By Andrew G Gosler and Stephen M Tilling.
There is a widespread concern that young people know less about nature than previous generations did at a similar age. Evidence for this decline has come from numerous studies and anecdotes, which have focused on the lack of specific knowledge, such as an ability to identify kinds of plants or animals. Such studies fail to address the deeper root of the concern, which is that the decline in knowledge suggests that nature is no longer relevant in people’s lives.
To understand this further therefore we assessed people’s awareness of nature, what we call nature’s ‘salience’, rather than their specific knowledge of it. Over two years, we asked 149 18-19 year-old British-resident biology students to fill out a questionnaire prior to participating in a field-course. Students were asked to provide names of any five wild species (kinds) of birds, trees, butterflies, mammals and wildflowers, and whether they were native or introduced. We also collected information on the students’ background, education and sources of knowledge.
We found that although most students could name five British birds, their best-known group, only about half could name them at species level (for example, the species ‘mallard’ rather than group ‘duck’). For butterflies, their least-known group, few could correctly name five British species, and about half couldn’t name any. Whilst knowledgeable students were more likely to be self-motivated, we found that those who named more species overall were more likely to have learned about nature from members of their family than from schoolteachers. However, whether students had been raised in the town or country made an important difference to the ways in which family, teachers and other factors influenced their knowledge. Teachers were especially important for those growing up in an urban area. Birds played a key role. Students who knew about birds were more likely to know plants and other animals, and their overall knowledge was reflected by the birds they chose to name: knowledgeable students were more likely to name rarer birds, and to have native species as their favourite birds.
Our findings indicate the complexity of influences on nature’s salience for young people, which should be born in mind when considering the role of formal education in raising environmental awareness.