Introducing the Cell Concept with both Animal and Plant Cells: A Historical and Didactic Approach


In France, as well as in several other countries, the cell concept is introduced at school by two juxtaposed drawings, a plant cell and an animal cell. After indicating the didactic obstacles associated with this presentation, this paper focuses on the reasons underlying the persistence of these two prototypes, through three complementary interpretations:

  • A pedagogical one: it was, and it is still today, easy to use onion skin and mouth epithelial cells at school, hence both of these kinds of cells became cell prototypes.

  • A historical one: Schleiden worked on plant cells, and Schwann on animal cells; together they established common features between plant and animal cells (1838).

  • A sociological one: since the emergence of the cell concept (19th century) and until recently, Zoology and Botany were clearly separated research fields.

Today, besides these traditional animal and plant cell prototypes, a general “egg-cell model” is used increasingly to introduce and develop the cell concept.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. Bachelard G (1938) La formation de l’esprit scientifique. Vrin, Paris

    Google Scholar 

  2. Campbell, N.A. & Mathieu, R.: 1995, Biologie, ERPI, Québec (from the 3rd version 1993, Biology, The Benjamin/Cummings Publishing Company, Inc).

  3. Canguilhem G. (1965) La théorie cellulaire’, in La connaissance de la vie. Vrin, Paris. pp. 43–80

    Google Scholar 

  4. Carnoy, J.B.: 1884, La Biologie cellulaire. Étude comparÉe de la cellule dans les deux règnes. O. Doin, Paris/R.Barth, Aix-La-Chapelle

  5. Chevallard Y. (1989) La transposition didactique. Du savoir savant au savoir enseigné. La Pensée Sauvage, Grenoble (France)

    Google Scholar 

  6. Clément, P.: 1988, ‘Le concept de cellule: de la recherche à l’enseignement’. Actes du troisième séminaire francophone de didactique de la biologie, Louvain-la-Neuve, p. 14

  7. Clément P. (1998) La biologie et sa didactique. Dix ans de recherches. Aster (INRP, Paris) 27:57–96

    Google Scholar 

  8. Clément, P.: 2001a, ‘Epistemological, didactical and psychological obstacles: the example of digestion/excretion’. in D. Psilos et al., Science Education in the Knowledge Based Society, ESERA Thessaloniki, vol. 1, 347–349

  9. Clément, P.: 2001b: ‘La recherche en Didactique de la Biologie’, in Didactique de la Biologie: recherches, innovations, formations, Alger: ANEP, 11–28

  10. Clément, P.: 2003a, ‘Situated conceptions and obstacles. The example of digestion/excretion’, in D. Psilos et al. (eds.), Science Education Research in the Knowledge-Based Society, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 89–98

  11. Clément P. (2003b) Didactique de la Biologie: les obstacles aux apprentissages. In: Simoes de Carvalho G. et al. (eds) Saberes e practicas na formaçao de professores e educadores. Ed. FCT Min. da Ciancia e do Ensino Superior, Portugal, pp. 139–154

    Google Scholar 

  12. Clément P., Frissier T., Carvalhs G.: 2003, The structuring influence of first images on the construction of science concepts. An historical and didactic approach. Acts of the 4th ESERA Conference, Noordwijkerhout, the Netherlands: CD.Rom ESERA

  13. Clément P, Savy C. (2003) Dessine ce que tu as dans ta tête. La conceptualisation des os par des enfants de 5 à 11 ans. Acts of ARDIST (Association pour la Recherche en Didactique des Sciences et des Techniques), ENFA, Toulouse, pp. 173–180

  14. Cordier F., Denhière G. (1990) Les connaissances concernant les catégories naturelles. In:Richard J.F., Bonnet C.,Ghiglione R. (eds) Traité de Psychologie cognitive 2. Dunod, Paris, pp. 41–45

    Google Scholar 

  15. Cordier F. (2001) Catégorisation des objets du monde ou catégorisation “naturelle”. Les études dans la tranche d’âge 1/2 – 6 ans. Atelier Ecole d’Hiver Les apprentissages et leurs dysfonctionnements. CNRS / Sciences cognitives, Paris

    Google Scholar 

  16. Duchesneau F. (1987) Genèse de la théorie cellulaire. Vrin, Paris

    Google Scholar 

  17. Duve de C. (1987) Une visite guidée de la cellule vivante. Pour la Science/Belin, Paris (First Edition: 1984, A Guided Tour of the Living Cell), W.H. Freeman & Co, N.Y. & Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  18. Florkin M. (1960) Naissance et déviation de la théorie cellulaire dans l’œuvre de Théodore Schwann. Herman, Paris

    Google Scholar 

  19. Gopnik, A. & Wellman, H.M.: 1998, ‘The theory theory’, in L. Hirschfeld and S. Gelman (eds.), Mapping the Mind. Domain Specificity in Cognition and Culture, Cambridge Univ. Press, 257–293

  20. Harris, A.: 1988, The Birth of the Cell, Yale University Press, New-Haven

  21. Hennegu F. (1896) Leçons sur la cellule. Morphologie et reproduction, Georges Carré, Paris

    Google Scholar 

  22. Host V. (1987) Aperçu sur l’histoire de la théorie cellulaire. In:Giordan A. (eds) Histoire de la Biologie. Lavoisier Tec & Doc, Paris tome, pp. 1–64

    Google Scholar 

  23. Schleiden M.J. (1844) Beiträge zur Botanik Gesammelte Aufsätze. Verlag von Wilh, Engelmann Leipzig

    Google Scholar 

  24. Schwann, Th.: 1839, Mikroskopische Untersuchungen über die übereinstimmung in der Struktur und dem Washstum der Tiere und Pflanzen. Quoted by C. de Duve, 1987, and by V. Host 1987. A French translation of the cell theory of Schwann has been done by M. Lerebouillet, and published in 1942 by Pr. Müller: ‘Recherches microscopiques sur la conformité de structure et d’accroissement des animaux et des plantes’. Annales des Sciences Naturelles, Partie Zoologie, Paris

  25. Virchow, R.: 1861, La pathologie cellulaire. J.B. Baillère & Fils, Paris (2nd ed. translated from German by P. Picard)

Download references


Thanks to everyone who assisted me in finding the documents used for this work: colleagues of the LIRDHIST (Jérôme Fatet, Philippe Jaussaud, Sandie Bernard) and colleagues of different countries: Britta Oerke (Germany), Jurga Turcinaviciene (Lituania), Kai Pata (Estonia), Paul Pace (Malta), Osmo Hanninen (Finlande), Mondher Abrougui (Tunisia), Farida Khammar (Algeria). I also thank Crane Rogers, Sue Tunniclife, Ruth Scheps and Megan Daily for their help in editing the English. This work was supported by the LIRDHIST (Laboratoire Interdisciplinaire de Recherche en Didactique et en Histoire des Sciences et des Techniques, EA 1658, Université Claude Bernard Lyon 1) and the European project “Biology, Health and Environmental Education for better Citizenship” (Specific Targeted Research no. 506015, FP6, Priority 7).

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Pierre Clément.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Clément, P. Introducing the Cell Concept with both Animal and Plant Cells: A Historical and Didactic Approach. Sci Educ 16, 423–440 (2007).

Download citation


  • biology education
  • history of science
  • sociology of science
  • cell concept
  • animal cell
  • plant cell
  • typicality
  • school textbooks
  • didactic obstacles