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Teaching children to tackle big questions

Volume 5 Number 2 - October 2008

Sue Johnson

French title: Apprendre aux enfants à aborder de grandes questions

Spanish title: Enseñando a los niños a enfrentar grandes preguntas


The garden at Down House, Charles Darwin’s home for 40 years, provided him with experimental sites. Now managed by English Heritage, the garden contains many vegetable and fruit varieties that Darwin would have known. Growing similar plants in botanic gardens puts a new perspective on plant science for school groups and the potential for Darwin inspired learning. Many gooseberry, raspberry, cabbage, pea, bean and potato varieties grow in the kitchen garden. An orchard of newly planted old varieties of apple, plum and pear grow in a wild flower meadow. The herb garden attracts pollinators, particularly honey and bumble bees. Worms still move soil on Darwin’s modest estate, probably at the annual rate he calculated, about “83.7 pounds per square yard”.

Some of Darwin’s experiments can be replicated (e.g. the weed plot experiment illustrates how weeds out compete seedlings), to encourage children to observe, identify, and think laterally and, like Darwin, record every detail in a notebook.

Whether in England or on the Beagle voyage, Darwin’s passion for orchids provided fascinating insights into the interdependence of plant and pollinator. The huge range of plants grown in botanic gardens around the world prompt questions about diversity - most of which Darwin answered in his seminal publication The Origin of Species.


2009 marks the bicentenary of Darwin's birth and 150 years since the publication of On the Origin of Species. This is a year full of opportunities for botanic gardens. The Charles Darwin Trust (CDT) has already developed Darwin Inspired Learning resources for schools and professional development programmes for teachers.

Darwin Inspired Learning draws attention to plants associated with Darwin, ranging from foxgloves and cabbages to tropical orchids. Educational visits during 2009 may be used to emphasise Darwin’s ways of working and establish some of his experiments to develop children’s thinking, argumentation and reasoning skills. Simple experiments that underpin Darwin’s theories can be illustrated both in botanic gardens and at school.

Thinking about key questions

Darwin asked key questions about the distribution and diversity of life on earth based on close observation during the Beagle voyage and in the countryside of Kent. His observations led him to think about plant and animal adaptation and survival. Close observations led to thoughtful questioning and two or three times each day Darwin walked along the Sandwalk (Bromley Borough Council, 2006), his thinking path, pacing along as he thought deeply about his observations and reflecting on conflicting evidence. Botanic gardens could make thinking paths for children on routes away from the general bustle of visitors. To make them think more deeply, they should be asked big questions: why are there so many different plants? How did so many plants come about? Have plants always looked like those we see today?


Motivated to solve plant related problems, Darwin wrote meticulously and at length about his experiments, his methods, his observation and inferences he drew. Then he asked for corroboration from others or for data regarding anomalous evidence from their experiments. He wrote and received hundreds of letters in protracted correspondence ranging across many subjects, including measurement of worm casts and orchid taxonomy, in different parts of the world.

Educators understand the benefits of group work and drawing out knowledge that comes from children’s different experiences. Dividing a plant investigation between groups and ensuring time for a sufficiently long plenary to present findings follows Darwin’s scientific practice and makes plants a focus for vocabulary and scientific language development.

Providing children a means of recording their findings will be important. For each of his research topics, Darwin wrote in a different notebook. He did not fill in worksheets or rely on his memory of field work to write up his findings later. To work like scientists, children need access to notebooks or their contemporary equivalent - digital cameras, hand held computers, MP3 players to record discussions and sounds, digital video to capture plant-insect interdependence and data loggers to record environmental conditions. Most of these functions can be made available on a single device which saves data to a website ready for use in school.

Growing experiments

While Darwin’s garden enabled self sufficiency for a household of about 20 people, it was also his laboratory. His ideas about natural selection began with the artificial selection he saw at horticultural shows. Botanic gardens might emphasise his findings by growing ‘wild’ and known varieties of the crops he grew in his kitchen garden. A keen gooseberries breeder, Darwin cultivated fifty-four varieties, studied reports of gooseberry exhibits and visited county shows. He noted that, in as little as 25 years, champion gooseberries went from the size of a marble to “6½ inches in circumference”. Darwin also grew many varieties of cabbage and bean which provided him with a source of inspiration for reasoning and theorising:

“See how different the leaves of the cabbage are, and how extremely alike the flowers; … how much the fruit of the different kinds of gooseberries differ in size, colour, shape, and hairiness, and yet the flowers present very slight differences.….as a general rule, I cannot doubt that the continued selection of slight variations, either in the leaves, the flowers, or the fruit, will produce races differing from each other chiefly in these characters.”(Darwin, 1859 Chapter 1)

Growing fruits and vegetables in botanic gardens or school grounds would allow children to see what Darwin saw with his magnifying glass because Darwin noticed what previous scientists had overlooked. Closer observation revealed variations in the size, colour or hairiness of the corolla or calyx.


Darwin explored the effects of time. For example, experiments to determine the depth to which earthworms buried chalk and ash took more than 20 years. Children can gain some notion of time passing and the effect on plants if one of Darwin’s shorter, but nonetheless compelling experiments, is replicated.

At Down House, Darwin chose a piece of ground “three feet long and two wide”. He dug and cleared it to prevent choking of new seedlings by other plants. For this weed plot experiment he marked all the seedlings “of our native weeds as they came up, and out of the 357 no less than 295 were destroyed, chiefly by slugs and insects.” (Darwin, 1859). A simple experiment, such as this, encourages children to work systematically, observe closely, identify plants and think laterally. From just five minutes data collection daily they too can theorise about natural selection through predation and Darwin’s notion that:

“the real importance of a large number of eggs or seeds is to make up for much destruction at some period in life; and this period in the great majority of cases is an early one.” (Darwin quoted in Glick & Kohn p167).

Each year a new weed plot can be started and the old plot, if left untouched, can show the process of succession and how plant composition in the plot changes over time. For educational progression and to generate questions, the plot could be mowed or grazed and changes in plant diversity and form observed.

The local environment

The landscape and natural environment was Darwin’s laboratory but botanic gardens can still encourage children to make close observations over the year to understand their local environs. Every year of observation adds to a long term study of local plants and ecosystems. Such strategies and conservation activities were encouraged by the European Union funded PlaSciGardens project (2007) when resources were developed to help children understand the importance of local conservation (

Darwin was fascinated by the structure of orchids and delighted in the study of co-evolution of pollinators. He involved his own children in watching bees and, to fully understand the pollination process, Darwin covered various plants to exclude pollinators. He compared the minimal number of seeds from covered plants with the copious seed produced by those left uncovered. Attracting bees to a public or school garden confronts Health & Safety concerns but educational experiences are a priority when children have to understand human dependence on pollinating insects for food production. Weighing yields of covered and uncovered plants shows children human reliance on insect pollinators.

Inspired learning

Work at CDT has supported children in finding their own answers to self-generated questions by observing closely the local environment and plants in particular. They have time to think and big questions to consider.

If you implement some of these suggestions your way of teaching may alter. The way children react in a botanic garden is likely to change if you abandon worksheets and trust children to record the information that they think is important to the big questions they pose for themselves. You will have to be prepared for children to think the unthinkable and surprise you – just as Darwin shook the world when he put forward his ground breaking theories.



Le jardin de Down House, demeure de Charles Darwin pendant 40 ans, a mis divers sites expérimentaux à sa disposition. À présent entretenu par English Heritage, le jardin rassemble de nombreuses variétés de légumes et de fruits que Darwin aurait connues. La culture de ce type de plantes dans les jardins botaniques apporte une nouvelle dimension à la phytologie pour les groupes scolaires, ainsi que des possibilités d’apprentissage inspiré de Darwin. De nombreuses variétés de groseilles, de framboises, de choux, de pois, de haricots et de pommes de terre poussent dans le jardin potager. Un verger d’anciennes variétés de pommes, de prunes et de poires récemment plantées partage une prairie de fleurs sauvages. Le jardin d’herbes aromatiques attire les pollinisateurs, notamment les abeilles et les bourdons. Les vers remuent toujours la terre de la modeste propriété de Darwin, vraisemblablement à la vitesse annuelle qu’il avait calculée, soit environ « 83,70 livres au yard carré ».

Certaines expériences de Darwin sont reproductibles (par exemple l’expérience du carré de mauvaises herbes démontre comment celles-ci gagnent sur les jeunes plants), afin d’encourager les enfants à observer, identifier, réfléchir en formulant des comparaisons et, comme Darwin, enregistrer chaque détail dans un carnet.

En Angleterre tout comme lors du voyage sur le Beagle, la passion des orchidées de Darwin a été source de données fascinantes sur l’interdépendance entre plantes et pollinisateurs. L’immense variété de plantes cultivées dans les jardins botaniques à travers le monde soulève des questions liées à la diversité, auxquelles Darwin a répondu en grande partie dans sa publication-phare « L’origine des espèces ».


El jardín en Down House, hogar de Charles Darwin durante 40 años, le brindó sitios experimentales. Actualmente manejado por el Patrimonio Británico, el jardín contiene muchas variedades de frutas y vegetales que Darwin conoció. El cultivo de plantas similares en los jardines botánicos presenta una nueva perspectiva de la biología vegetal para los grupos escolares, particularmente el potencial de inspirar el aprendizaje a través de la vida y obra de Darwin. Muchas variedades de frambuesas, zarzamoras, coles, chícharos, frijoles y papas crecen en su jardín. En un prado hay una huerta recién plantada con antiguas variedades de manzana, ciruela y pera creciendo junto con la flora silvestre. El jardín de plantas aromáticas atrae a los polinizadores, especialmente a las abejas y abejorros. Las lombrices presentes aún mueven el suelo de la propiedad de Darwin, probablemente a la velocidad que él calculó de “83.7 libras por yarda cuadrada”.

Algunos de los experimentos de Darwin pueden reproducirse (por ejemplo, en la parcela de malezas puede mostrarse como compiten éstas con las plántulas), para motivar a los niños a observar, identificar, y pensar abiertamente, y al igual que Darwin, anotar cada detalle en su libreta. Ya sea en Inglaterra o a bordo del Beagle, la pasión de Darwin por las orquídeas le permitió fascinantes introspecciones sobre la interdependencia de la planta y el polinizador. La enorme variedad de plantas que crecen en los jardines botánicos del mundo, incitan a cuestionarnos sobre la diversidad; muchos de estos cuestionamientos tienen respuestas en la obra magna de Darwin “El origen de las especies”.

Dr Sue Johnson
Institute of Education (MST)
20 Bedford Way
London WC1 H 0AL