03 September 2009

Snakes in the minds of Turkish students

Ekoloji is a journal of environmental studies published in Turkey since 1991. For the past several years, the journal has been an open-access online publication with papers either in English or Turkish.

One of the recent papers is about the results of a survey concerning snakes done in several elementary schools in Turkey (Oluk, 2009). The study subjects were 7th grade—in the Turkish educational system 13-year old—students. There were 423 of them, composed of approximately equal numbers of boys and girls.

The participants were asked to reply to several questions about both biological and cultural aspects of snakes. The paper presents the questions and the summary responses in several tables. I have selected the ones I thought were especially interesting and am giving them here in one table. The answers are in percentages.

QuestionYesNoDon't know
All snakes are poisonous85.64.79.5
Snakes inject venom with their tongues43.044.412.5
Snakes can swallow frogs67.615.416.8
Snakes eat grass7.677.115.4
Snakes in Turkey can swallow a person15.458.425.8
Snakes are invertebrates652213
Snakes are reptiles83.212.34.5
Earthworms are small snakes41.44018.7
Angry snakes may run after people53.426.619.9
A snake may enter a sleeping person's mouth and settle in the stomach29.644.426.0
A snake may hold a grudge against a person who has killed its mate37.834.827.4

Although most kids' knowledge of snakes' diet was accurate, when it came to the classification of snakes, many were confused. A part of the problem may be the Turkish word for reptile, sürüngen, which literally means something that crawls. Thus, it is perhaps not too surprising that since most invertebrates, like earthworms, crawl on their bellies, they are as a group confused with snakes, or snakes are confused with them.

The responses to the culturally oriented questions probably represent ancient misconceptions that have been passed on by word of mouth. They are often accepted without questioning, because an adult or one's peers may have said so.

The responses to the question regarding the information sources of the students help explain the origin of some of their misinformation. The category "TV, movies, cartoons" was the source for 88.5% of the students, while 39.8% specified documentaries. Encyclopedias were used only by 19.7% and magazines by 16.9%. Curiously, Internet was not one of the choices. The paper doesn't state when the survey was done; it's possible that it dates to a period before the Internet became a major source of information at least for those with access to it.

The author blames the overall unsatisfactory performance of the students in the survey partly on the inadequate school programs and their text books. I can think of one other possible underlying factor. Many of these kids, especially if they have spent their lives in urban areas, may have never seen a live snake, especially in the wild. Besides, there aren't very many zoos in Turkey. To many of the students, snakes are somewhat mythical creatures that they learn about mostly in non-educational settings.

OLUK, S. 2009. İlköğretim 7. Sınıf Öğrencilerinde Yılanlarla İlgili Alternatif Kavramlar ve Yaygın İnanışlar / Alternative Concepts and Widespread Beliefs Among 7th Grade Students Related to Snakes. Ekoloji 70: 47-56. [Turkish with English abstract] pdf

1 comment:

Aluajala said...

I guess if people have never seen a live snake but lots of movies where they're depicted as evil-man-eating-things they may misconceive snakes' behavior. But I thought there's some common knowledge too. I've only seen a snake a couple of times too but I know how to tell a poisonous one from say a grass-snake because I used to have some books with stories about nature when I was a kid. So perhaps there's something wrong with education too.