in other science domains, consisted of addressing student problems in
understanding the cellular and molecular mechanisms of disease, and
focused on molecular mechanistic reasoning (van Mil et al., 2016),
examining teachers’ challenges when discussing ethical dilemmas in
genetics (van der Zande et al., 2012), and finding international consensus on which genetic knowledge is required by scientifically literate
citizens (Boerwinkel, Yarden and Waarlo, 2017).
Our involvement in research on cancer genomics informed
our curriculum designs and suggested future work. We learned
about how cancer genomics research reveals the ways in which
cells are regulated, and how these new findings change our views
on traditional and basic biological concepts such as gene, phenotype, and trait. Our meetings with genetic counselors showed how
these professionals deal with statistics and what questions their
patients and their families have, and the choices their clients must
make. All these experiences were immensely fruitful in developing
our thinking about biology education within a contextualized
approach. The involvement of humanities scholars and social scientists made us aware of political aspects such as the regulation of
diagnostic testing of embryos for the presence of BRCA gene variants (Robertson, 2003). Analyzing dilemmas such as those
related to informing relatives about the possibility of carrying a
high-risk gene variant taught us about the different conflicting
Some recommendations for future research in biology education
can be derived from this work. First, studying the personal and societal impacts of new scientific practices implies that we should analyze how the meanings of relevant biological concepts change
(such as the concepts of “gene” and “trait”). Second, cooperation
between biological researchers and with experts on related ethical,
legal, and sociological issues is vital. Finally, the most generalizable
conclusion we can offer is that this framework of involving a variety
of experts and all stakeholders should be considered, no matter what
biology content is the focus of instruction. No one method and no
single group of experts would be enough.
In conclusion, we offer the following biology education research
questions related to the work discussed here:
• How are biological concepts used contextually within innovative
scientific and professional practices, and how do the meanings of
these concepts in biology education differ from their traditional
• In what kinds of decisions should students be prepared to participate as citizens, and what do they need for informed decision making and acting?
• What are the consequences of adding concepts and skills to, or
removing them from, the core biology curriculum?
• What are effective instructional strategies that stimulate reflection and argumentation in biology classrooms, and how can
we prepare biology teachers to implement them?
Grand Challenges in Biology
Education Research: Some Conclusions
William F. McComas, University of Arkansas, USA
There was no expectation that our small group would provide all
or even most of the recommendations that should be made about
future directions in biology education research. However, the notion
that those with expertise in biology education could suggest targeted
research questions was intriguing. This work has influenced my
thinking about research in biology education, so I will conclude with
a few personal thoughts about potentially fruitful avenues for
research. We could
• Examine potentially promising—but small—studies reported in
the literature and encourage teams of researchers to engage in
larger versions of those studies in wider contexts to permit
inclusive and comprehensive conclusions.
• Engage in a series of meta-analyses of related research findings
and/or produce reviews of the research literature linked to
potentially useful areas of investigation.
• Consider the most effective organizational plan for biology
instruction (e.g., should the study of cells come first, or would students respond better to a “big picture” environmental approach?).
• Add to recommended biological pedagogical content knowledge (B-PCK) by examining and reporting prior studies of students’ alternative ideas and beliefs about biological phenomena,
which can confound instruction.
• Include in B-PCK the determination and dissemination of useful analogies and examples.
• Examine how best to weave nature of science (NOS) ideas into
the biology curriculum and teacher education programs.
• Most importantly, determine how to link the biology research
community with practitioners and other stakeholders so that
we can work to explore actual problems of interest and share
research findings with those who can put recommendations
No matter the specific perspectives each of us has offered, we share
the goal that larger groups of researchers across wider educational
and social contexts should be engaged to target future directions
and potentially gain more conclusive answers to any questions of
interest. We must have a more embracing conversation among a
more diverse and multinational group of biology education
researchers in cooperation with other stakeholders such as teachers,
textbook authors, scientists, and policymakers. Only then can we
identify and attack truly significant questions and propose ways
in which our answers can inform biology education in meaningful
ways. However, for now, we are pleased to offer these suggestions
as small steps on the long road toward the determination of the
Grand Challenges in Biology Education. Once these big questions
are identified and their solutions considered in the widest settings
and contexts possible, we will be positioned to enhance biology
teaching and learning in the most effective and generalizable ways
1. Bayrhuber (2016) has explained that there is a distinction between
didactics and teaching but Gericke and Ottander (2016) who have also
explored that issue, have reached the conclusion that it is acceptable to
see the two as similar enough to consider them synonyms. Therefore, it
seems reasonable to use the terms “Research in the Didactics of Biology”
and “Biology Education Research” interchangeably.