Plant Identification Skills

Plant Identification Skills Taxonomic edu­ca­tion and bot­any are increas­ingly neg­lected in schools and uni­ver­sit­ies, lead­ing to a ‘missed gen­er­a­tion’ of adults that can­not identify organ­isms, espe­cially plants.

The ‘taxo­nomic illit­er­acy’ of Western cul­tures has been recog­nised but lim­ited research exists on the most effect­ive meth­ods for teach­ing spe­cies iden­ti­fic­a­tion, espe­cially in adults. A recent House of Lords inquiry described the state of tax­onomy and sys­tem­at­ics in the UK as ‘unsat­is­fact­ory’ and a short­age of trained tax­onom­ists, espe­cially for less cha­ris­matic taxa, has res­ul­ted in a ‘taxo­nomic imped­i­ment’ to effect­ively mon­it­or­ing and man­aging biod­iversity. Taxonomy is one of the sci­ence areas where ‘cit­izen sci­ent­ists’ can most mean­ing­fully par­ti­cip­ate but there is a need for more train­ing in iden­ti­fic­a­tion skills and novel train­ing meth­ods to raise both interest and awareness.

Botany has long been a neg­lected aspect of bio­lo­gical edu­ca­tion in cur­ricula, text­books and courses from school to uni­ver­sity level. The cycle is self-perpetuating, with bio­logy teach­ers neg­lect­ing bot­any because of its absence in their own edu­ca­tion. In a study of A-level bio­logy stu­dents for example, 86% could recog­nise only three or fewer nat­ive plant spe­cies — which is not sur­pris­ing, as their teach­ers’ botan­ical iden­ti­fic­a­tion skills were also poor. Botanical edu­ca­tion is an integ­ral com­pon­ent of eco­logy, and the rapid loss of plant life and its implic­a­tions for man­kind deserves a more prom­in­ent role in education.

In the School of Biological Sciences at Leicester we have been aware of these prob­lems for some time and work­ing to mit­ig­ate them. The University Botanic Garden offers the pub­lic an oppor­tun­ity to study for an Advanced Certificate in Plant Identification, and stu­dents on our Biological Sciences degrees can also take a sim­ilar Plant Identification Skills mod­ule for aca­demic credit.

A new paper in the Journal of Biological Education makes a strong case for the import­ance of such pub­lic and aca­demic courses, and the con­tri­bu­tion that ‘Citizen Scientists’ can make in this area, which does not require any expens­ive equip­ment, only know­ledge and enthu­si­asm (Bethan Stagg & Maria Donkin (2013) Teaching botan­ical iden­ti­fic­a­tion to adults: exper­i­ences of the UK par­ti­cip­at­ory sci­ence pro­ject ‘Open Air Laboratories’, Journal of Biological Education, http://​dx​.doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​0​8​0​/​0​0​2​1​9​2​6​6​.​2​0​1​3​.​7​6​4​341).

Teaching people about plants does not rival the glam­our aspects of med­ical research, but is pos­sibly no less import­ant in terms of the con­tri­bu­tion that aca­demic edu­ca­tion can make to society.


AJ Cann. ORCID 0000-0002-9014-3720

Alan Cann is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Leicester and formerly Internet Consulting Editor for AoB.

1 Response

  1. Kelsey says:

    Just star­ted study­ing Botany, and every piece of inform­a­tion presen­ted had never once been brought up in High School Science/Biology. It is fas­cin­at­ing! Although an uphill struggle. I’m hav­ing real trouble find­ing any­one who is study­ing Botany to dis­cuss and com­pare notes with. It is a real pity that this sub­ject is under-represented.