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Preliminary Evolutionary Explanations: A Basic Framework for Conceptual Change and Explanatory Coherence in Evolution

Abstract

This study aimed to explore secondary students’ explanations of evolutionary processes, and to determine how consistent these were, after a specific evolution instruction. In a previous study it was found that before instruction students provided different explanations for similar processes to tasks with different content. Hence, it seemed that the structure and the content of the task may have had an effect on students’ explanations. The tasks given to students demanded evolutionary explanations, in particular explanations for the origin of homologies and adaptations. Based on the conclusions from the previous study, we developed a teaching sequence in order to overcome students’ preconceptions, as well as to achieve conceptual change and explanatory coherence. Students were taught about fundamental biological concepts and the several levels of biological organization, as well as about the mechanisms of heredity and of the origin of genetic variation. Then, all these concepts were used to teach about evolution, by relating micro-concepts (e.g. genotypes) to macro-concepts (e.g. phenotypes). Moreover, during instruction students were brought to a conceptual conflict situation, where their intuitive explanations were challenged as emphasis was put on two concepts entirely opposed to their preconceptions: chance and unpredictability. From the explanations that students provided in the post-test it is concluded that conceptual change and explanatory coherence in evolution can be achieved to a certain degree by lower secondary school students through the suggested teaching sequence and the explanatory framework, which may form a basis for teaching further about evolution.

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Correspondence to Kostas Kampourakis.

Appendices

Appendix 1

The open-ended written questionnaire included the following five tasks.

Task 1

We know that the wolves, the dogs and the foxes are different species with their own special features. However, these species exhibit many morphological and physiological similarities. How could these be explained?

Task 2

The giraffe, as we now know it, is an animal with a remarkably long neck. This feature allows the giraffe to browse on the leaves from the trees, when there is no adequate food on the ground. Nowadays we know that giraffes did not always possess this feature but used to have a shorter neck. Can you explain how the neck of the giraffe was lengthened?

Task 3

Many animals exhibit the same color with their environment (e.g. the white polar bear) or look alike different species (e.g. leaf-like insects) that distracts their predators or preys. Can you explain how these particular animals have developed these features?

Task 4

Beetles may live on trees and feed on their leaves. Several years ago, both green and brown beetles could be found in equal proportions a forest. However, birds could spot the green beetles more easily than the brown ones on the ground or on the trunks. Nowadays, if we attempt to estimate the proportions of green and brown beetles, we will mostly find brown ones. Can you explain how the proportion of the beetles living in the forest has changed?

Task 5

So far you have studied bacteria, protists, fungi, plants and animals in the cellular level. Despite several differences, you have seen that all organisms exhibit some major features: (a) all organisms are built up by cells and (b) all cells contain DNA, ribosomes and cellular membrane. Can you provide an explanation for the origin of these similarities?

Appendix 2

The open-ended questionnaire that was used in the interviews as a retention test included the following five tasks.

Task 1

We know that the lions, the leopards and the cats are different species with their own special features. However, these species exhibit many morphological and physiological similarities. How could these be explained?

Task 2

Elephants, as we now know them, are animals with remarkably long trunks. This feature allows them to browse on the leaves from the trees, when there is no adequate food on the ground. Nowadays we know that elephants did not always possess this feature but used to have no trunks. Can you explain how the trunks of the elephants emerged?

Task 3

Many animals exhibit the same color with their environment (e.g. green frogs that live under green leaves) or look alike different species (e.g. butterflies wings that have an owl-like eye) that distracts their predators or preys. Can you explain how these particular animals have developed these features?

Task 4

Several years ago, both brown and white foxes could be found in equal proportions in the northern parts of Europe. However, during winter their preys could spot the brown foxes more easily than the white ones and escape them. Nowadays, if we attempt to estimate the proportions of brown and white foxes, we will mostly find white ones. Can you explain how the proportion of the foxes living in the northern parts of Europe has changed?

Task 5

So far you have studied bacteria, protists, fungi, plants and animals in the cellular level. Despite several differences, you have seen that all organisms exhibit some major features: (a) all organisms are built up by cells and (b) all cells contain DNA, ribosomes and cellular membrane. Can you provide an explanation for the origin of these similarities?

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Kampourakis, K., Zogza, V. Preliminary Evolutionary Explanations: A Basic Framework for Conceptual Change and Explanatory Coherence in Evolution. Sci & Educ 18, 1313–1340 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11191-008-9171-5

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Keywords

  • Conceptual Change
  • Evolutionary Explanation
  • Teaching Sequence
  • Explanatory Framework
  • Teaching Unit