A blooming disgrace…?

Is Bloom's Taxonomy responsible for the severe decline in UK students' knowledge of field biology skills?
Image: Wikimedia Commons.
Image: Wikimedia Commons.

An item in the influential Times Higher Education (the UK’s leading publication in the field of news and issues related to higher – i.e. degree-level – education) by John Warren (one of the few Professors of Botany in the UK) et albemoans the loss of field biology skills – such as plant ID of organisms – within the UK. As botanists we should be concerned about this. Even if we don’t have to identify plants on a daily basis – or at all – it is important to have people who can do so. After all, correct identification of a plant can be a matter of life-or-death, or have global consequences in a food biodiversity and nutritional context. To what is this bad state of affairs – estimated to be ‘fewer than 10 UK graduates who are proficient enough in field identification skills to be employable*’ each year – attributed? Warren and co. pin the blame on the use of Bloom’s taxonomy (a phrase that’s ironic on more than one level!) in UK education, where the lowest levels of cognitive skills: recognising, identifying, naming and memorizing, are considered inferior to the higher levels such as critically analysing, evaluating, criticising and reviewing. As a consequence, they argue, field biology skills have been excluded from university degrees as being too ‘simplistic’. But let’s look at this taxonomy’s hierarchy (diagrammatically represented in the accompanying image); as drawn, it can be interpreted as an Elizabethan half-timbered house whose upper stories overhang the lower. This building analogy is particularly apt because, to support the weight of the higher, overhanging levels, the foundations must be strong. As with an architectural construction, so too with our educational edifice; the skills in the lowest level – traditionally considered ‘inferior’, and of lesser importance – are in fact the opposite. Indeed, ‘remembering’ can rightly be interpreted as the most important skill since it provides the foundation upon which all else above is based. The lowest level therefore supports the others. In that respect ID skills are fundamental. If those fundamental skills are not there, all else is nought. Furthermore, regarding the higher-level – cognitive – domain, in order to identify a plant correctly, we need to analyse it and evaluate its various characteristics, and then create a link to that suite of characters that reinforce our remembered ID of that organism. So there is a rather satisfying loop of reinforcement (a great pedagogic device…) between lower- and higher-level skills. That foundation layer is important to get right, and should therefore be taught more [ooh, controversial; steady on, Mr Cuttings… – Ed.]. Acknowledgedly, it can be tricky learning names and ID characters. To help this essential knowledge acquisition, Bethan Stagg and Maria Donkin extol the use of mnemonics for plant ID. A mnemonic is ‘any learning technique that aids information retention. Mnemonics aim to translate information into a form that the brain can retain better than its original form…’. Although intended as a complementary learning tool for promoting species memorization, mnemonics produced the highest retention rates of species identification based on vegetative characters. Not only that, mnemonics can be fun to use – almost as much as the word itself is hard to spell [Maybe we need a mnemonic for that? – Ed.]. In fact, getting your own undergraduates to devise their own mnemonics for plant ID might not only aid their plant ID endeavours but also enhance their enjoyment of the acquisition of this essential botanical skill. I just wish I had a mnemonic to help me distinguish Vicia sativa from V. sepium! But identification on its own is not enough. For correct, unambiguous identification it is also important to learn (and remember…) the scientific name. Although often – and imprecisely – termed Latin names, the correct binomial or scientific name for each plant is crucial, as both Jill Nicolaus and Jeffery Goss attest. Remember that!

* It should be mentioned that this alarmist figure has been disputed by Tim Shreeve and Bruce Riddoch.

[And this lack of ID-proficient graduates is on top of existing concerns over an insufficiency of plant scientists more generally – Ed.]