It also illustrates that the apparently simple appearance of this food
web diagram disguises a high degree of abstraction of relatively
Superficial reading of the diagram contributed to the similarity with previous findings that elementary-level students applied
linear reasoning (Leach et al., 1996, p. 137), which differs from
the way food webs are designed to be read. As secondary students
continue to see food web relationships as linear rather than systematic (Silva & Maskiewicz, 2016), this remains a current problem for biology teachers.
A useful strategy for teachers is to have students compare food
webs from different habitats and identify the organisms that
occupy equivalent places (niches). This signifies equivalent roles
and ways organisms gain energy for survival. It would lead students to see patterns across ecosystems and help view food webs
as models of the bigger picture of ecosystems as functioning biological systems.
Summary of Implications
Analysis of results provides insights into students’ sense-making
from food webs that have implications for teachers developing
diagram-reading instruction. Due to the limited sample size, the
results can only be viewed as preliminary findings and further
research is obviously needed. This apparently simple food web
contains layers of conceptual information with meaning conveyed
in its structural arrangements and purposeful use of arrows.
Although the food web diagram discussed here might look simple, it is not necessarily straightforward for elementary students
to read. To understand food webs fully requires looking beyond
the macro-level elements to the functional (life-preserving) processes happening at the population level in ecosystems. The diagram can be read superficially without the deeper processing
required for comprehending the science concepts contained. The
view that what an animals “eats” was more salient to elementary-level students than what might get energy from “eating it”
was apparent from my study.
Continuing the Learning
To interpret and understand food webs, at the level of sophistication this specialized diagram was designed for, requires looking
beyond the surface-level elements depicted. Students must consider
the functional (biochemical) processes happening at the individual
organism level as well as extrapolating to the broader-scale, ecological processes at population level. Consequently, the food web is a
science diagram that requires the development of special skills specific to the biology domain (Lowe, 2000; Cheng et al., 2001). The
biological concepts encapsulated in food webs as models of ecosystems are complex.
Some of the difficulties secondary students face in understand-
ing ecological relationships was manifest in my research with ele-
mentary-level students. This suggests that preconceived ideas
counter-intuitive to biological conventions in food web diagrams
are engrained well before students enter high school. This signals
a need for biology teachers to address this problem through
targeted instruction. One of the reasons for the lack of an advanc-
ing learning continuum of important biology concepts is because
students cannot automatically generate the meaning in food web
diagrams. This means secondary teachers need to ensure that their
instructional strategies involving food webs are effective. Teaching
strategies should elicit and build on students’ prior knowledge,
challenge preconceived ideas, and encourage deep rather than
superficial diagram processing.
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THE AMERICAN BIOLOGY TEACHER FOOD WEBS