Monday 3 January 2011


Here are the relevant parts of the GCSE specifications for evolutionary palaeobiology. GCSE Chemistry contains some aspects of climate change, and GCSE Physics has some astrobiology and the evolution of our atmosphere, but this'd be a humongous post if I included all that.

Unit B1
Candidates should use their skills, knowledge and understanding of how science works:
  • to suggest how organisms are adapted to the conditions in which they live
  • to suggest the factors for which organisms are competing in a given habitat
  • to suggest reasons for the distribution of animals or plants in a particular habitat
  • to suggest reasons why scientists cannot be certain about how life began on Earth
  • to interpret evidence relating to evolutionary theory
  • to suggest reasons why Darwin’s theory of natural selection was only gradually accepted
  • to identify the differences between Darwin’s theory of evolution and conflicting theories [Yes, this does mean they have to look at Lamarckism...]
  • to suggest reasons for the different theories
There really isn't much more about evolution. I'm not a fan of AQA, either at GCSE or at A-Level. The GCSE course does not really deal in depth with anything (although GCSE Chemistry has a pleasing amount of geology in it), and the A-Level exams are an exercise in obfuscation (you may remember some outcry about the infamous "shrews" paper of January 2010.

Pupils should:
  • learn that living organisms are adapted to survive in the environment, for example, adaptations to life on land, and in water
  • understand how variation and selection may lead to evolution or extinction, including:
    - natural selection as variation within phenotypes and competition for resources leading to differential survival
    - the implications of natural selection for the concept of evolution as a continuing process
Of all the boards, this has the least evolutionary content. The role of the fossil record as evidence for evolution is not on the Northern Ireland Programme of Study, whereas it is for England and Wales. This is disappointing, but not surprising. The students are, however, expected to be able to identify and classify a large number of plants, animals and fungi, so with any luck they should have good taxonomical knowledge.

Unit B1
Students will be assessed on their ability to:
  • describe how organisms in an ecosystem compete with each other for resources
  • explain population data in terms of predator-prey interdependence and intra-species competition
  • demonstrate an understanding of how computer models can be used to study populations, and show an awareness of the advantages and disadvantages of these models compared with real data
  • demonstrate an understanding of the principles of natural selection, to include:
    - how individuals within a species can have characteristics that promote more successful reproduction (survival of the fittest)
    - how, over generations, the effects of natural selection result in changes within species and the formation of new species from genetic variants or mutants that are better adapted to their environment
    - how species that are less well-adapted to a changing environment can become extinct
  • explain how fossils provide evidence for evolution
  • discuss why Charles Darwin experienced difficulty in getting his theory of evolution through natural selection accepted by the scientific community in the 19th century
  • explain the principles of classifying organisms and the difficulties encountered in attempting to do so, as illustrated by the five kingdoms, the use of phylum, class, order, family, genus, species and the main characteristics of the five vertebrate groups
Unit B2
Students will be assessed on their ability to:
  • explore the principles of interdependence, adaptation, competition and predation and explain how these factors influence the distribution and population sizes of organisms in a given terrestrial or aquatic environment
  • interpret data on environmental change
  • describe the special nature of some extreme environments, notably deep sea volcanic vents, the Antarctic and high altitudes
Unit B3
At the end of this unit students will be able to describe and explain the following statements and carry out the tasks indicated:
  • vertebrate herbivores may feed in large groups or herds, and they may do so for protection in numbers. This is a successful evolutionary strategy, even though some members of the herd may be killed
  • some animals, in particular birds and mammals, have developed special behaviours for the rearing of young, since they display parental care
  • parental care is a successful evolutionary strategy; although it involves risk to the parents, it can increase the chances of survival of the parental genes
I like the final section that deals with behaviour and ethology, but it does rather skirt over evolution - it's something that can be covered in a double period if the teacher feels like it.

Module B3
  • recall that the many different species of living things on Earth (and many species that are now extinct) evolved from very simple living things
  • recall that life on Earth began about 3500 million years ago
  • understand that evidence for evolution is provided by fossils and from analysis of similarities and differences in DNA of organisms
  • recall that the first living things developed from molecules that could copy
  • understand that these molecules were produced by the conditions on Earth at that time, or may have come from elsewhere
  • recall that evolution happens due to natural selection
  • understand the process of natural selection in terms of variation, competition, increased chance of survival and reproduction, and increased number of individuals displaying certain characteristics in later generations
  • understand that variation is caused by both environment and genes, but only genetic variation can be passed on
  • explain the difference between natural selection and selective breeding
  • interpret data on changes in a species in terms of natural selection
  • recall that changes can occur in genes (mutations)
  • understand that mutated genes in sex cells can be passed on to offspring and may occasionally produce new characteristics
  • understand that the combined effect of mutations, environmental changes and natural selection can produce new species
  • understand that if the conditions on Earth had, at any stage, been different from what they actually were, evolution by natural selection could have produced different results
  • when provided with information about alternative views on the origin of life on Earth, or the evolutionary process:
    - can identify statements which are data and statements which are (all or part of) an explanation
    - can recognise data or observations that are accounted for by, (or conflict with), an explanation
    - can identify imagination and creativity in the development of an explanation
    - can justify accepting or rejecting a proposed explanation on the grounds that it accounts for observations; and/or provides an explanation that links things previously thought to be unrelated;
    -can identify a scientific question for which there is not yet an agreed answer and suggest a reason why
    - can suggest plausible reasons why scientists involved in a scientific event or issue disagree(d)
    - can suggest reasons for scientists’ reluctance to give up an accepted explanation when new data appear to conflict with it
  • recall that the evolution of a larger brain gave some early humans a better chance of survival
  • understand human evolution in terms of a common ancestor, divergence of hominid species, extinction of all but one of these species
  • when provided with additional information about human evolution, can draw valid conclusions about the implications of given data for a given theory, for example:
    - recognises that an observation that agrees with a prediction (derived from an explanation) increases confidence in the explanation but does not prove it is correct
    - recognises that an observation that disagrees with a prediction (derived from an explanation) indicates that either the observation or the prediction is wrong, and that this may decrease our confidence in the explanation
  • understand that a rapid change in the environment may cause a species to become extinct, for example, if:
    - the environmental conditions change
    - a new species that is a competitor, predator or disease organism of that species is introduced
    - another organism in its food web becomes extinct
    - understand that species have become extinct (or are in danger of becoming extinct) and that this is likely to be due to human activity;
  • recall two examples of modern extinctions caused by direct human activity, and two caused by indirect human activity
The real issue I have with OCR is that they are still pussyfooting around the issue that evolution may not be true. I'd like to see the chemists having to hedge their teaching about collision theory on the grounds that, while there is a lot of evidence, this does not prove that collision theory is true and that there may be an alternative explanation that allows people to continue worshipping their invisible sky fairy without questioning their belief that Homo sapiens is different in some way...

Biology 1
Candidates should:
  • know that organisms that have similar features and characteristics can be classified together in a logical way. Understand the need for a scientific system for identification and scientific as opposed to 'common' names.
  • use local first and/or second hand data/ICT simulation to compare the variety of organisms which live in particular habitats, and investigate how the organisms in an area are affected by other organisms
  • explore information about the morphological adaptations shown by organisms which enable them to survive in their environment
  • understand that new genes result from changes, mutations, in existing genes and that mutations occur naturally at random. Mutations may be beneficial or harmful and are increased by exposure to radiation and some toxic chemicals
  • variation is the basis of evolution
  • examine evidence and interpret data about how organisms and species have changed over time. Suggest reasons why species may become extinct
  • consider how individuals with characteristics adapted to their environment are more likely to survive and breed successfully. Consider the uses and limitations of modelling to illustrate the effect of camouflage colouring in prey and predator relationships
  • know that the genes which have enabled these better adapted individuals to survive are then passed on to the next generation. This is natural selection
  • consider the process of data collection, creative interpretation and deduction that lead Charles Darwin to propose the theory of evolution. Discuss the controversy surrounding the acceptance of the theory. Discuss evidence that evolution is ongoing such as data on Warfarin resistance in rats
This isn't too bad, but Edexcel and OCR still show more evolution discussion. So some examination boards are rather detailed when discussing evolution, extinction and adaptations. Speciation is, however, skirted around at best and actively ignored at worst. It's worth remembering when pitching outreach to these students, that only the CCEA require their students to know the major phyla and groups within the vertebrates, and I doubt even my current A2 students would know what a bryophyte was if I smacked them about the head with one. New species are not going to be very exciting for this age group (unless it's a big toothy dinosaur), but any discovery that demonstrates adaptation, new observations of behaviour, or perhaps transitional forms/two new gaps in the fossil record, might be worth pitching to a GCSE group.


  1. As a postscript to this particular post, those of you bewildered about the CCEA's lack of evolution might find some answers courtesy of the BCSE. I may post more on this later.

  2. You mentioned that geology s covered in Chemistry. Is there no specific Geology subject as per O'levels.

    I'm trying to understand the whole GCSE science area as my daughter starts Secondary school this year.

  3. Edexcel and CCEA only offer the three sciences, so in terms of earth sciences all has to be covered in those subjects. This means a lot of bits get missed out. AQA and OCR offer Environmental Science.

    Impressively, WJEC has a Geology GCSE.

    It's worth finding out, from the schools you're interested in (if your daughter hasn't already been allocated her place) which exam boards they currently use for GCSE Science, as schools have a great deal of institutional inertia and are unlikely to change boards in the next five years.

    Clearly some exam boards are better than others. At the moment I would advise that, if there is a choice, your daughter aims for somewhere that teaches to OCR or WJEC, and make sure she has the opportunity to do triple sciences (not all schools have the timetabling space).

    I say at the moment, because from 2012 there will be new GCSE specifications across the board. As I'm not teaching GCSE this year (and have been told it could be some time before I'm timetabled to teach it) I haven't kept up to date on the training for it, but there could be some fairly major changes afoot.

    And of course there are people calling for GCSEs to be sat at age 14 or even abolished altogether!


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