results from potentially important avenues of investigation with large
enough sample sizes and diversity to make generalization possible.
Certainly, there is nothing wrong with conducting “pure” or exploratory research in education, as we occasionally do in science itself.
However, some consideration of the need for a given line of research
and its potential applicability to practice must be part of the research
Despite this situation, perhaps there is another approach for us in
biology education. The special issue of the journal Science (April 19,
2013) called for a consideration of Science Education Grand Challenges
potentially to guide research in addressing large problems in science
learning. Some of the Grand Challenges articulated in the article
included the proper role for technology, an understanding of how
individual differences in brain development impact learning and professional development for teachers, and what skills are necessary for
teachers to implement high-quality laboratory teaching. Additional
challenges identified include establishing personal relevance for learners and developing students’ understanding of how science creates
knowledge, along with a suite of suggestions about how teachers can
engage in research at the school level and how assessment results might
guide instruction. The idea of Grand Challenges is important, but
questions remain about who will assume the responsibility for conducting the research necessary to explore these challenges, and the best
way to share results with those who might take appropriate action.
Thinking about Grand Challenges in Biology
The challenges discussed in the special issue of Science are worthy
of consideration, but as Zogza (2016) reminds us, biology education, or “biology didactics” as it is sometimes called,1 is a unique
discipline with special teaching and learning contexts. Biology education research therefore must be “aimed at highlighting and facilitating the process of teaching and learning about the biological
world” (p. 181) specifically. We can and should consider and build
on research in science education generally, but there are problems
and challenges that are unique to biology teaching and learning.
It is reasonable to consider that all the Grand Challenges in science
education might be explored through the lens of their implications
to biology instruction, but it is likely that biology didactics will
have its own set of issues worthy of focused exploration.
In past decades, many researchers have investigated programs in
biology teaching and learning, published their results in prestigious
journals, and occasionally offered teaching suggestions stemming
from those investigations. Groups that focus on biology education
regularly endeavor to improve teaching and learning in this domain,
but rarely have there been focused attempts to identify the big issues
on which the research community should focus its energies. Even
less frequently do we see a team approach to address big programs
in this domain. One group that has accepted some of the burden
of focusing research on problems in biology instruction is the European Researchers in Didactics of Biology (ERIDOB), which dedicated
its tenth conference in June of 2014 in Haifa, Israel, to The Future of
Biology Education Research. This important question was revisited in
September 2017 with a panel discussion at the eleventh conference
in Karlstad, Sweden, resulting in this paper.
Of course, we are not suggesting that this article provides a
definitive list of the problems most worthy of investigation; that
task will have to wait until a larger and fully representative group
of scholars is convened for the purpose of suggesting additional
avenues of future research. However, those of us who gathered
recently are pleased to offer some potentially interesting thoughts
about necessary research on topics such as teacher education, the
role of language, sociocultural issues, socioscientific considerations,
and other notions as they relate to biology instruction. So, perhaps
we might call these suggestions emerging Grand Challenges in Biol-
ogy Education and offer them for consideration of where future
research work in biology instruction might be focused.
We begin with thoughts about a framework for such research that
looks across the three domains: biology, education, and the research
enterprise itself. The suggestions that comprise the bulk of this article
are contributed by a group of international scholars each with their
own areas of specialization, who were asked to provide some background in a specific area of investigation and then offer specific questions or areas of research based on their unique domain of interest.
Again, we do not claim to have listed all areas of necessary future
research, but trust that readers will find these suggestions compelling
A Proposed Framework for Biology
Michael J. Reiss, University College London, UK
There are several possible frameworks that might guide biology
education research. One approach is to see such research as the point
of intersection of three overlapping domains—biology, education, and
research—as they relate in a Venn diagram-like fashion (Reiss, 2016).
If we start with biology, we might take an approach that
derives from Hirst’s (1965) “forms of knowledge,” focusing on
the distinctiveness of biology itself. For a start, biology sits within
the natural sciences, which have a methodology that emphasizes
knowledge as objective, universal, and amenable to rational
inquiry. Within the natural sciences, biology, of course, is the
study of life. In a sense, our choice of subjects is vast because
there are perhaps ten million extant species, each of which could
be investigated in several ways. The most important biology
research often proceeds by studying a range of species, which
then permits making conclusions or constructing new models that
are both widely applicable and amenable to such local variation.
This approach is widely demonstrated in the work of Darwin,
Mendel, the discoverers of the structure of DNA, and ecologists
such as E. O. Wilson. There is a lesson here for biology education
research: we surely want to engage in fine-grained research that is
true to the particularities of a situation; we also want to be able to
extrapolate to broader horizons.
If we start with education, then we begin with what has been
described not as a single discipline (like history, mathematics, or biology itself) but a field. Like medicine and engineering, education draws
on a wide range of fundamental disciplines (e.g., psychology, sociology, and philosophy) to make its advances. This approach makes an
epistemological point about knowledge production in education.
However, another way of starting is not from an epistemological
standpoint, but from a normative one related to values and what students, teachers, and society generally want from a good education. It
has been argued that there are two fundamental aims of education:
to equip each learner to lead a life that is personally flourishing; and