Does a visit to a botanic garden really matter?

Mary South

The Sir Harold Hillier Gardens and Arboretum, Jermyns Lane, Ampsfield, Romsey, Hampshire SO51 0QA, UK

As educators we probably all like to believe we are making an incredible contribution to our students' attitudes and knowledge. However, given that pupil contact time is very short, unless we are engaged in running long-term courses, how can we be sure that we have any affect at all?

This question lead to a short survey of schools visiting the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens and Arboretum, UK. Initially the survey consisted of verbally asking complete groups of children a series of open-ended questions, accepting the first three answers offered and holding a 'vote' on each one, using a show of hands. The results were disastrous! It took too long; children voted with their friends; they voted for the answers perceived as 'correct'; there was no change from the answers given at the start of the visit and those received at the end, for the same questions. The most unsuccessful result was obtained by asking teachers to carry out the same test at school, after the visit. Most did not respond at all (99%). Only one school returned results – for 18 hand-picked pupils taken from the 95 that had attended the Gardens on the visit.

Undaunted, we continued with some analysis of the children's answers. Those compiled at the Gardens seemed to indicate that their visit had had little impact upon them. Answers from the children were directly attributable to work done with the teacher, and these were adhered to, even when work done during the visit had highlighted previous concepts as erroneous i.e. there were flaws in the teachers' conceptual understanding which were accepted by their pupils.

Disheartened but unbowed, a new approach was devised. This time, each child was asked to draw their idea of a leaf at the start of the visit and also at the end of the visit.

A maximum of five minutes was spent each time, the children were unashamedly hurried and conditions chaotic, deliberately giving them little or no time to think, but to respond instinctively. The two sets of drawings were compared by the number of 'standard' leaves drawn by each group, at the start and finish of their visit. Expressed as percentages, the results are as shown in Table 1.

Age range Before visit After visit
5-6 years 92%
7-9 years 72%
8-9 years 81%
9-10 years 73% 46%

Total sample: 10 classes (285 children)

Taking both surveys together, they seem to indicate that educators at a garden can have an impact, even after a short visit. But overall, the indications highlight the obvious point that it is the teachers' attitudes which are far more important than anything we can hope to accomplish in a few short hours. Therefore, should one of our primary aims be to teach the teachers?

Yes – of course we must teach the children, but if we are truly dynamic, imaginative and original in our approaches, we will also teach the teachers at the same time.

It is necessary not only to remove any erroneous ideas and information they may have about certain concepts and topics, but also that our enthusiasm and love of plant life should inspire them too. If we really wish to alter attitudes in the citizens of the future we need to accept that this can only be achieved indirectly, through their teachers. They are the ones with the greatest influence over the children – not us. If we want to make some impact on the future of the environment, it needs to be through the educators – not the pupils.

Within limits, it is acceptable to 'preach to the converted' – after all, teachers will be passing on their enthusiasm to mtanic garden can. The same enthusiasm and concern for plantsr her school career.

Programmes for school visits need to be varied and cover as many subjects as possible, to have an appeal to a broad band of teachers. The content needs to include many activities that can be used by the teachers in the school situation. Positively encourage teachers to try some activities on their return to school, give samples of materials, offer tips on the use of these materials but most of all, let the teachers return with some useful experiences by seeing what can be achieved with their children.

Offering a variety of topics can attract other teaching disciplines to the botanic garden. Often it is the botanic and scientific aspects of the garden which are at the forefront of an educational programme, but creative writing, art and music can all be inspired by the plant world too. Whilst the international aspects of the collection can heighten geographical awareness, tales of the plant hunters give historical insight and ethnobotany ideas afford greater understanding of other cultures. With so many topics on offer, the education officers at botanic gardens use up a lot of ideas and materials for activities. There is a great need to be able to generate an almost non-stop stream of new ideas and activities for the children, in order to stimulate their teachers.

Many teachers are very conservative and if they are pleased with the programme they first encounter at a botanic garden, they will request the same one for their next visit, and the next, and the next . . . This, in itself, indicates a rather unimaginative approach to the use of gardens and or plants in general as a teaching aid. We need to be at our most inspired when these teachers and their classes come to visit us!

Fig 1 Leaves drawn by 8-9 years-old children before Gardens vi sit (left-hand box) and after Garden visit (right-hand box).

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