The Original Question about Value of Naming

Kathie Hodge kh11 at CORNELL.EDU
Mon Jul 22 11:11:20 CDT 1996

Until about 4? years ago, my father, Jerry Hodge (jhodg at,
was principal of Boyne River Natural Science School in Ontario (not very
far from you, Mike!) so he's spent a lot of time helping inner-city kids
learn about nature.  I've been forwarding bits of this discussion to him,
and below are some of his thoughts.  I tend to agree with his point that
teaching the characteristics of groups beats focusing on species.  This way
students are left with a structure into which they can fit new things as
they learn them, rather than a random grab-bag of names.  I always learned
best in that kind of hierarchic way, myself, and I feel much better saying
"that looks like a mushroom in the family Entolomataceae" than "I dunno
what that is."

Kathie T. Hodge
Maintainer, WWW Virtual Library: Mycology
<>  (New URL!)

Jerry Hodge <jhodg at> wrote:
>I have this great difficulty with a focus on scientific names. When the
>great weed specialist, Professor Montgomery, came to Belwood Lodge (1947
>-55) and gave his weed walks (native plant identification tours) and slide
>shows, he tried to get us to think in terms of groups of related plant
>species, like Compositae or "the Primrose Family" with the species names
>always introduced to us in the slide show that evening.  We paid little
>attention to the species names and a lot more attention to the family
>traits he talked about.  We got a sense of order from his work so I don't
>see it as bad teaching to dwell on the names as well as the
>characteristics.  I would side
>with the group that makes each of the plants interesting somehow - special
>uses, interesting characteristics - especially if it could be a family
>characteristic.  The botanical names should be mentioned in passing
>(sometimes the name is interesting in itself) as a kind of system place
>holder, but not be the focus of the exercise.
>Naming is, of course, an important scientific activity in its own right, a
>fundamental one.  Kids of the age at Mono Cliffs (Grades 4-8) are getting
>to develop an interest in classifiying things; classification becomes
>rampant in Grade 7 and 8.  Kids of this age are great collectors and are
>working on their sorting skills all the time.  Lots of teachers take
>advantage of their natural interest in many activities.  Plants are just
>another form of hockey card to many students.  So to work on classifying
>using family characteristics with simple keys and ways of sorting into
>groups is helping them further develop a natural interest most of them have
>already.  Of course, it provides that ready link with the scientific
>community that does the same kind of work.  Prof. Montgomery's greatest
>contribution to me during his visits to my camp was HIM.  He was a real
>live scientist talking to us about his passion. He knew
>what he was talking about and saw it as important. His products were two
>volumes of plant manuals entitled "Weeds" and, I think, "Weeds of Ontario".
>He made an almost photographic impression on me and, like the Boyne River
>and, I am sure, Mono Cliff experiences for many kids, I remember specific
>walks with him out over the fields around Belwood Lake with kids including
>me running up to him with flowers and parts of plants asking, "What do you
>call this?" Once told, they'd scamper off to find another treasure, casting
>the newly identified plant to the ground as they did.  Occasionally Prof.
>Montgomery asked to keep a plant to show all of us that evening and it was
>for those few that we scoured the fields for the smallest, the prettiest
>and thorniest.  We were really there to please Prof Montgomery or in a few
>cases, where kids presented the smallest part of a leaf, to trick him.  He
>took us in stride, showed a genuine interest year after year, and this huge
>eagle of a man with the soft voice gently interested us in the natural
>I remember with great affection your presentation to the guide from the
>Toronto Naturalists one Sunday afternoon in a Don Mills ravine.  "What do
>you call this?", you said, with your eyes sparkling and your muddy little
>hand delicately holding a beautiful little land snail.   Did you mean "what
>is its name?" or "tell me all you know about this".   My guess is you most
>wanted an answer to the latter statement?  I think most kids do.

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