Friday, 27 February 2015

Saving field biology skills from extinction risk.

Sue Townsend and Young Darwins
Image courtesy of Field Studies Council
Regular readers will know that here at BSBI, we are very keen to help you develop botanical identification skills: we tell you about botanical training opportunities, we support initiatives like Young Darwins and we share stories from our in-house training workshops and conferences such as Training the Trainers

A key aim of BSBI's Training & Education (T&E) Committee, chaired by Dr Sarah Whild, is to boost the profile of botany in British universities and raise awareness of any issues of concern. 

Three members of T&E Committee - John Warren, Paul Ashton and Sue Townsend - have just collaborated on an article for the prestigious Times Higher Education called 'Save field biology skills from extinction risk'. 

This article appeared yesterday 26th February 2015 in Times Higher Education and we are grateful to them for permission to reprint it here in full:

Save field biology skills from extinction risk.

Learning field identification skills:
 Manchester Metroplitan University
Image courtesy of BSBI's T&E Committee
"It is widely accepted that decline of field biology skills in the UK has reached crisis point. But so what? The ability to identify bugs, flowers and bird songs may be viewed as all rather quaint. The loss of these skills may be considered little different from the loss of other ‘traditional country skills’ such as basket weaving or Morris dancing. However, the lack of field biologists is keeping many people awake at night. Without recorders who can reliably identify bumblebees, how would we know that our pollinators are at risk and thus our future fruit crops in peril? Without records of first flowering dates how would we know of the biological reality of climate change? Without identification skills, how would we recognise pest species threatening the economic future of our islands? 

Students learn microscope skills at University of Leicester
Image: L. Marsh
The legal protection of our Sites of Special Scientific Interest is dependent on these sites containing lists of unusual species, without the ability to confirm the presence of these species much of our conservation policy has no foundations. It is estimated that each year there are fewer than ten UK graduates who are proficient enough in field ID skills to be employable and of these about half are arts graduates who are recreational (amateur) field naturalists. In contrast, a lack of basket weavers leaves us with a regrettable lack of willow baskets, but is hardly a cause for the National Conservation Agencies to call crisis meetings.

Getting started with identifying plants in the field
Image courtesy of BSBI's T&E Committee
There are probably a number of reasons that have contributed to the decline in field biology. These include the rise of molecular biology, the loss of staff competent and comfortable in the field and the general decline of outdoor experience by children. However a key factor has to be that the skills involved have been distinctly unappreciated. In fact we would argue that in educational circles this lack of appreciation goes much deeper. Educationalists have been guilty of formalizing a gross undervaluing of the complexities involved in field biology. This has occurred through a naïve adherence to an incredibly damaging dogma that has influenced so much of modern educational practice. Ironically, this dogma that has been so detrimental of field taxonomy is Bloom’s taxonomy.

Practising field ID skills can be fun!
Image: M. Crittenden
In 1956 a committee of educationalists chaired by Benjamin Bloom proposed a classification system for learning outcomes. The objective of the group was to clarify the language used in the design of curricula and exams. They produced a theoretical framework that subsequently has been widely used to classify educational goals. There now are literally hundreds of textbooks, web pages and training courses that provide guidance on writing exam questions based around Bloom’s taxonomy. These documents frequently include lists of approved learning objective verbs that are deemed appropriate when writing questions for different levels or years of study. 

Residential course in plant identification
Image courtesy of Field Studies Council
Bloom’s creed tells us that the lowest levels of cognitive skills involve recognising, identifying, naming and memorizing. These abilities are considered inferior to the higher levels such as critically analysing, evaluating, criticizing and reviewing. This sort of simplistic analysis had resulted in field biology skills being excluded from university degrees time and time again as being too ‘simplistic’. However, ask those responsible for dropping these courses to distinguish Galium saxatile from Galium sterneri and they might just start to appreciate that ID skills are not as simple after all.

Galium saxatile (Heath Bedstraw)
Image: J. Crellin http://www.floralimages.co.uk/
The Galium example illustrates just why those who blindly follow Bloom’s taxonomy need to learn a little more about biological taxonomy. It is not a trivial task to be able to differentiate between closely related plants. This is not a simple memory test. This is a task that requires critical analysis and many of the other higher skills. It demands developing logical thought processes, reviewing a host of information, and the final answer is usually arrived at on a balance of probability based on evaluating the likely underlying geology of the site where they were found. The fact is identification is not always a low-level learning outcome. 

Galium sterneri (Limestone Bedstraw)
Image: J. Crellin http://www.floralimages.co.uk/
Identification can involve combining many of the cognitive skills regarded as being more worthy. Thus, a field biologist would read a landscape, review the other co-occurring species and then conclude that the specimen from the acid conditions was probably G. saxatile. They may wish to corroborate this by using a hand lens to determine which direction tiny hooks along the leaves point. The fact remains that to the naked eye these two plants look virtually identical. This level of complexity is why taxonomists generally take years to hone their skills, a fact that rather corroborates that it is not a low level cognitive skill.

Using a hand-lens
Image courtesy A. Baker
Real taxonomists know that there are always cases when things are not black and white. Some individuals cannot be condemned to belong to one species or another by rote. Bloom’s taxonomists still need to learn this lesson. Sometimes what appear to be low level cognitive skills are in fact highly complex multifactorial tasks. 

We have already lost a generation of field biologists. Moreover, this lack of serious attention to identification skills has permeated down to primary schools with connotations of the nature table and not something to be taken seriously in this technological age. Thus university students have had this dismissive message reinforced right through their schooling. If the skill set is not to be totally lost we need to act now to overcome this inertia and identify that identification is a worthy and noble set of complex skills that is likely to complement critical thinking elsewhere in the syllabus".

Polishing ID skills at Training the Trainers 2014
Image: P. Gateley
John Warren, Aberystwyth University

Paul Ashton, Edge Hill University

Sarah Taylor & Peter Thomas, Keele University

Sue Townsend, Field Studies Council

If you share the authors' concerns about the teaching of biology field skills in Britain, please share this link to the article with friends and colleagues; you can join the debate by leaving a comment on the THE website or in the comments box below.