Curing ‘Plant blindness’ using an inquiry-based approach

Curriculum

Kate Whittington, kate.whittington@bgci.org | 19/08/13 | London

Ever heard of “plant blindness”? No, it’s not a medical condition, but a term coined to describe “the inability to see or notice the plants in one’s own environment” (first put forward by Wandersee and Schlusser in 1998).

It’s a curiously widespread phenomena, especially given the importance of plants to the everyday lives of all animals, including humans. It wouldn’t be surprising, however, to find that most children would rather visit a zoo than a botanic garden. This is why the word “zoochauvinism” is also used to refer to people’s preference for animals over plants - considering animals more interesting, and seeing plants as passive or inferior. This opinion is particular prevalent in school students, many of whom have been found to consider plants “boring”.

In order to combat students’ perceptions that plants are uninteresting, Nantawanit et al., (2012) developed an inquiry-based unit which focused on plant defence responses. 

The main preconception Nantawanit et al., set out to address was that plants are passive and unable to respond to biological stimuli such as attacks from microorganisms and herbivorous insects. As a result, Nantawanit et al. developed a “Fighting Plant Learning Unit” (FPLU) with the following aims:

•    To investigate the effectiveness of the FPLU in developing students’ conceptual understanding of plant defence mechanisms.
•    To determine whether FPLU influenced students’ interest in studying plants.
•    To determine the effectiveness of teaching within a constructivist environment, using an inquire-based approach.

The FPLU was trialled in 2008 on a class of 31 students (22 girls and 9 boys) aged 17-18 years, at a science school in Thailand.

Students’ preconceptions regarding plants and their defensive mechanisms were evaluated one week before the start of the FPLU using individual interviews and a survey.

The Fighting Plant Learning Unit:

The FPLU consisted of five sequential IBSE activities: engagement, experimentation, data discussion, active reading and application, and was implemented by the first author via six consecutive 120 minute sessions in 2008.

The teacher began by asking two questions: “Can plants fight back?” and “How can plants defend themselves against pathogens?” whilst referring to video examples of defensive plant responses and live specimens of fruit and veg infected with fungal pathogens. Students were then set the task of brainstorming and presenting to the class a potential experiment to answer this question.

Students then performed a laboratory experiment, inoculating red chilli fruits with yeast, incubating them, observing the plant’s response and extracting tissue to identify the chemical defence substrate and its anti-microbial properties.

The teacher then discussed similar experiments carried out by scientists, and asked students to predict the outcome and offer potential explanations for the results.  They then evaluated their explanations and analysed alternatives.

Finally, students discussed their new understanding with their peers, carried out active reading of the subject in journals, textbooks and online, and considered the potential applications of plant defence responses.

After the FPLU students constructed concept maps to examine their understanding of the subject, and carried out the same survey they did before the start of the study. One week after completion 16 students were randomly selected for 40 minute interviews to determine how their perceptions of studying plants had changed, and their attitude towards the FPLU teaching approach.

Results:

The results showed that more than 80% of students reported a greater appreciation of plants and had acquired new perspective of learning about plants. They now viewed plants as active organisms and had gained new understanding of their defensive mechanisms. However, it is worth noting that 71% of the students in this study were girls, and girls have been shown to be more willing to study plants than boys. It would therefore be interesting to repeat the study without a gender bias to see if it can still have a marked result on students’ interest in, and knowledge of plants.The majority of students also indicated a preference for learning via scientific investigations and hands-on experiences rather than passively receiving information.

So is there hope that we might bridge the gap between our apparent love of animals and perceived inferioriy of plants? This study is just one example of addressing “plant blindness” in schools. How else might use IBSE to open students’ eyes to the importance and wonders of the botanical world?


Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/people/tambako/

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