Friday, 27 May 2011

Natural History in Education

Nature can be mysterious, if you don't know what it is.

For the last few months I have been working in a Secondary School in a deprived area of inner city Birmingham (in the Science Department, naturally). The school has a very diverse intake, with the majority of the school population being of Muslim South Asian origin, but with many pupils from other backgrounds. Over thirty languages are spoken in the school and new pupils arriving from overseas is an almost weekly occurrence, though other pupils are second or third generation British (less than 5% of the schools intake are of ethnic UK origin). Needless to say this can be a challenging environment, but a rewarding one.

Obviously this presents a number of challenges to the teaching staff, who cannot assume the background knowledge of students will be the same as at a typical UK school, nor that parents will understand or support every part of the syllabus (contrary to popular expectations the school tends to do well at English, as almost all parents understand why this is important and are strongly supportive).

One area where teachers find pupils particularly lacking in knowledge is Natural History, areas like biodiversity and ecology. This is not just a problem with children who have recently arrived in the UK. Teachers, including those from South Asian backgrounds find pupils across the board far less knowledgeable than they would have expected a few years ago. Speaking to teachers in other parts of the country suggests this is not a problem restricted to urban Birmingham.

The reasons for this I can only speculate about, but nevertheless I shall have a go.

I grew up largely on the North Kent coast, surely a better environment in which to cultivate a love of nature than the urban West Midlands, but this only explains my advantage over modern Birmingham children, and not why children in other parts of the country should also be less knowledgeable, nor why teachers from the inner city Birmingham should find pupils from the same streets as themselves strangely lacking in knowledge.

When I was at secondary school in the early 1980s there were a lot fewer distractions than children face today. We had TV of course; three channels when I started school, four by the time I left (actually this isn’t quite true, living on the Thames estuary we could get three different versions of ITV, and the schedules differed a lot more than they do now); the plethora of satellite and cable channels that exist today simply did not exist. Of course some new Channels are dedicated wholly to Natural History programs (Eden), and others have a lot of wildlife content (Animal Planet, National Geographic). But not every family will necessarily watch these; we have become a lot more segregated in our viewing.

In 1979, when Sir David Attenborough’s Life on Earth was first broadcast, pretty well everyone watched it and at school the next morning everyone discussed it. Now a child could potentially spend all evening every evening watching wildlife documentaries, but similarly in another household they might spend all their time watching sport, soap operas or pop videos. In the area where I work a lot of families watch cable channels in South Asian languages, which, to the best of my knowledge, don’t show a lot of wildlife programs.

The Internet can be even more segregated than TV channels. There are many excellent Natural History web-pages (Wildlife Extra), and much excellent material on sites such as YouTube, but there is also much more other stuff than any of us could digest in a lifetime. Without encouragement it is unlikely that children will access nature related material.

This raises the question of what teachers, and other concerned adults, can do to promote an interest in nature in young people (we could also ask should they, but if you doubt that you probably didn’t read this far).

A lot of good Natural History television programs are still made, and many are shown on terrestrial television. In addition much of this material is available on DVD. However if a child does not live in a household where this is watched then they are unlikely to encounter it. Schools could potentially show wildlife programs, but there would be costs involved; DVDs purchased commercially for home viewing are not licensed for public viewing, a school wanting to show them to its pupils would have to pay for an additional license.

The Internet can be a powerful tool, but holds many distractions. Teachers often set researching wildlife topics as homework, but this guarantees only limited exposure to the topic. There are some good wildlife films on YouTube, which could potentially be shown in a classroom or at a science club without the need for an additional license.

A wildlife program about the Galapagos Islands, courtesy of the Open University.

Modern science textbooks do cover these areas, but they also cover a lot of other material, so Natural History related topics tend to only get a few pages. Few science departments can afford class sets of more specialized books, though there may be a few in school libraries.

Beyond that there are numerous organizations that promote an interest in Wildlife and Natural History. Many of these have educational programs with sites that can be visited, or even people that will visit schools. However this again costs money, and may not be a priority in schools with restricted budgets.

Notable organizations in the UK are:

The Zoological Society of London
The Museum of Natural History
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds
The Wildlife Trusts
The British Trust for Ornithology
The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew
Sea Life

Outside the UK I'm less confident; I can name a few prominent organizations...

National Geographic
The National Audubon Society
The Sierra Club
The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History
The Cousteau Society

...and could probably turn up a lot more with the help of a search engine. But I don't actually know such organizations work, and could not honestly recommend them for their educational service; any advice or information that anyone can give would be appreciated.

Which leads me to where I'm going on this; I can see that schoolchildren, particularly those from less well off backgrounds, have less exposure to nature than used to be the case, and I believe this to be a bad thing. I speak to teachers and other people who work with children and I find they tell me the same thing. I can offer limited advice and can recommend a lot of organizations that work in the area and produce educational material; but I know budgets are tight and schools have a lot of other priorities at the moment. So I'm looking for any better recommendations that anyone may have, with a view to sharing these. Obviously if anyone reading this can help then I'd be grateful, but I intend to come back on this subject, so I shall be contacting a variety of organizations hoping for some good recommendations.

See also Natural History in Education (II)

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