In my time working in the environmental sector, I have spent my duly allotted number of hours pond-dipping and bug hunting. Really, an absolutely inordinate amount of time. Particularly in my formative years in the sector, I seemed to spend every other day trying to stop children from falling into ponds as their designated adult stood by, smiling glibly unawares. I have, it is fair to say, earned my badge as a toad-hunter extraordinaire for the pre-teen audience.
I have also worked extensively with mid-to-late teens. However, there’s a distinct difference. I have never once worked directly with a school or college to provide a focus purely on ecology or wildlife education to this audience. When it comes to teenagers, my given role has traditionally been defined as to herd, occupy, and occasionally punish.
For some reason, as soon as kids hit examinable age – puff, ecological education vanishes. We don’t learn about ‘wildlife’ any more. It’s not important. There’s biology, sure, but that isn’t the same thing. GCSE-level biology is useful, but it’s all chlorophyll and mitochondria. When was the last time you had to write down the chemical equation for photosynthesis? I know I couldn’t and that’s not really ever been an issue, even for someone who works with plants more regularly than 99.94% of the population.
There seems to be some kind of agreement that from age 14 onwards we bog our teenagers down in building blocks and minutiae. When we teach science, we teach the triumvirate of biology, physics and chemistry. Therefore ecology becomes subsumed by biology. It’s ecology’s position within secondary education as the errant, lesser cousin of biology that has contributed a great deal to the public loss of understanding of our natural environment.
When we teach our teenagers biology, we fixate on those building blocks and minutiae. Looking at things on a cellular level, as my GCSE and A-level were almost entirely focused on, is not only reductive, it’s counterproductive. If you want to put a teenager off studying biology – and by extension, ecology – nothing will do it quicker than delving into the cell structure of Xylem and Phloem.
I’m not about to go down the path of saying ‘what’s the point of school? When are our kids ever going to need algebra?’ Oh no. But the idea that ecology – and ‘Wildlife Studies’, as I’ll now phrase it – is a lesser science, a subset within biology only to be given a passing acknowledgement is a poor one, and a risky one to develop.
A kid doesn’t get into Physics – fine, no big deal. Chemistry – so what? People can get by and become perfectly well-adjusted and valued members of society thoroughly hating physics, chemistry and maths. Mainly because they’re pretty impervious to your hatred.
But if all you are taught is of value in the broad church of biology is mitochondrial cell structure, then it is not surprising if our teenagers grow up with a general apathy towards the natural environment as a whole.