A research team from the UK and Ireland have a paper in the journal Ecology and Evolution which explores “the botanical education extinction and the fall of plant awareness”. This is the Abstract:
“Civilization is dependent upon plants for survival. Plants permeate our every moment and our relationship with them will dictate how we will manage the threats of climate change and ecological collapse defining the Anthropocene. Yet, despite the significance of plants and the critical role they have played in shaping ecosystems, civilizations, and human cultures, many people are now disconnected from the botanical world. Students are presented with little plant content, particularly identification, compared with animal content. Consequently, we are producing few plant scientists and educating fewer scientists about plants. This drives a self-accelerating cycle we term the extinction of botanical education. A process of knowledge erosion, that in this instance contributes to our separation from the natural world, makes us blind to the biodiversity crisis and inhibits our ability to restore it. We argue that neglecting the importance of plants within education threatens the foundations of industries and professions that rely on this knowledge. Furthermore, this extinction of botanical education creates an existential threat: Without the skills to fully comprehend the scale of and solutions to human-induced global change, how do we as a society combat it? We present key research agendas that will enable us to reverse the extinction of botanical education and highlight the critical role plants play on the global stage.”
In a discussion of the state of botanical teaching in the United Kingdom, they write:
“Given the critical importance of plants in addressing the challenges facing humanity today, is the role that botany plays in addressing global change recognized? There has been a call to action within the science to “engage the power of the public with the power of plants” (Crane et al., 2019). However, botany, once a compulsory component of many biology degrees and school programmes, is now practically nonexistent in the United Kingdom. Instead, the programmes offered are Plant Science or Plant Biology, and these are offered by only 11 universities (Table A1). The United Kingdom has recently announced the creation of a Natural science GSCE (Gov.uk, 2022). This could provide more plant identification and ecology in formal schooling; however, it is unclear yet as to what the focus of the curriculum will be, although flora and fauna are listed first in popular content themes (Oates & Duffy, 2020). Depending on the content and format, there is again the risk of reducing plants to processes. There is additionally the question of who will teach it. Many teachers may have little experience to teach plant identification and ecology. We argue that these plant-specific degrees are too few and current general biology programmes may not offer the broad spectrum of plant knowledge that is needed in light of progressing global change.”
Many involved in NAEE will recognise all this.
The authors believe the problem starts at an early stage. In the English primary national curriculum for example, students are only required to identify and name a variety of common wild and garden plants during their early school years with little additional plant ecology or natural history, and no identification skills are taught in secondary education. They note that this is the current English national curriculum plant identification and ecology content (Department for Education, (2015):
Key stage 1 programme of study—years 1 and 2
Year 1 programme of study – Pupils should be taught to:Identify and name a variety of common wild and garden plants, including deciduous and evergreen treesIdentify and describe the basic structure of a variety of common flowering plants, including trees
Year 2 programme of study – Identify and name a variety of plants and animals in their habitats, including microhabitats
Lower key stage 2 – years 3 and 4
Year 3 programme of study – Identify and describe the functions of different parts of flowering plants: roots, stem/trunk, leaves and flowers
Year 4 programme of study – Recognize that living things can be grouped in a variety of waysExplore and use classification keys to help group, identify and name a variety of living things in their local and wider environmentYear 6 programme of study.
Moreover, the authors note that botany in secondary education is focused on bioenergetics, reproduction, and anatomy with little on plant ecology and no identification skills. One study of A-Level biology students in the United Kingdom found only 14% could recognize more than three species of native plants, a trend which matched their teachers’ botanical skills (Bebbington, 2005). Elsewhere, a similar experiment in the United States found college students could, on average, only correctly list a single species of wildflower, “weeds,” or grasses when tested on these groups separately (Wagner, 2008).
It is a dispiriting account. In the final section of the paper, the authors ask: “Botanists and educators have documented the decline in botanical teaching for decades (Crisci et al., 2020; Drea, 2011; Godwin, 1968), but have we produced a clear set of definable and reportable actions and objectives to reverse it?” We all know the answer. The authors suggest that a research agenda needs to be prioritized to enhance botanical teaching in schools and universities and counter the extinction of botanical education. To achieve this, a research baseline from schools and universities to identify the current provisioning of botanical teaching globally is needed in order to
– [i] understand current stances and perspectives of pedagogical professionals about the state of botanical education, student engagement, and ethnobotanical knowledge transfer and practice; and
– [ii] develop a system for monitoring long-term trends in botanical knowledge across various demographics and related industries. This needs to be followed by a wider scope of pedagogical methods for enhancing plant identification skills and developing appreciation and value in different demographics and disciplines.
The paper concludes:
An invested and knowledgeable public is one equipped to drive environmental policy reform. A plant aware public will only be achieved through education at all levels. The extinction of botanical education will only continue to worsen unless we break the cycle of disconnection from the botanical world.
There is a critical need to address growing skills gaps in the general and botanical sciences and to reengage the wider public with the value of plants before we reach irreversible tipping points of knowledge and biodiversity decline. We must foster environmentally sympathetic attitudes and skills in the wider population and combat this extinction of botanical education, loss of botanical knowledge and loss of technical skills to grow plant awareness. A key component of this is through formal educational routes via the integration of more plant-focused teaching to connect people with the value of plants. We need profound and comprehensive educational reform to develop students’ attitudes and knowledge of plants to enable students to develop the skills and motivation needed to reverse the decades of environmental degradation, neglect of plant value, and support the transition to an ecological and sustainable society.
Plants have significance to every person on the planet, most just do not know it yet.
What is written above only skates across the surface of what the paper has to say about the problems we all face. As such the original is worthy of a careful read – you’ll find it here.