Which plants can you identify upon first glance? Are they plants from the nursery? From the florist? Are they native plants?
How did you come to know these plants?
Plants featured in an advertisement, a children’s book, or a lavish garden are more recognizable to the public than common wildflowers (Bebbington, 2005). To determine the extent to which this is the case, Anne Bebbington of the Field Studies Council created a survey to test the environmental knowledge of students taking field classes at a field center. Students’ environmental knowledge was assessed through an evaluation of their plant identification skills. Bebbington discusses her findings in The Ability of A-level Students to Name Plants.
From October 2003 through December 2004, Bebbington (2005) collected data from 925 participants. Her sample was composed of A-level biology students (i.e., college-bound high school students; n=812), graduates working on their certificate in education (n=92), and biology teachers (n=21). All participants were asked to identify ten common wildflower plants at the beginning of field courses they enrolled in at the Juniper Hall Field Centre located 25 miles outside of London. Each participant was handed a sheet featuring color illustrations of ten common plants. Participants wrote the names of plants next to the appropriate illustration. General terms like “daisy” and “violet” were accepted in lieu of exact common names or scientific names.
An evaluation of participants’ responses revealed that most A-level biology students could not identify more than three plants, that teacher education students did only slightly better than the A-level students, and that biology teachers were the most successful at identifying plants (Bebbington, 2005). Of the plants used in the exercise, the daisy plant was the most easily identified, followed by the foxglove and the primrose — a result Bebbington (2005) attributes more to participants’ personal experiences with these plants instead of anything they might have learned in school.
Bebbington’s conversations with students revealed that students did not think plant identification was a skill worth learning. Students said that naming organisms is “a job for specialists” (Bebbington, 2005). This type of thinking raises concern because students’ lack of interest in knowing the names of plants impacts their working knowledge of environmental issues.
Why does this indifference exist?
Bebbington (2005) points to the absence of botany education at all grade levels, along with less exposure to organismic biology (whole organism biology) as contributing factors. She shares the results of an interesting study revealing that eight year-old children could recognize more than half of the unnatural Pokemon types presented to them, but were less able to identify common wildlife types (Balmford et al., 2002 as cited in Bebbington (2005)). Societal issues such as safety concerns about being alone in natural areas is also cited by Bebbington (2005) as a possible contributing factor because concerns about safety may reduce one’s interest in natural history. Cultural differences, family income, family background and parents’ own outdoor experiences can also be factors (Bebbington, 2005).
Since recognizing local plants and animals is necessary to establish an environmentally literate citizenry, Bebbington (2005) proposes that primary teachers be encouraged to incorporate plant-related activities into their curriculum, that teachers be encouraged to provide more field experiences for their students, and that schools encourage students to take part in the informal science education programs provided by local organizations. The latter recommendation is inline with an observation made by Kramer and Havens (2010) in the Botanical Capacity Project about private sector programs filling-in gaps in botany education left open by academe.
To read Bebbington’s detailed assessment of her findings and to view a copy of the wildflower quiz she used, purchase The Ability of A-level Students to Name Plants online for $34 or conduct a search for this article at your local library.
Balmford, A., L. Clegg, T. Coulsen. and J. Taylor. 2002. Why conservationists should heed Pokemon. Science. 295(5564): 2367.
Bebbington, Anne. 2005. The ability of A-level students to name plants. Journal of Biological Education. 39(2): 63-67.
Kramer, Andrea and Kayri Havens. 2010. Assessing Botanical Capacity to Address Grand Challenges in the United States. A report by the Botanical Capacity Assessment Project. Website http://www.bgci.org/usa/bcap [accessed 4 November 2011].