how do kids learn about dna?

My significant other is forever telling me that Facebook is a total time-waster. Sometimes I do tend to agree – but also, one can Find Out Stuff! Like the study I’ve just heard about via Science Alert, on how children get information about genetics and DNA – things we might regard as being in the ‘too hard’ basket & so best left for senior high school students to grapple with. That grappling begins in year 11, when one of the NCEA Level 1 Science standards asks that students be able to "demonstrate understanding of biological ideas relating to genetic variation".

Is that too late? Jenny Donovan and Grady Venville suggest that it is, arguing that with the rapid growth of knowledge in and applications of molecular biology,

[citizens] of the future will be called upon to make more decisions, from personal to political, regarding the impact of genetics on society. ‘Designer babies’; gene therapy; genetic modification; cloning, and the potential access to and use of personal genetic information are all complex and multifactorial issues. All raise ethical and scientific dilemmas.

They give the example of jury trials, where jurors may hear quite complex information about DNA and be asked to consider this in coming to a verdict, and note that people may have acquired a range of misconceptions around DNA from sources such as the popular program CSI and its various spin-offs.

Children, for example, have a lot of opportunity to hear about genes, DNA, & their uses well before we start formally teaching these concepts at school. Donovan and Venville already knew (from their own previous research) that by the end of their primary schooling many students were already developing misconceptions about genetics; for example, the idea that ‘genes and DNA are two totally separate entities.’ This time, they wanted to examine the impact of the mass media on children’s conceptions (& misconceptions) around this subject. The misconceptions part is particularly important because misconceptions, once formed, can be extremely persistent – affecting learning into the tertiary years.

Using a combination of interviews and questionnaires about media use, the researchers found that their subjects (children aged 10-12) spent around 5 hours a day using various media (TV, radio, print media, movies, & the internet), with most of that being watching television. This included crime shows, and the children felt that they gained most of their ‘knowledge’ of genetics from TV. Donovan & Venville chose to question children from this age group because, with falling numbers of Australian students taking science subjects in upper secondary school, ‘exposure to genetics may be their sole opportunity to develop scientific literacy in this field’ – where ‘scientific literacy’ encompasses literacy both within and about science.

So, what did they find out?

Most children (89%) knew [about] DNA, 60% knew [about] genes, and more was known about uses of DNA outside the body such as crime solving or resolving family relationships than about its biological nature or function. Half believed DNA is only in blood and body parts used for forensics.

Very few – only 6% – knew that DNA and genes were structurally related. Around 50% of the children surveyed felt that DNA & genes are found in only some tissues & organs. (I was half expecting them to say that DNA is found only in genetically-modified organisms – with GMOs in and out of the news, it’s odd that this didn’t come up.) And 80% of them felt that TV was ‘the most frequent source of information about genetics (with teachers confirming that the subject hadn’t been taught at school). As a result of these findings, Donovan & Venville argue very strongly that instruction in genetics should take place much earlier in students’ time in school, noting that other researchers suggest that

giving students opportunities to revisit science ideas and build deeper understanding over time, enables them to grasp and apply concepts that typically are not fully understood until several years later… [and that] students need to be exposed to background knowledge from early ages in order for them to make sense of what they absorb from the world around them.

So, if kids are going to watch programs like NCIS, CSI, and Bones on a regular basis, then maybe early teaching around genetics concepts could use 

lively discussions around what they have seen and heard about genetics in the mass media [as this] may ultimately help children to make informed decisions in their future lives.

An interesting suggestion – and one which reinforces yet again how important proper resourcing and support of science teaching are, if we are to develop real literacy in and about science. 

J.Donovan & G.Venville (2012) Blood and bones: the influence of the mass media on Australian primary school children’s understandings of genes and DNA. Science & Education (published online 23 June 2012, doi: 10.1007/s11191-012-9491-3

4 thoughts on “how do kids learn about dna?”

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    In 1978, I saw the genetic code in my daughters 5th grade health book. I thought it possibly inappropriate for an 11 year old. I wonder what percentage of people doing genetics today have never heard of Gregor Mendel.

  • Alison Campbell says:

    I don’t know that it would be productive to teach the genetic code for that age group, but certainly some concepts around genetics & inheritance could be introduced a lot earlier than they are (here in NZ, & in Australia, anyway). I had a session with 10-12 year-old students at our local intermediate a few weeks ago, & they were really interested in ideas around inheritance.
    The problem, of course, with early introduction is that the great majority of primary teachers are not science graduates, let alone biology graduates, & I suspect they’d be uncomfortable with teaching genetics 🙁

  • I’m the main author of the quoted work, thank you for doing an excellent job of summarising it! Responding to Jim first: I am astounded that the genetic code was in a 5th grade book in 1978. I’d be interested to know where you were living then? I would not recommend teaching the genetic code at that early age, but I do think 10-12 year olds could learn that genes are made of DNA, that your DNA/genes are an even blend of your parents DNA/genes, and have important biological functions like controlling how you grow and develop. DNA is in nearly every cell in the body but at crime scenes, only some kinds of cells might be found, such as in blood, in saliva, and in fingerprints, so that’s why forensic officers obtain the DNA from those sources. This would be a reasonable foundation for students to better grasp what they are seeing on TV, and provides opportunity for developing that knowledge further, preferably adding a bit more complexity year by year instead of leaving it all to Year 10 (as Australia’s new national curriculum does). As to Gregor Mendel, he has remained in most curricula, perhaps too much so. While it is important to acknowledge the founders of science, the genetic patterns he uncovered are not common to many human genes, leading to misconceptions about how traits such as human height, eye colour, skin colour etc are inherited. I would recommend a brief introduction to Mendel in terms of the initial significance of his work, but then moving on to more modern genetics. In this, the roles of alleles, polygenes, proteins, and the influence of the environment are critical concepts ignored by many curricula.
    Alison, I agree that primary teachers may lack science background, and don’t deny the difficulty for them in teaching the content. However, in my research, I informally asked the primary school teachers whether they would be prepared to teach that much, and rather surprisingly, they said yes. They felt that the level of discussion I suggested (as to Jim above) wasn’t too difficult, and as multidisciplinary teachers, they are used to looking things up. The Internet just makes that easier than it was years ago. They felt a list of suitable websites for them (and their students) would be a big help though.
    Certainly students of this age are interested, I had Year 5 students following me to the carpark still asking questions in my earlier research! And in this latest study, 27% of my 62 interviewees had done their own research into genes and DNA. We should capitalise on the interest while they have it, in my previous research it had dissipated by the time they were in Year 9!
    Kind regards

  • Alison Campbell says:

    Thanks for your comments, Jenny, & lovely to hear from you.
    Funnily enough, I’m currently developing a 300-level individual research topic with a student who’s doing a conjoint degree in biology & primary teaching, looking at this very issue. I think it would be very useful for her to contact you & discuss some of these ideas further, if that’s OK with you.
    best wishes, Alison

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