators (pp. 10–37). Cambridge University Press.

Nathan, M. (2022). Foundations of embodied learning. A paradigm for education. Routledge.

Nehm, R. H., & Schonfeld, I. S. (2008). Measuring knowledge of natural selection: A comparison of the CINS, an openâ€response instrument, and an oral interview. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 45(10), 1131–1160.

Nersessian, N. J. (1999). Model-based reasoning in conceptual change. In L. Magnani, N. J. Nersessian, & P. Thagard (Eds.), Model-based reasoning in scientific discovery (pp. 5–22). Kluwer and Plenum Publishers.

Oyama, S. (2000). Evolution’s eye. A systems view of the biology-culture divide. Duke University Press.

Parke, E. C., & Plutynski, A. (2020). What is the nature of theories and models in biology? In K. Kampourakis & T. Muller (Eds), Philosophy of science for biologists (pp. 55–79). Cambridge University Press.

Passmore, C. M., Gouvea, J. S., & Giere, R. (2014). Models in science and in learning science: Focusing scientific practice on sense-making. In M. R. Matthews (Ed.), International handbook of research in history, philosophy and science teaching (pp. 1171–1202). Springer.

Passmore, C., & Stewart, J. (2002). A modeling approach to teaching evolutionary biology in high schools. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 39(3), 185–204.

Peel, A., Zangori, L., Friedrichsen, P., Hayes, E., & Sadler, T. (2019). Students’ model-based explanations about natural selection and antibiotic resistance through socio-scientific issues-based learning. International Journal of Science Education, 14(4), 510–532.

Sainz-Elipe, S., Latorre, J. M., Escosa, R. et al. (2010). Malaria resurgence risk in southern Europe: climate assessment in an historically endemic area of rice fields at the Mediterranean shore of Spain. Malaria Journal, 9(1), 221.

Schwarz, C. V., Reiser, B. J., Davis, E. A., Kenyon, L., Acher, A., Fortus, D., Shwartz, Y., Hug, B., & Krajcik, J. (2009). Developing a learning progression for scientific modeling: making scientific modeling accessible and meaningful for learners. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 46(6), 632–654.

Siani, M. & Yarden, A. (2021). “I think that teachers do not teach evolution Because it is complicatedâ€: Difficulties in teaching and learning evolution in Israel. International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education, 20, 481–501.

Tibell, L. A. E. & Harms, U. (2017). Biological principles and threshold concepts for understanding natural selection implications for developing visualizations as a pedagogic tool. Science & Education, 26, 953–973

Vattam, S.S., Goel, A. K., Rugaber, S. Hmelo-Silver, C. E. Jordan, R. Gray, S., & Sinha, S. (2011). Understanding complex natural systems by articulating structure-behaviour-function models. Educational Technology & Society, 14(1), 66–81.

How to Cite
Ageitos, N., Colucci-Gray, L., & Puig, B. (2023). Not by Design Alone! Modelling Practices to Identify Students’ Frameworks of Evolution in Real-Life Contexts . Center for Educational Policy Studies Journal, 13(1), 11-34.