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Pigeon - friend or foe? Children’s understanding of an everyday animal

Dr Sue Dale Tunnicliffe, Dr Carolyn Boulter, Professor Michael Reiss

Institute of Education, University of London, London WC1H 0AL, UK
s.tunnicliffe@ioe.ac.uk , c.boulter@ioe.ac.uk , m.reiss@ioe.ac.uk

Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, Institute of Education, University of London, 5-8 September 2007

Abstract

School science generally assumes that for any scientific issue there is a single valid scientific conception so that alternative conceptions are misconceptions. Personal knowledge and experience from non-scientific domains are disregarded. This ESRC-funded research sought to elicit the understandings that school children in England, aged six years, ten years and fourteen years, held of an animal commonly seen in streets, town centres and gardens, the domestic pigeon (Columba sp.). Twenty four pupils in the south of England in four different schools were interviewed individually and cued into the discussion by the interviewer saying the word, ‘Pigeon’, and asking the pupil to say what they knew about this animal. The interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed. At the end of the fieldwork, the pupils were invited to draw a representation of the pigeon in the natural world. The transcripts were analysed using systems analysis and a schema for human influences which encompasses social and cultural domains. Results showed pupils held not only biological knowledge but also rich social and cultural beliefs and understandings; particular personal experiences in the form of narratives are also revealed and the pedagogical implications are discussed.

Introduction

People are not out of touch with wildlife today although they may only be familiar with organisms living in the environment in which they themselves live their daily lives. Thus, although most people inhabit an urban world, which contains other living organisms, some of which are often encountered in the day-to-day lives of pupils even in the most urban of environments. Children view live animals and identify striking features of their anatomy and behaviour where they are observed, in a zoo or field centre for instance (Tunnicliffe, 2000), and have some knowledge of and experiences in the everyday environment where they live and attend school. Such experience and knowledge is not necessarily gained from formal education (Tunnicliffe & Reiss, 1999). However, pupils are taught in English schools in their science curriculum about basic grouping of organisms ( www.qca.org.uk/2812.html ). Moreover, school science generally assumes that for any scientific issue there is a single valid scientific conception so that alternative conceptions are misconceptions and personal knowledge and experience from a domain other than that of science is disregarded (Reiss et al., 2007).

This ESRC-funded research sought to elicit the understandings that school children, across the range of compulsory schooling in England, held of an animal commonly seen in streets, town centres and gardens, namely the domestic pigeon (Columba sp.). Pigeons are featured in the media through news stories and in children’s books and films, which in turn reflect the complex and multifaceted cultural attitude and understanding of these animals. On the one hand, pigeons have been and are sometimes highly valued. For example, the Dikin Medal is awarded on rare occasions in the UK to non-human animals for bravery. In all, it has been awarded 54 times, with 32 of these being to pigeons. More mundanely, pigeons were often eaten as pigeon pie and kept for food. Although this is not common in England these days, pigeons are still widely kept for racing and showing. On the other hand, pigeons in towns are generally regarded as vermin and, for example, visitors to Trafalgar Square in the heart of London are nowadays exhorted to not feed the birds as they spread disease.

When teachers or researchers ask subjects about their understandings of anything, subjects respond by presenting ‘representations’ (Bruner, 1964). These representations may be words or mathematical symbols, drawings, physical constructions or even gestures or, in the language of Buckley et al. (1997), expressed models – that is, representations of phenomena placed in a public domain. These expressed models are presumed to be generated from mental models, i.e. the personal cognitive representations held by individual subjects. The only way for a researcher to understand a subject’s mental model of a particular phenomenon is by eliciting one or more of their expressed models of that phenomenon.

The defining features observed either in reality or through representations in the media contribute to the mental model, which people hold of a phenomenon. This mental model cannot be directly accessed, however, it may be expressed through a variety of methods such as oral interviewing (Osborne and Gilbert, 1980; Tunnicliffe and Reiss 1999a) gathering written responses using, for example, a drawing or photograph as a probe (Leach et al., 1995), or looking at subjects’ pictorial representations (Gilbert and Boulter, 2000) or by asking the subjects to construct a concept map .

Other approaches include gathering written responses using, for example, a drawing or a program as a probe (Leach et al, 1995) or asking subjects to draw objects (Guichard, 1995;Tunnicliffe and Reiss, 1999; Korma, 2003).

Method

We interviewed pupils in the south of England in four different schools, which were non fee-paying, i.e. state schools. The project was discussed initially with each head teacher who obtained any relevant permissions, which they felt, were needed from governors of the school and parents of the subjects. The pupils were aged six years, ten years and fourteen years, i.e. pupils in year 1, Year 5 and Year 9 respectively.

Each of 24 pupils was individually interviewed outside of their classroom so there was no influence from peers during the interviews. Each pupil was cued into the discussion about the pigeon by the interviewer saying the word ‘pigeon’ and asking the pupil to say what they knew about this animal. The interviews were audio-recorded and the resulting transcripts were transcribed. At the end of the project we revisited the schools and the pupils were asked to draw a representation of the pigeon in the natural world. along with other natural objects which we were also investigating in the overall project and about which we had asked them.

The transcripts were analysed in three ways, Firstly using systems analysis (Boulter & Buckley, 2001) . Secondly m yby a models analysis, which is not reported here and thirdly using a schema for human influences (Boulter et al., submitted), which encompasses social and cultural domains.

By categorising what the children said into biological levels it was hoped that something of the depth of the biological knowledge of children would be revealed. (Table 1). There were six levels in the systems analysis, in descending order: Ecosystem; Community; Population; Organism, organ system or tissue; Cell or organelle; Molecular level.

Table 1

Biological levels used by the children

Biological levels

Definitions and examples

Ecosystem

Communities interacting with one another and the chemical and physical factors of the non-living environment. The flow of energy and cycling of materials in the ecosystem.
E.g. Leaves catch the sun’s energyy . The leaf to make food uses this energy. Pigeons eating food dropped by humans.

Community

Populations of species living and interacting in an area at a particular time.
E.g. Oak tree food web. Groups of animals living together. Flocks of pigeons in Trafalgar Square.

Population

Group of individual organisms of the same species living within a particular area.
E.g. Pigeons in the garden

Organism

A living (or once living) individual of a species.
E.g. a pigeon

Organ system or organ

Tissues grouped together into functional units, which make up systems.
E.g. Beak, heart, eye

Tissue

A group of physically linked cells or related fluids specialised for a particular function.
E.g. Muscle. Blood

Cell or organelle

Basic unit of structure and functioning in an organism or its internal structures. E.g. Muscle cells. Leaf cells. Chloroplasts

Molecule or atom

Smallest unit of chemical elements or combination of two or more atoms of the same or different chemical elements held together by bonds .
E.g. Oxygen. Carbon dioxide

The transcripts were repeatedly re-read and preliminary categories were allowed to arise from the data. As analysis proceeded, these categories were combined, added to and refined, using grounded theory, and the final categories are presented in Figure 1

The six categories of human influences which arose from a read-reread analysis were: Location; Source of knowledge; Feelings; Human influence /action; Personal experience; Cultural influence; Anthropocentric. (Table 2).

Table 2

Definitions for categories for coding of human features analysis analysis.

Feature

Code

Definition

Location

l

Place where the object lives, grows or is found.
Location is often linked to human influence / action (see below) and then would be coded for both.
" Grows on grass", "Seen in the garden", "Walk on the football pitch"

Source of

knowledge

k

Where information had been obtained from.
"My Dad told me", "I watched this video"

Feelings

f

An emotion or emotive opinion.
"It isn’t very nice", "Really cute and cuddly"

Human influence /

action

h

Any activity of humans that affects the natural world
"Pick the flowers", "Cut the grass"

Personal experience

e

Any statement that indicates that the child knows about this from their own first-hand experience.
"Saw one in my garden"

Cultural

c

Words / phrases that indicate a particular culture.
"In India", "In England", "Queen Elizabeth the First sat under this tree"

Anthropocentric

a

Animal or plant influence / effect on humans.
"Poisonous", "It bit me", "Can kill you"

Coding was carried out in the manner shown in the following extract. Each code being written on the transcript which was double-spaced, above the pertinent word or phrase. The words were uttered by a Year 9 girl.

Example a-a for a Bbiological system

Coding      o

Pupil. A pigeon, My parents say they are dirty, with loads of disease on them

Example b -for Human influences

Coding     k      f                a

Pupil. A pigeon, My parents say they are dirty, with loads of disease on them

Each transcript was coded and totals made for each category mentioned for each natural object.

Results

The levels of environmental systems analysis of revealed that the pupils were familiar with this bird, referring to pigeons as living together (i.e. at the population level) though more pupils referred to them as an organism they had seen in their immediate environs, home on the way to school or at school .(Table 3).

Table 3

Number of comments made by pupils regarding pigeons, which referred to the systems.

Probe used: words

Age of interviewees

Categories of levels of environmental systems analysis (Boulter and Buckley, 2001)

N = 24

Eco -system

Comm-unity

Popul-ation

Organ-ism

Organ

Tissue

Cell

Mole-cule

Yr 1

0

0

2

12

10

0

0

0

Yr 5

0

5

5

10

13

0

0

0

Total Primary

0

5

7

22

23

0

0

0

Yr9

0

0

0

14

8

0

0

0

Yr 9

2

0

2

12

13

0

0

0

Total secondary

2

0

2

26

21

0

0

0

Total

2

5

9

48

44

0

0

0

An example of such a reference is this comment from a 6-year-old Boy:

Researcher: What about a pigeon?

Boy: It’s a bird

Researcher: How do you know?

Boy: Because I see them in my garden… and they eat worms…. and they are sort of pink and grey…. and they stand in trees and build nests

Researcher: Where have you seen them?

Boy: In my garden

Researcher: In your garden? Have you seen them anywhere else?

Boy: Er…On the way to schools

Researcher: What on the road or in the trees?

Boy: In the trees.

The salient parts of pigeons were remarked upon by the pupils in that manner that, children do when looking at animals as exhibits (Tunnicliffe et al., 1997). As an example, the boy quoted above had noticed the colour of the organism, Reference to such parts as criterial attributes was important to the children in discussing "pigeon-ness". Indeed, several Year 5 pupils responded to the question of how they know a bird is a pigeon ‘Because it’s got wings and two legs’, "A pigeon is a bird, er. they are quite big and have got er.... grey feathers".

‘It’s a bird, because it its got wings" Some pupils had made first hand observations regarding anatomical features of the birds e.g. A Yr 5 boy reported that they have very short beaks and very pointy beaks so they can pick up their prey and chew them. A short dialogue about teeth and chewing ensued. This comment was an example of assuming that the activities of humans were mirrored by the similar organs of other organisms,. These comments are also examples of humans using the self as the template and reference to explain (Carey, 1985)

When year 9 pupils listed pigeon anatomical features they gave more detail than the younger pupils.

P Pigeon. It’s a bird um.

I How do you know it’s a bird?

P Because its got wings. Um its a bird, its got a thin neck, its got quite a round body,

I Yes indeed…. They've got quite small eyes. Little beady eyes. Um... beady eyes. Um... thin legs and small feet. They are normally white they can have colours I suppose, different shades of grey and black feathery things. They reproduce. They can fly. That's it.’

Behaviours, which children had observed and were cited as part of the essence of being a pigeon. were also commented upon. As one year 5 pupil said," I normally see them flying around the sky in my back garden". Another remarked, "It’s a bird because it flies". A year 9 girl reported that, ". Um when they make a noise its like a too wit too woo sort of noise, a bit like an owl. Um, there are loads of them in London." And another informed us, "They make nests. They like to sit on top of our school roof…they reproduce, they can fly."

The older the pupil, the longer a conversation could last and the less self centred it was if the pupil were interested in the subject t of ‘pigeon". This was not always the case the case and some pupils had apparently little interest or knowledge, in the organism and said very little.

However, responses when made began with at description of anatomical features and move on to behaviours, which often linked with the pest and vermin ideas held by members of the public. Occasionally, as in the following transcript, other aspects of science were mentioned, in the following transcript a physics phenomenon, aerodynamic shape, was mentioned.

Key: R = researcher, G = girl pupil interviwee)

R A pigeon

G Yes They is kind of a grey colour. They have silver and green wings and are shiny. You can get white pigeons

R What is they usually called?

G Doves some you can get like white and grey. erm… what else do I know about pigeons? Erm they are birds they fly

R How do you know they are birds?

G Because they’ve got wings and they fly around

R What else do they have as birds?

G A tail and beak they use them for eating pecking

R What do they eat

G worms they are supposed to but they don’t

R I don’t know I have only ever seen pigeons pecking at grain

G Yes well there’s that lady in London who hands out grain as they fly around

R I’ve never seen a pigeon eating worms what bird would you see?

G Sparrow and Blue tits we’ve got lots in our gradin

R I’ve only seen black birds and starlings eating worms

G Yes they do

R Yes they stand don’t they and make a noise on the ground to kid the worms that it’s raining so the worms come up

G Yes

R Blackbird and starlings never seen sparrows

G Well they just fly to the ground and peck around

R Anything else about pigeons?
G Well they well they are quite aerodynamic so that when they fly they are smooth hum they have got beaks for clinging onto tree branches and claws

That’s about it

Biological information supplied by the pupils was not always accurate. Firstly they showed biological knowledge from their own observations and listed what they regarded as the criterial attributes of ‘pigeonness’ by which they meant birds in general. Such features are beak, colour, wings and legs and older pupils mentioned feathers. These are the features represented in the drawings of the pupils.

We know children explain phenomena in other animals by using the self as their reference (Carey 1985), these pupils extrapolated from their knowledge about themselves or the behaviour of birds about which they knew to the species under consideration. These ideas may be reinforced by cartoons and popular stories; in the above conversation the concept is that all birds eat worms. The pupil above did however know about the behaviour of worm -eating birds in enticing their prey to the surface of the ground.

Pigeons were regarded as urban inhabitants. Children had noticed these animals for themselves in their local town as this year 5 pupils reported," It’s got wings and two legs and likes nicking your food… up town when you go to buy fish and chips. When you drop one they always go running to it!".

Human influences

In terms of human influences, a number of children were familiar with the uses of pigeons in our society such as pigeon racing and had obtained knowledge from their family.

A year 5 boy reported that his dad had kept pigeons, not for racing but for sending notes.

Whereas a Year 1 boy reported," I know all about pigeons ‘coos my granddad’s got them"

Pigeons were regarded as urban inhabitants. A year 5 boy (years old) reported that he also saw them in lots of places in and at football matches in London and they walked on the pitch.

Another year 5 boys reported that he also saw them in lots of places in London such as Trafalgar Square

Table 4

The number of comments related to human influences and pigeons made by the interviewees

 

School 1

School 2

Total primary
N = 12 *

School 3

School 4

Total Secondary
N = 12 *

Total

Location

4

10

14

6

6

12

26

Knowledge

4

11

15

1

5

6

21

Feelings

0

2

2

4

2

6

8

Human Influence

3

11

14

3

7

10

24

Experience

5

5

10

4

1

5

15

Culture

0

2

2

0

3

3

5

Anthropocentric

0

0

0

2

1

3

3

  • More than one comment in any given category may have been made
  • Other human- pigeon interactions were that pigeons ate food scraps in towns, that, "They are quite disease carrying’. The secondary pupils held the perception pigeons were dirty, ‘rats of the air’ was the phrase used by one girl.

    Drawings

    The drawings are products of the drawer’s imagination (Reiss Boulter and Tunnicliffe, 2007) and memory; they are expressed models. (Gilbert and Boulter, 2000) The pigeons drawings, which we are considering, were drawn together with the other eight natural objects, which were the focus of the larger study. The pigeon is represented in several ways and there are a range of ways in which children depict reality (Reiss et al 2007).

    In analysis of the drawings through inspection, the first basis of the analysis was the layout, an exhibit type picture representation with the organisms placed with a relationship to each together presenting where they may be found naturally. For instance, degrees were always drawn coming from the ground where the grass was drawn or r a key-like style with organism drew individually with no link to each other. Secondly we looked at the way in which the pigeon as represented. These were as a symbol ’ V ‘ shape, just an outline of a bird as, an outline with basic features, and an artistic realistic image. Thirdly, we looked at whether the pupils had shown any behaviours of the pigeon in their drawing. Finally, we noted whether more than one pigeon had been drawn and whether another type of bird was included in the drawing.

    Figure 1

    Drawn by a Year 9 pupil , shows the iconic ‘V’ drawn to represent birds as well as an outline drawing of a bird flying.

    In the expressed model of pigeons revealed through the drawings, only solitary birds were drawn. Such a bird was not placed in an urban context in which the children reported seeing the birds for themselves and was shown exhibiting behaviour such as flying, sitting in tree or standing on the ground. Interestingly, while ecology teaching in England stresses food chains and food webs, feeding relationships were not depicted in the drawings.

    One striking conclusion from the research reported here was the importance of myth in the children’s knowledge. The myths that children had about many of the objects had clearly been strongly influenced by books, TV programs and feature films such as Bugs Life and Antz (Walt Disney).

    In this analysis we first consider how the pigeon is depicted, whether the bird presented as part of a drawing, albeit the image drawn may be showing a known behaviour such as walking or flying but with no relationship to another object (Figure 1).

    Table 5

    Analysis of drawings of natural objects one of which was a pigeon 24 pupils some pupils drew several representations

    Feature in drawing

    Year1 (6 years)

    Year 5 (10 years)

    Year 9 (14 years)

    TOTAL

    Drawing black and white

    6

    0

    7

    13

    Drawing in colour

    0

    6

    5

    11

    List drawing

    3

    1

    7

    11

    Exhibit style

    3

    5

    5

    13

    Symbolic representation

       

    2

    2

    Outline

    1

    1

     

    2

    Basic features, beak, legs, body, wings

    1

    6

    10

    17

    Artistic image

       

    1

    1

    Behaviour shown e.g. walking, flying

    7

    8

    17

    32

    One plus drawn

    1

    1

    3

    5

    No bird

    2

         

    Other type of bird e.g. duck

    3

       

    3

    Alternatively the target object is shown as an exhibit type illustration in the manner of a natural history diorama, including all the specimens being studied and shown with some type of relationship between them and portraying their behaviours known to the pupil such as a tree growing upright, grass on the ground near the tree and the bird being portrayed involved in a known behaviour (Tunnicliffe et al. 2004).

    Table 6

    The behaviours shown in the drawings of the pupils.

    Behaviours illustrated

    Year1 (6 years)

    Year 5 (10 years)

    Year 9 (14 years)

    TOTAL

    Walking on ground

    3

    6

    12

    21

    Flying

    2

    1

    5

    8

    Sitting in tree

    2

    1

    0

    3

    Total

    7

    8

    17

    32

    5 drawings had more than one bird,

    1

    1

       

    Several drawings executed by pupils, not in this sample, drew birds pulling up worms.

    Figure 2

    The range of ways in which pigeons were represented

    Such an illustration of behaviour recalled from being told or seen non cartons such behaviour was cited by some children that birds ate worms. Some interviewees mentioned this phenomenon but did not draw it. The iconic representation of a pigeon ranged from a simple "V: symbol (Figure 2) through a basic outline then an outline with more accurate representational drawing showing the criterial attributes which the pupils considered to be those of ‘bird ness’, e.g. two legs, a slightly torpedo shaped body, a beak at the front of the head and wings. Indeed these attributes are those to which the pupils refereed in their interviews as to how they would know a pigeon is a pigeon. Such features and in fact are bird characteristics of the super ordinate category ‘bird’ and not specific to ‘pigeon'. For example, one of the Year 5 pupils said, ‘It has wings, a beak and legs’. Pupils neither mentioned feathers in their list of criterial features nor, with the exception of the artistic rendering (Figure 2) drew them. Two Year 5 pupils used colour. Drawings illustrated basic anatomical defining features such as two wings and legs and feathers and a beak and behaviour such as flying or walking on the ground (or water!!! ) Year 9 pupils executed drawings using colour and were the interviewees who composed more realistic drawings (although by no means did they all). Such a phenomenon was noted by Luquet (2001), who commented that adults are recommitted to visual realism whereas children are proponents of a cerebral analytic process.

    A few drawings showed the bird exhibiting behaviour such as flying, walking on the ground or sitting in a tree. A few drawings provided two levels of interpretation, symbols and basic features (Figure 3).

    Figure 3

    Two levels of interpretation- outline and symbols

    Occasionally an artistic rendering was made as if drawn from life ( Figure 2). Several other 14 year old pupils, not in this targeted sample, drew almost photographic likenesses of a bird in a detailed drawing and making a pictorial composition. We did not interview the pupils with their drawings so were enable to explore certain features such as the object in the two birds drawn in Figure 3 However, several of the pupils talked about pigeon babies and eggs so the circular object drawn in the body of the birds could be those images. A few pupils drew individual drawings of the objects represented in absolute isolation with no context. Except one drew his pigeon next to a pond

    Other drawings placed the objects in rural or gardens setting with some interrelationship between the objects and no buildings ( Reiss, Boulter and Tunnicliffe, 2007). Two of the Year 1 pupils drew 2 birds; one on a tree and one on the ground and two year 5 pupils similarly depicted two birds.

    Figure 4 shows a drawing from a year 1 child with a bird looking rather like Concorde on the ground and another bird possible a representation of a duck walking on the surface of the pond.

    Figure 4

    Two representations of birds in one drawing

    The majority of the Year 9 drawings illustrated the objects separately in the manner of a key. Three 3 drawings were executed as a composition. Several of the birds were depicted artistically in a life like manner. Apart from the year 9 artistic representations the drawings were simple outlines.

    The results show that a study of everyday animals reveals not only biological knowledge but also widespread social and some cultural beliefs and understandings. The systems analysis revealed personal experiences in the form of narrative and important to the speaker as connected with the probe word. Most detail was given about anatomical features of the pigeon such as feathers and beak. The pupils knew that pigeons live on the ground or in trees and could fly. Mainly older pupils were conversant with public undemanding of the pest and vermin role of pigeons in our society. And some pupils had knowledge of the use of pigeons by humans, although the eating of them was not mentioned.

    Discussion

    Children have a considerable knowledge of the living world around immediately them from first-hand observations. From our research, pupils had generally made. These children had made observations and had experiences of many of the objects through activities with their families and through school. School grounds came across as important influences in a number of the interviews (see also Rickson et al., 2004). In research in which children were interviewed in the presence of whole, live plant specimens and preserved, whole, animal specimens (Tunnicliffe & Reiss, 1999; 2000) it was also evident that home influences were most important in providing the children with their understandings of the organisms. The schools described in this paper are in suburban settings and it would be interesting to compare these with results from schools in urban and rural settings.

    Perhaps more attention should be paid to producing school activities that draw on this rich knowledge of how humans interact with the natural world. The revealed importance of gardens and school grounds suggests that teachers should be alert to the interests that many pupils still have in horticulture and gardening. Most pupils described where the pigeon about whom we inquired had been seen and thus could be found. These places were in general places of social interaction for human beings in their everyday lives,, not isolated wildernesses. Thus, parks, gardens, school fields and football pitches and the street or squares in towns, their homes and their immediate neighbourhood. Venues do not need to be to distant ‘pristine’ habitats to be memorable to children. In fact, linking school science with pupils’ memories of local places may be an important way to start to focus on biological learning, either inside the classroom or when planning visits (cf. Simmons, 1994).

    Conclusions

    Educators need to be aware of the separate domains used by learners in interpreting biological phenomena. Moreover, the educator using a key word often introduces pupils to organisms. This use of a word calls up a pupil’s existing mental model, which is not necessarily similar for all the pupils, but may reveal understandings gained from everyday experiences and from children’s media and myths and popular public understanding about in this case a commonly seen animal. (Patterson, A.R. 2007).. Thus, if meaningful learning by pupils is to be constructed, biological concepts cannot be taught in isolation from an awareness and knowledge about other influences, which contribute to a child’s understanding. As children develop they become more involved in feelings and the possible influence s of themselves and other s on their environment

    What is clear from our research is that schooling does not have such a great influence on how children understand objects in the natural environment as perhaps we might think, especially at younger ages. More could learnt by listening to pupils – listening to what they have experienced in their own worlds, what interests them and what aspects of the natural world they have learnt about through the media of books and other vehicles of popular culture. The public understanding of the natural world is worth taking seriously. This should, perhaps, be the basis for teaching for these ideas are the foundations on which teachers have to build.

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    This document was added to the Education-Line database on 15 January 2008