The title of this post isn’t as over-the-top as you might think. There is a widespread lack of interest in plants and it is a real problem. Declining interest in botany leads to fewer botanists being hired and fewer course offerings in botany (Uno, 2009). This leads to less funding for research, less funding for conservation efforts and even more indifference towards plants. Botanists and science educators have spent many years studying why people know more about furry animals with big brown eyes than they know about plants. Some claim instructor bias or the predominant use of animal examples to teach biological concepts (Allen, 2003). James Wandersee at Louisiana State University and his research team at 15° Lab believe people are not as tuned-in to plants because plants do not fall into their field of view. Wandersee and Elizabeth Schussler coined the phrase “plant blindness” which refers to one’s inability to notice the plants in one’s environment and therefore not recognize their value (Allen, 2003; Wandersee & Schussler, 2001). Simply put, plants are background noise.
How do educators rise above the noise and bring plants to the forefront? Gordon E. Uno (2009) tackled this very question. In his article, Uno provides a thorough explanation of factors contributing to botanical illiteracy. The challenges facing botanists are:
- Students do not find plants interesting.
- Students are unaware of the plants around them (plant blindness).
- Plant biology is taught less often in school. Uno reports that of the six best-selling biology textbooks, only 14% of these texts address plant biology.
So what are botanists to do? Uno recommends that instructors introduce students to plants through popular literature, that they try to influence the content of standardized exams (if the plant sciences were represented on exams, teachers would teach more about plants), and that they incorporate into their classrooms problem-solving activities related to the plant sciences. Uno also encourages botanists to help students and pre-college teachers “think botanically” by using plant examples to teach biological concepts like cellular respiration instead of associating this process with only animals.
But is everyone suffering from plant blindness? What about all those avid gardeners lining up with their wagons chomping at the bit waiting for the gate to open at their favorite plant sale? Uno points out that the widespread problem of indifference towards plants is not consistent with the current popularity of gardening. He sees gardening’s popularity as an opportunity for botanists to place more emphasis on the applied plant sciences and to tap into the public’s interest in topics such as human nutrition, economic botany, and the environment — all topics related in one way or another to botany.
To read more about Uno’s research and his suggestions to enhance student learning in the plant sciences, read a copy of his article online or visit your local college library to obtain Volume 96 of the American Journal of Botany.
Allen, William. 2003. Plant Blindness [online]. Website http://www.aibs.org/eye-on-education/eye_on_education_2003_10.html [accessed 13 May 2010].
Uno, Gordon E. 2009. Botanical literacy: What and how should students learn about plants? American Journal of Botany 96(10): 1753-1759
Wandersee, James H., and Elisabeth Schussler. 2001. Toward a Theory of Plant Blindness. Plant Science Bulletin 47 (1): 2-9.