Time To Rethink Dissection In Schools
Time To Rethink Dissection In Schools
Thousands of earthworms, clams, starfish, frogs, fetal pigs, mice, cats, mink, squid and perch are dissected each year in middle schools and high schools. This is the way it has been done since the 1920s and many believe this is the way it should continue to be done. Most of these specimens are grown in a laboratory, farm or breeding center specifically for the purpose of school dissection but some are collected from natural habitats.
The question is, should this practice continue or is it outdated and unnecessary?
Image source: Virtual Pig Dissection, an excellent alternative resource for student dissection.
This page was made for charity. All proceeds will be donated to The Wild Animal Sanctuary a 320 acre sanctuary where Large Carnivores - the species that face euthanization more than any other exotic animal - are protected or the rest of their lives. For more information on the captive wildlife crisis and why sanctuaries such as the Wild Animal Sanctuary are so important, please go here.
I teach high school biology and all students coming into the class assume we will be dissecting something. I have had my students in the past dissect clams, starfish, fish, earthworms, rats, fetal pigs and cow eyeballs.
Why did we dissect? Truthfully, we dissected not because it was a critical component of learning the material, because truthfully it is not, nor because it is a critical component of the state standards, because it is not, but because it was expected by students, parents, other teachers and administrators. Its always been done in biology class and therefore it shall continue to be done, everyone does it and you should too.
Intiially there is novelty and engagement as students have a preserved animal in front of them. Many would argue that it is an excellent hands on laboratory experience, but there are so many excellent hands on laboratory experiences available today, in all different aspects of the biological sciences, that this is a weak argument at best.
I have personally decided that these reasons are not good enough reasons for me to continue to dissect in the classroom, especially when viable alternatives exist and I have moved away from it. Many universities are moving away from dissection in the classroom as well.
Below are my concerns with dissection in the classroom.
Dissection Is A Weak Learning Tool
I have taken part in many dissections over the course of my teaching career and have observed many different reactions from students. The students are usually engaged at the start of the dissection as it is novel to have a preserved animal in front of them. Once this novelty wears off, they get tired of the experience, complain about the smell, and learn more from the pictures in the lab manual as they are clearer and easier to identify, than from the actual animal in front of them. During dissection, they search for individual internal structures that they are expected to find and memorize, this is the lowest level of learning on Bloom’s learning taxonomy.
Dissection is not an integral part of the biology learning essentials or the Colorado High School standards, the state in which I teach. It is also not in the index or glossary of the text we use in class. Dissection is just one tool that can be used to teach the concepts or anatomy and physiology, many other viable alternatives exist (see below) and can be used as effectively or more effectively than dissection.
Find Excellent Anatomy Resources Here
The Source of The Animals Used In Dissection Is Uncertain
We should be able to verify and communicate to the students we teach the origin of the animals used in class. Students always ask where the animals come from. The truth is, we don't really know, the sourcing is hidden. When you call and ask any of the many science supply distribution companies we usually order from, they don't fully know either. Cats are said to come from the humane society, but this is false. According to PETA many cats used for dissection are stolen or abandoned companion animals. Slaughterhouses and pet stores also sell animals and animal parts to biological supply houses. Even some pounds and animal shelters sell animals to biological supply companies, which in turn sell them to schools. Some animals, come from Mexico, raised entirely for the purpose of dissection. Cow parts and fetal pigs are thought to be a by-product of the slaughter industry.
Frogs are the most commonly dissected animal in schools. The World Conservation Union's 2004 report found that a third of all amphibians worldwide are threatened with extinction. At least six million frogs alone are captured in the wild and killed for dissection each year in the U.S. The large-scale removal of them from the wild exacerbates their already fragile populations. As frog populations continue to decline in the wild, insect populations continue to rise. This can lead to increased use of pesticides by farmers who once relied on frogs to help control insects naturally.
Students want to know that the animals they are dissecting lived a happy life and died naturally. This is not the case of any of the animals they are asked to dissect, they know it and it makes them uncomfortable.
Photo taken from : frogsarecool.com a site for students made my students to speak out about animal dissection.
“I don’t like animals to die just so we can dissect them, especially when there are alternatives that are just as educational. Also, I don’t like that it is bad for the environment.”
Questionable Chemicals Used In Preserving Dissection Animals
Dissection exposes children to unnecessary health hazards. Formaldehyde, a substance still commonly used to preserve animals for dissection, is classified as a known human carcinogen. Along with being linked with an increased risk for cancer of the throat, lungs, and nasal passages, formaldehyde can trigger allergies and often causes headaches and irritation to the eyes, skin, and respiratory system-even at very low levels.
As awareness of the problems associated with formaldehyde rise, many companies have switched to different chemicals used in the preservation of dissection specimens. In many cases, it is impossible to figure out what exactly these chemicals are as the manufacturers do not list them, nor do they state them in their catalogs or on their internet sites. Many say 100% formaldehyde free but that does not necessarily mean that they are formalin free. Formalin, is formaldehyde dissolved in methanol. Formalin is not less toxic than formaldehyde; it is considered a hazardous substance and classified as a potential carcinogen.
Most classrooms are not designed with ventilation systems equipped to handle high concentrations of a toxic chemical such as formaldehyde or formalin.
The Cost Of Dissection Is High, The Cost of Disposal Is High
Dissection animals are expensive. Students pay a lab fee at the start of the year for various laboratory materials to be used throughout the year. Animal dissection takes up most of these fees. Spending the vast majority of our fees on one unit of study (anatomy) that is not part of the essential learnings, is objectionable. Many organizations now offer free loan programs through which teachers and students can borrow non-animal alternatives at no charge. Using these alternatives would free up much of the student fees to be used for other valuable learning objectives, labs and activities.
In the past, to dispose of the animals, we simply put them in the garbage can. This does not follow current policies of the local disposal services. It is not appropriate for animal carcasses to be disposed of in landfills. This year new disposal methods have been implemented within our school district. These new methods are costly and involve numerous steps on the part of the teacher to fulfill.
All Life Deserves Respect
Dissection teaches students how to mutilate and dismember animals instead of teaching a respect for life. Every living thing from the tiniest insect to the mighty elephant has its part, its role in the very life and fabric of the planet. Frogs are in decline worldwide, is it right to dissect one without regard for species depletion? Is it morally ok to raise an animal just so it can be cut up by a high school student then tossed in the trash? I personally believe we should be shifting our teaching toward an appreciation of natural life-cycles and the beauty and connectivity of all living creatures. Studies suggest that exposing young people to animal dissection as “science” can foster a callousness toward animals and nature and even dissuade some from pursuing careers in science. It is possible that through dissection students may emerge with an attitude that some creatures have little, to no value. They are disposable. This is the very last thing I wish to teach my students.
What Do You Think?
Should Schools Continue To Dissect?
Yes, its a great activity and learning opportunity
Alternatives To Dissection Exist
And are of excellent quality
Alternatives to dissection include overlapping transparencies, histology slides, 3D models, zoology and marine biology coloring books, computer simulations that actually have pictures of real animals, and interactive video presentations.
According to Dissection alternatives.org "Dissection lacks a key step in the learning process-repetition. Once an animal is cut apart, the exercise cannot be done again. However, computerized techniques allow students to explore human or animal anatomy as often as they like, until they have fully grasped the information. Computer software can now provide detailed, sophisticated graphics, highly interactive features, videos, and in-depth accompanying text.
Today's synthetic animal models include colorful, life-size, 3-D replicas with labeled pieces that allow the student to hold and replace organs and tissues again and again."
Photo source and a selection of dissection alternatives like the one shown in this photo can be found at: learning resources
“Year after year, animals are used to demonstrate the same well-known principles— although sophisticated models, videotapes, and computer simulations have many advantages, including reusability and durability. ... Biology should be the study of life. Dissection ... teaches only death.”
Eric Dunayer, V.M.D.
A Sample Of Some Of The Great Alternatives To DIssection Out There
“I would not like to study other organisms through dissection because I think the alternatives are just as educational and less harmful.”