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Student/Teacher Conflict Regarding Animal
Balcombe, J. (1997) Student/Teacher Conflict Regarding Animal Dissection.
The American Biology Teacher, 59(1), 22-25.
Why Few Students Object Publicly
Reluctance to Offer Alternatives
Validity of Alternatives
In 1993, a medical student at the University of Colorado was compelled to transfer to
another university when she failed a course for refusing to participate in a required
laboratory exercise that involved performing lethal procedures on anesthetized dogs. The
student sued and, in August 1995, was awarded $95,000 from the university, which promised
to establish a review process to accommodate future students who have similar concerns.
Also in 1993, a biology student at the University of Victoria, Canada, studied a live
marine mollusk and released it back to the ocean rather than kill and dissect an animal as
assigned. She wrote an in-depth report on the mollusk that included anatomical
illustrations based on published accounts. In return, she was wrongfully charged with
Plagiarism for copying the illustrations and given a failing grade. A year later, after a
school senate hearing, the plagiarism charge was dropped, but the grade was never adjusted
despite repeated appeals to do so.
The foregoing examples are among the more serious of tens of thousands of dissection-
or vivisection- related conflicts that occur each year in middle schools, high schools and
universities throughout North America (Hepner 1994; Francione & Charlton 1992). The
Dissection Hotline (1-800-922-3764), a nonprofit conflict resolution service for students,
teachers and parents, has received more than 100,000 calls since its inception in 1989.
Four states (New York, Pennsylvania, California and Florida) have enacted laws, and
numerous school boards have adopted policies, declaring that students not be forced to
dissect animals. These are reminders that there continues to be considerable discontent
surrounding dissection (Orlans 1995).
A first step toward resolving conflict is understanding its causes. My aim in this
article is to outline some of the misconceptions and misunderstandings that underlie most
dissection conflicts. By doing this, I hope to help make the dissection issue less
volatile, and one that generates fewer difficulties for students, teachers and
Why Few Students Object Publicly Back to Top
Perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of the animal dissection issue is the number of
students who openly object to the practice. Ask a teacher who dissects, and he or she will
almost invariably report that unsolicited student objections are rare (Offner 1995),
averaging about 3 to 5% of the class population. In fact, the proportion of students with
objections to dissection is much higher. Various surveys in which students were asked
about their views on dissection reveal that much higher percentages, in one case 67%, than
the assumed 3 to 5% do object to doing dissections (Table 1).
|Table 1. Published surveys of
students' attitudes toward dissection and other animal uses in education.
|78% supported student
right to opt out of terminal dog labs.
If given a choice, 32% would not participate in terminal dog labs.
||69% were required to
perform dissections in secondary school.
27% reported having exclusively negative reactions to dissection, while 38% reported both
negative and positive reactions.
|Keith-Spiegel et al.,
|62% felt it would be
unethical for a professor to require them to use electric shock on rats.
|Lord & Moses,
|56% would object to
dissecting an anesthetized live animal.
48% objected to the idea of dissecting a rabbit, 56% to dissecting a cat, 67% to
dissecting a monkey.
|Millett & Lock,
fourteen- and fifteen-year-old students
|73% felt that it is
wrong to breed animals for dissection,
84% felt that alternatives to animal experimentation should be found,
and 38% "would object to any animal material being used for dissection."
The cause of this discrepancy is simply that the majority of students with an objection
never tell their teachers about it. I posit that the main reason for this is that many
school teachers and administrators unwittingly foster an atmosphere that is not open to
ethical concerns from students regarding dissection.
In a majority of courses that include dissection, the dissection exercise is presented
not as an option but as a required part of the course. Also in a majority of cases, the
option to use dissection alternatives, if such an option exists, is not made known to the
student. School boards and teachers frequently claim that their students are
"offered" dissection alternatives. What this usually means is that while the
student may be allowed to use alternatives, he or she is not informed about the choice and
must request it. For example, a 1995 survey by the Maryland State Department of Education
found that all 24 county school systems "offered" alternatives to students who
requested them, but only one county had a written policy mandating that students and/or
their parents be notified of this option. Schools with dissection choice policies that go
unannounced can be likened to restaurants that bake apple pies but exclude them from their
menus; very few diners will request apple pies.
In the above setting, there appears to be little to encourage, and plenty to discourage
students from openly objecting to a dissection exercise. The student faces a number of
risks in taking such a stand. These include the possibility of losing grades, ridicule and
humiliation in front of one's peers, lost time (e.g. as a result of dropping the course),
and feeling compelled to change one's career choice. The average student in this
environment will do the required dissection without open complaint, even if it goes
against ethical convictions.
Given the risks of requesting an alternative, it is not surprising that so few students
go public with their objections to animal dissection. Teachers must realize that a paucity
of complaints about dissection does not necessarily represent a lack of objection to it.
Reluctance To Offer Alternatives Back to Top
Why are so few students told that they may elect to use an alternative to dissection?
Teachers may be concerned that they will lose power to determine course content if
students are given a choice. For several reasons, that concern is largely unfounded.
First, allowing students a choice entails minimal infringement on academic freedom.
Teachers are forbidden nothing; they simply add an optional procedure for some students
(Shapiro 1988). Second, there is value in providing students a choice in how they pursue
an assignment, because doing so encourages students to think for themselves and to take
responsibility for their own actions. Conscientious objectors exhibit concern and
reflection, qualities to be lauded. Yet, objection to dissection is often viewed as
rebellious. Third, choice occurs regularly in the classroom when students are allowed to
choose a topic for a science fair project or a subject or medium for an art assignment. If
allowing the student a choice is palatable in such cases, it should be no less so for the
study of animal anatomy (Downie & Meadows 1995), provided the alternative learning
options are effective (see below) .
Another possible barrier to the adoption of alternatives may be a reluctance to
acknowledge that dissection presents an ethical problem. Most secondary and post-secondary
teachers agree that raising ethical issues for classroom discussion is a healthy process
(Nichols 1995). However, despite the frequency of its use, dissection is rarely broached
as an ethical issue by teachers who employ it, despite the benefits of doing so
1993; Downie & Meadows 1995), and at least one dissection expert specifically
discourages such discussion (Schrock 1990). The value of including ethical discussions and
encouraging critical thinking with students has been affirmed by individuals representing
the full spectrum of viewpoints on dissection (Rowan & Weer 1993). The teacher might
best take the role of discussion facilitator and allow students to formulate their own
positions on an issue, but he/she should not be surprised by, nor penalize, students who
take positions contrary to the establishment view (Rowan & Weer 1993).
The cost of alternatives is sometimes used to defend the continuation of animal
dissections. The harsh realities of school budgets cannot be taken lightly, but there are
at least two valid rejoinders to this argument. First, alternatives need not be expensive.
For example, an inexpensive yet highly instructive method for learning animal anatomy is
to build a complete model of the animal--insides and outsides--from clay (The Humane
Society of the United States (The HSUS), 1995). Second, ordering animal specimens is a
significant expense in itself (Kline 1995), and one that must be incurred at least yearly.
Unlike dissection specimens, which are used only once then discarded, alternatives can be
used repeatedly, giving them a long-term economic edge. Many alternatives are also
available as temporary free "previews" from the companies that produce them, or
on loan from various animal protection groups (e.g. The HSUS; The National
Anti-Vivisection Society; Ethical Science Education Coalition).
Validity of Alternatives Back
Perhaps the most common basis of reluctance among biology teachers to offer dissection
alternatives is a perception that such alternatives are inferior to dissection. The
National Association of Biology Teachers (1995) takes this view in its position statement
titled "The Use of Animals in Biology Education," which states: "No
alternative can substitute for the actual experience of dissection or other use of
animals," and "urges teachers to be aware of the limitations of
alternatives." Yet, as Sapontzis (1995, p. 184) asks rhetorically: "Has anyone
ever done a study showing that factual knowledge gained through alternatives to dissection
is incomplete and unappreciated?" On the contrary, there is a considerable and
growing body of published evidence indicating that alternatives are at least as good as,
and in some cases perhaps better, than dissection for acquiring knowledge of animal
anatomy. Table 2 presents a sampling of published studies; a more complete list is
available from The HSUS .
|Table 2. Published studies
evaluating the effectiveness of alternatives to dissection and related exercises.
|Dewhurst et al., 1994
||Six students working
independently using a computer-assisted learning program achieved equal knowledge gain, at
one-fifth the cost, as did eight supervised students using freshly killed rats.
|Downie & Meadows,
examination results of 308 students who studied model rats were the same as those of 2,605
students who performed rat dissections.
|Greenfield et al.,
||Surgical skills were
evaluated following training with dogs and cats, or soft-tissue organ models; performance
of each group was equivalent.
|Jones et al., 1978
||100 freshman medical
of students using films, computer assisted instruction and prosected human cadavers were
equivalent to those of students taught using a traditional lecture-dissection program.
|Samsel et al., 1994
||110 medical students
||Students used both
computer demonstrations and animal (dog) demonstrations, and rated the former higher for
learning cardiovascular physiology.
Some readers may object that merely "acquiring factual knowledge of animal
anatomy" is not what dissection is all about, and that there can be no replacement
for the sight, touch and smell of an animal. But they will also know that the rubbery
texture, discolored appearance, and powerful chemical odor of animals preserved for weeks
or months in formaldehyde doesn't replace the sight, touch and smell of an animal, either.
For the teacher who feels that such experiences are indispensable, I recommend taking
groups of students to a local veterinary clinic, where they can see the insides of
unpreserved, living animals (HSUS). I have found this to be an exciting, eye-opening
What constitutes a viable alternative for students with ethically based objections to
dissection? Many students complain that when they raise their objections, their
instructors tell them they may watch a dissection without having to do any of the cutting.
This is not an acceptable alternative for the conscientious objector, any more than would
be attending a rodeo, in lieu of actually performing in it, for someone who opposes
rodeos. If the student's objection was based on squeamishness, exemption from having to
wield the tools might be helpful. However, in my experience with being consulted by
several hundred students not wishing to dissect, I don't know of a single case where
squeamishness has been the basis of the objection. Once again, a better grounding in
ethics (based on classroom discussion) would help clarify the squeamishness/ethics
A bonafide dissection alternative is one that will involve no contact, either direct or
indirect, with the animals obtained by the school for dissection purposes. The broad
diversity of alternatives available to today's teacher and student is illustrated by the
Norwegian Inventory of Audiovisuals (NORINA), a database that currently lists more than
3500 alternatives to the use of animals in education (Smith et al. 1994).
Conclusion Back to Top
It is laudable that a majority of biology teachers and policy makers in America today
support choice for students regarding dissection. It is a crucial shortcoming, however,
that students (and their parents) are routinely not given prior notification of this
choice. As Downie and Meadows (1995) demonstrate, there is little to criticize and much to
recommend the adoption of openly declared dissection choice policies. Such policies would
go far to ease the conflict and tension that currently accompany the dissection issue.
References Back to Top
Bennett, J. (1994). New survey shows Colorado students want a choice,
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Bowd, A.D. (1993). Dissection as an instructional technique in secondary science:
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Reprinted by permission of The American Biology Teachers Association (NABT).