For centuries, animals have been used as models to aid in teaching about the human body. Since there were no alternatives in previous generations, students needed to cut open the animals to expose and examine the internal organs. For the past several decades, however, it has been recognized that the outdated “look-cut-draw-label-memorize” approach does not encourage serious scientific inquiry. The advancement of new technology has now led to other, more advanced methods and to new discoveries about how the method of study influences students.
Numerous published surveys show that student concern about the use of animals in dissection is far higher than is borne out by student protest in the classroom. Students often feel they have no choice; speaking out against a technique that a teacher obviously favours requires a great deal of courage. One recent study found that significantly more students raised concerns about doing classroom experiments on animals if their teachers were also concerned than if teachers had not expressed concerns.
Other studies have attributed students’ negative behaviours in biology labs (carrying around organs to ‘gross out’ others in the class, mutilating the specimens, etc.) to coping strategies for dealing with their feelings about performing dissections. Students who do not feel safe expressing their objections to the assigned task may feel they have no other way to express themselves.
Alienation from Science
Many students who have had no choice but to perform dissections choose to advance to other fields of study – more so than those who are given a choice of methods. Only some students will advance to further studies in any particular subject; teachers need to teach to all students, not just those who express a keen interest.
Teaching to Care
Teachers need to be sensitive to the feelings of their students, especially at a stage in their lives when young people are forming their personal moral codes. For instance, “squeamishness” is often perceived as a weakness, and not viewed as an appropriate reason for a student to be excused from a dissection exercise. However, through their “squeamishness” students may actually be expressing their objection to dissection or compassion for another living creature. They deserve to have their feelings and opinions acknowledged and taken seriously.
Pedagogical merit of alternatives
Learn more about how alternatives compare to dissection