Are we too late to save Natural History? The demise of Natural History training in schools and universities

For some years now I have sounded off about my concerns over the loss of entomological expertise and teaching (Leather, 2007, 2009ab). My former colleague Donald Quicke and I have also written about the demise of natural history teaching in secondary and tertiary education (Leather & Quicke, 2009, 2010). More recently, I have been following a debate on Ecolog about the lack of field-based natural history teaching in the USA, with many contributors lamenting the decline of teaching in this area due to the over-emphasis placed on teaching molecular biology and allied subjects. Interestingly enough, at about the same time, Jeremy Fox addressed a similar issue about natural history knowledge in academic ecologists and concluded that there was not as much of a problem as many people thought

Terry McGlynn however, is much less sanguine and perceives a real problem with not just the teaching of the subject, but of the willingness of students to engage with those courses still available.

In the UK the decline in teaching whole organism biology in general at secondary school and undergraduate level has become ever more pronounced. Biology teaching at research intensive university has become increasingly cell and molecular biased as whole organism biologists retire and are replaced by cell and molecular biologists publishing in ‘high impact’ journals; the needs of teaching are perceived as secondary, research profiles are seen as more important. As a consequence, many biology degrees in the UK lack balance, and content is largely dependent on what those staff still willing to teach, are able to offer. We thus have zoology degrees where whole organisms are largely absent and the invertebrates are covered in perhaps as few as twelve lectures. We also see ecology degrees lacking physiology; how can you understand an ecosystem if you don’t know how the constituent parts work?

I have not been alone in bemoaning the status of natural history knowledge and training; in 2005, Anne Bebbington of the Field Studies Council wrote

At secondary level the decrease in the importance of whole organism biology in the curriculum, declining opportunities for fieldwork and the concentration of A-level fieldwork on techniques and course assessment allow little time for training in identification skills. Many A-level students feel that being able to recognise and name organisms is not important. In teaching students to be responsible citizens and to care about their environment, a knowledge of at least the common organisms around them is vital. Initiatives are needed to engage the interest of primary school children and to provide more opportunities for fieldwork at secondary level, including time to teach students to recognise organisms. Training for teachers would be valuable and the role of organisations outside formal education in educating the wider public is also recognised.”

Five years later, Donald Quicke and I (Leather & Quicke, 2010) wrote “The great majority of those now studying for degrees in biology have had virtually no training or experience in identifying organisms, and sadly, the drive towards ever more molecular and hands-off meta-analysis type study in universities is exacerbating the situation. Although students may be enthused on a two-week long field course and get to learn to recognise a few major groups or species, without back-up, just as with use of statistics, for example, this will have little, if any, long term retention in their skill set.”

We are now almost five years on from these words and worryingly, things, despite all the citizen science activities that seem to spring up every week and the popularity of natural history apps and programmes like Springwatch, have actually got worse and not just in the UK (Tewksbury et al., 2014)*.

The problem we face is that although there are still many people interested in natural history per se, there is a declining number of opportunities for people to be academically trained in the disciplines associated with its study. Thus fewer biology teachers with these skills are employed and opportunities for enhancing (or subverting as some might see it) the rigid school curriculum at present enforced in secondary schools are becoming fewer too. The good work done in some primary schools by dedicated teachers and outreach specialists such as Minibeast Mayhem are not reinforced at secondary school and thus fewer students want to go on to pursue such studies, or are even aware that such study is possible. At undergraduate level, we find very little whole organism teaching in both the field and laboratory. How many zoology degrees in the UK now expose their students to functional morphology; for example, examining and drawing skulls in able to understand the evolution of reptilian jaw bones to mammalian auditory bones; something that even I, as an invertebrate zoologist, was ‘forced’ to do? I was pleasantly surprised during my recent visit to University College Dublin as the external examiner for their BSc Zoology degree, to find that at least some zoology courses do still retain many of the essential whole organism elements required to fully understand animal form and function.

What are we doing about these lost skills? The UK Plant Sciences Federation recently (January 2014) released a detailed report where they highlighted areas where the UK is desperately short of expertise and training; much to my gratification this included entomology as a key subject area 😉 They have, since the release of this report, set up a number of working groups, one of which, Training and Skills, I have agreed to chair. Our first meeting is in July and we will report back at the end of September, hopefully with some concrete and workable suggestions. The Field Studies Council, as you might expect, are also very much concerned about the situation and thanks to a recent grant from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation have been able to initiate a programme called Tomorrow’s Biodiversity which has the aim of facilitating the recording of biodiversity by getting more people trained in identification skills, particularly in the less well-known taxa.

The problem as I see it, lies in the lack of formal natural history training and teaching at undergraduate level. This has been brought about by the failure of university departments to understand the importance of whole organism biology and a tendency to recruit staff according to the funding fashion of the moment, rather than considering the big picture and recruiting across the specialities. We need to balance the teaching and research staff within our university departments so that we produce a viable population of graduate whole organism biologists, be they zoologists, botanists, or ecologists, who are able to recognise the plants and animals that surround them and not just a few ‘model organisms’ and also to understand how they function within that environment. We also need to look seriously at our pre-university biology teaching and increase the amount of whole organism and field content in both pre- and post-16 teaching. There are many opportunities to do this even in genetics. For example in ‘O’ Level Biology our teacher took us outside to search for and collect the snail Cepea nemoralis, famous for its variation in shell colour which is genetically controlled and which is selected for by the degree of predation that populations in different environments suffer from thrushes (Cain & Sheppard, 1954).  There are many such opportunities but only if the teachers know about them and are willing and able to take them.

Pink Cepaea_nemoralis

  Yellow Cepaea_nemoralis_(Linnaeus_1758)

An afternoon outside taught us genetics, ecology and plenty of natural history. I feel privileged and thankful that I was able to spend so much of my childhood outside in the natural

Simon Jamaica c 1963

world and hope that we can at least give the current generation of young people the opportunity to enjoy and understand the importance of the natural world around them before it is too late.


Bebbington, A. (2005) The ability of A-level students to name plants. Journal of Biological Education 39: 63-67.

Cain, A.J. & Sheppard, P.M. (1954) Natural selection in Cepaea. Genetics, 39, 89-116

Leather, S. R. (2007). British entomology in terminal decline? Antenna 31: 192-193.

Leather, S. R. (2009a). Taxonomic chauvinism threatens the future of entomology. Biologist 56: 10-13.

Leather, S. R. (2009b). Institutional vertebratism threatens UK food security. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 24: 413-414.

Leather, S. R. & Quicke, D. L. J. (2009). Where would Darwin have been without taxonomy? Journal of Biological Education 43: 51-52.

Leather, S. R. & Quicke, D. L. J. (2010). Do shifting baselines in natural history knowledge threaten the environment? Environmentalist 30: 1-2.

Tewksbury, J.J. et al. (2014) Natural History’s place in science and society. Bioscience 64: 300-310

*Slightly tongue in cheek, I must point out that the authors failed to cite any of my papers concerning the decline of natural history teaching 😉




Filed under Bugbears, Teaching matters, Uncategorized

6 responses to “Are we too late to save Natural History? The demise of Natural History training in schools and universities

  1. Simon, you are absolutely right to be concerned. There is a natural history skills extinction vortex where declining audience reduces the ability of institutions to offer training, in turn further reducing the audience. I’ve been working hard with local schools to try to engage KS1 and 2 students with biodiversity by offering free tours of our tropical glasshouse with lots of hands-on experiences of plants to try to get youngsters back to the idea they can physically interact with nature and not just watch it on the computer. Smelling fresh leaves of Grains of Paradise and tasting freshly cut sugar cane is something you can’t get from a book or screen – e.g. My hope is that a few of those children will remeber the experience and develop at least an appreciation of the value of natural history.


    • Yes indeed – I think that we are at a hugely crucial moment in time for this and other key skills areas. Integrated Pest Management for example – huge skills shortage – industry crying out for graduates, yet because so few of undergraduates exposed to concept, even though grants available for people to do MSc course, applications very low – yet graduates guaranteed a job in very worthwhile area, immensely more important than doing an ecology or conservation MSc (where careers extremely limited and jobs at a premium); in fact as I have written before, to be an IPMer you need to be an ecologist, a natural historian, understand how agriculture and forestry work, have a pragmatic approach to problem solving and have a good dollop of common sense.


  2. I’m unfortunately a bit of a poster child for how right you are on this, Simon. My otherwise excellent school had a natural history club only as an extra-curricular, and from memory the only teaching on identification of organisms was on a very short field course during my undergraduate degree. As a result, I’m a very poor natural historian – something I really regret! I think as well as the general swerve away from whole-organism and field-based science, the pressure to specialise and publish has influenced this trajectory in my life. Improving my natural history knowledge will, for now, have to be a hobby and not part of my career.


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