Walking and talking the tree of life: Why and how to teach about biodiversity

Cissy J. Ballen, Harry W. Greene

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations


Taxonomic details of diversity are an essential scaffolding for biology education, yet outdated methods for teaching the tree of life (TOL), as implied by textbook content and usage, are still commonly employed. Here, we show that the traditional approach only vaguely represents evolutionary relationships, fails to denote major events in the history of life, and relies heavily on memorizing near-meaningless taxonomic ranks. Conversely, a clade-based strategy—focused on common ancestry, monophyletic groups, and derived functional traits—is explicitly based on Darwin’s “descent with modification,” provides students with a rational system for organizing the details of biodiversity, and readily lends itself to active learning techniques. We advocate for a phylogenetic classification that mirrors the TOL, a pedagogical format of increasingly complex but always hierarchical presentations, and the adoption of active learning technologies and tactics.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2001630
JournalPLoS biology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 20 2017

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2017 Ballen, Greene.


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