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Dawn Sanders tackles a global pandemic: plant blindness

There’s none so blind as those who will not see, and plants suffer much more than their fair share from this blindness!

It is high time then, for Dr M to introduce this botanical selfie by Dawn Sanders as she embarks on an important research project investigating the global pandemic called “plant blindness”.

Plant blindness is both fascinating (why is plant blindness so prevalent?) and worrying (what can be done about it?).

If there is a cure for plant blindness then Dawn Sanders and her colleagues will uncover it!

Over to Dawn:


I am… Dawn Sanders, a botanical educator and researcher.

I got into botany… through gardening from 3 years old.

I studied botany… as part of my ecology and conservation studies at Birkbeck College, University of London.

I have worked with plants… in parks, gardens and botanical gardens. My PhD (Sussex University, Geography Department, 2004) examined botanic gardens as learning environments.

My research area… Beyond “Plant Blindness”: Seeing the importance of plants for a sustainable world.

Humans are becoming an urban species. Living in megalopolitan cities reduces intimate contact with the natural world thus placing greater emphasis on ‘presented nature’ settings, such as zoos, botanic gardens and natural history museums.

Botanic gardens provide opportunities for aesthetic interactions with the plant world, however, previous research has demonstrated that ‘plant blindness’ – the inability to see or notice the plants in one’s own environment (Wandersee and Schussler, 2001) inhibits human perceptions of plants.

Increased extinction levels (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005) mean the world can no longer afford our citizens to see ‘nothing’ when they look at plants which form and underpin the basis of most life on earth.

Despite the key educational role, identified in the global plant conservation strategy 2011- 2020, botanic gardens have received limited research attention.

In the Swedish context, the education system should provide students with knowledge about nature, the environment and sustainable development (Swedish National Agency for Education, 2011).

Given the critical role of plants in ecosystem resilience (Folke et al, 2004) it is imperative to motivate teaching and learning that can move beyond ‘plant blindness’ towards experiences in which teachers and learners see the importance of plants for a sustainable world.

A recent survey by Wilson and Mant (2011) concludes that the best science teachers use a broad repertoire of stories, metaphors, analogies and models to translate their scientific knowledge and make it comprehensible to their students.

Similarly, multimodal approaches to teaching and learning science have been shown to be effective in engaging students (Ainsworth et al, 2011). Furthermore, Bell (1997) has framed natural history as the possibility of a ‘fully-embodied participation in the non-human world’.

These findings suggest that multimodal and sensory experiences in ‘presented nature’ settings might create shifts away from plant-blindness towards reading the importance of plants.

Our main purpose with this research proposal is to investigate teaching and learning experiences that move beyond ‘plant blindness’. In order to conduct this investigation we have created the following hypothesis:

Multimodal and sensoric experiences in ‘presented nature’ environments, such as botanic gardens and science centres, might create shifts in perception away from ‘plant blindness’ towards seeing the importance of plants for a sustainable world.

To test this hypothesis we will investigate two ‘presented nature’ settings (Braund and Reiss, 2006):

  • Setting One: an indoor multi-level tropical rainforest containing plants and animals (Universeum Science Centre, Gothenburg)
  • Setting Two: a botanic garden with glasshouse and outdoor plant collections (Gothenburg Botanic Garden)


Design and Methods

We are taking a multi-disciplinary approach to our investigation:

The botanical scientist, Bente Eriksen Molau and the artist, Bryndis Snæbjörnsdóttir will create multimodal installation narratives in setting one and setting two.The work will be installation based, using objects, text, photography and video.

The subject didactics specialists, Dawn Sanders and Eva Nyberg, will work in dialogue with, the botanical scientist and the artist to frame the interventions as learning engagements.

The botanical scientist, Bente Eriksen Molau will work with six plant-based narrative strands or storylines:

  1. Plant reproduction;
  2. Longevity, life cycle;
  3. Plant defences, including cell altruism;
  4. Competition;
  5. Symbiosis between plants and other species; and
  6. Facilitative interactions.

The artist Bryndis Snæbjörnsdóttir will look at perceptual readings and evaluations arising (or not) from inter-specific contact between humans and plants. Her art practice sets out to challenge anthropocentric systems and thinking that sanction loss through representation of the other, proposing instead, alternative tropes or ‘parities in meeting’


The research questions are:

Pre-multimodal Installations: (1) What impacts do presented nature settings, (a) with animals, and (b) without animals, have on plant-based learning experiences?

Post-multimodal Installations: (2) How might visitor experiences offered in presented nature settings create shifts in perception away from ‘plant blindness’?

  • How might plant-based sensory experiences influence human perceptions of plants?
  • How might story-based scientific narratives concerning individual plants impact on ‘plant blindness’ in teaching and learning situations?
  • Is it possible, by ’looking through an artistic lens’, to appreciate/identify plants in new ways?

The research will be conducted over a three-year period starting from January 2015.

A four-year associated PhD position will investigate related questions.

The plan is to publish in a range of journals and aim to publish a book both drawing on our findings and a wide range of interdisciplinary authors interested in ‘plant blindness’.

The biggest challenge for botany today… Humanity moving beyond “Plant Blindness” and seeing the importance of plants for a sustainable world.

My favourite plant… The Round-leaved Sundew Drosera rotundifolia.

My botanical superhero and heroine… Charles Darwin and Mary Treat for their passionate and extensive examinations of carnivorous plants.

gardens for learning

My web presence … 

Twitter: @dawngarden

Academic website: Göteborgs Universitet, Sweden

Website: www.gardensforlearning.com


Ainsworth, S., Prain, V., & Tytler, R. (2011). Drawing to Learn in Science. Science Education, 333, 1096-1097.

Bell, A. (1997). Natural History From a Learner’s Perspective. Canadian Journal of Environmental Education, 2, 132-144, spring.

Braund, M. and Reiss, M. (2006) Towards a more authentic science curriculum: the contribution of out-of-school learning. International Journal of Science Education, 28 (12), 1373-1388.

Carl Folke,C., Carpenter, S., Walker, B., Scheffer, M., Elmqvist,T., Gunderson, L., and Holling, C.S. 2005. Regime shifts, resilience, and biodiversity in ecosystem management. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics, 35: 557-581.

Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. (2005). Ecosystems and Human Well-being: Biodiversity Synthesis. World Resources Institute, Washington, DC.

Swedish National Agency for Education (2011:1). Curriculum for the compulsory school, preschool class and the leisure-time centre 2011

Wandersee, J.H., & Schussler, E.E. (2001). Toward a Theory of Plant Blindness. Plant Science Bulletin, 47(1): 2-9.

Wilson, H. and Mant, J. (2011). What makes an exemplary teacher of science? The teachers’ perspective. School Science review, 93(343), 115-119.



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