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Time To Rethink Dissection In Schools

Updated on August 23, 2017

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The question is, should this practice continue or is it outdated and unnecessary?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.

Why Dissect?

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

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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.

Student Quote

“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.”

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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?

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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

Student Quote

“I would not like to study other organisms through dissection because I think the alternatives are just as educational and less harmful.”

Thanks For Visiting - Comments are appreciated!

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    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      I totally disagree with this article. As a high school student in biology myself, I believe that dissection is a very important role in the class. It allows students to learn in ways that are not possible when using live animals. For me, dissecting a frog in 7th grade is what got me interested in the biology field. I loved this lab because I was able to see parts of the frog that I would never have been able to by just observing it. None of the students in my class were disrespectful to the animals and I know that we all got a lot out of it. This year, my sophomore year in high school, I am not allowed to dissect any kind of animal. I think this is absolutely ridiculous and is taking away from my learning experience. Being a very tactile learner, I need to use my hands often and learn best by doing dissections. I can assure you I will not get as much out of the class and I definitely not excited to take it anymore. Many people could say that I am being inhumane and am not thinking of the animals. But, all animals are going to die anyway and I think they would rather allow students to learn and get something out of their bodies than just degenerate and be used for nothing. Overall, I completely disagree with this article and I am for any kind of animal dissection.

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      SteveKaye 5 years ago

      Great info. Thank you for posting an article on this topic. We need more respect for nature and living things.

    • theholidayplace profile image

      theholidayplace 5 years ago

      Great point and good info, great way to help make your mind about this issue

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Wow, these are some very awesome points you have here!!

    • Gypzeerose profile image

      Rose Jones 5 years ago

      Thanks for bringing this up! I suppose there might be very rare circumstances - like students who are going to be vets that could profit from this. Angel Blessed.

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image

      Tolovaj Publishing House 5 years ago from Ljubljana

      Interesting subject. I believe we, in Slovenia, don't practice dissection in general education for decades now. Only specialists are involved in this.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Thanks for this, it helps me frame things for parents and administrators that ask questions about why I don't do dissections. You have all the same reasons as me for questionning animal dissection, minus one that no one ever talks about, and as a teacher, is my biggest concern. There are known carcinogen in most preserved specimens, and we talk about the safety of a student being exposed to them. But what about the teacher, who teaches multiple sections of biology, for years and years on end? How many carcinogens is the teacher exposed to? I think that teachers should have the right, without penalty from the school board, to refuse to have dissections in the classroom, from a legal health and safety perspective.

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      Thanks for this, it helps me frame things for parents and administrators that ask questions about why I don't do dissections. You have all the same reasons as me for questionning animal dissection, minus one that no one ever talks about, and as a teacher, is my biggest concern. There are known carcinogen in most preserved specimens, and we talk about the safety of a student being exposed to them. But what about the teacher, who teaches multiple sections of biology, for years and years on end? How many carcinogens is the teacher exposed to? I think that teachers should have the right, without penalty from the school board, to refuse to have dissections in the classroom, from a legal health and safety perspective.

    • Linda Pogue profile image

      Linda Pogue 6 years ago from Missouri

      The science coloring books give the kinesthectic hands-on learning component for those students who need it, while at the same time being good for visual learners, too. There are so many other options available.

    • profile image

      The Goblins Den 6 years ago

      Great topic, and one that needs more attention. I think animal dissection in the classroom is unnecessary for learning, and in some cases should be considered cruelty. The only people who need to do such things are vets and biologists.

    • profile image

      I001l01I02l 6 years ago

      i was thinking if a toy manufacturing company would provide alternatives for dissecting...a stuffed toy, for example, students will still be practical in cutting and moving, without harming an animal.

    • WildFacesGallery profile image

      Mona 7 years ago from Iowa

      As a vet tech I dissected my share of critters. On a high school level I certainly don't see the point. You've created an informative lens. Nicely done and belated congrats on being LotD.

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      anonymous 7 years ago

      Talking about dissection alternatives, we at Emantras develop educational apps and one of the apps that we recently launched is called Frog Dissection. PETA also recognized our efforts and has chosen us to receive the Mark Twain Ethical Science Award. The app is a great way to know more about the dissection process, all done virtually of course! Anyone who is interested in saving frogs and putting an end to dissection, this is a great substitute. Visit http://punflay.com/ to know more.

    • VSP profile image

      VSP 7 years ago

      Interesting lens, food for thought. I'm curious why the practice was started in the 20's, and the thought process behind it then. While on the whole I agree the practice of dissections probably doesn't accomplish much, but not sure the practice should be totally eliminated. Maybe make it optional or an extracurricular lab for the students who would benefit from or are interested. Also like your choice of the anatomy coloring book, we have one and it's an excellent resource.

    • Franksterk profile image

      Frankie Kangas 7 years ago from California

      Absolutely excellent lens. It is definitely time dissection for learning is stopped. Thanks for putting this info out there. Bear hugs, Frankie

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      hamsterguy 7 years ago

      Congrats on the LOTD, very interesting and overlooked topic. Thank you!

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      Indigo Janson 7 years ago from UK

      Excellent topic and a well-deserved LOTD. Another ~*~* Angel Blessing *~*~ for this lens.

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      anthropology 7 years ago

      Great lens. You have dealt with a matter of concern and done it well too. I remember my college days, when as an undergraduate student I was forced to do many dissections. Doing them was never an interesting thing as I used to feel that killing animals and using them for educational purposes was not really necessary. I remember going without food on those days as I was allergic to the smell that used to linger on, even after a few hours.

      Congratulations on choice of this informative lens as LOTD.

    • Faye Rutledge profile image

      Faye Rutledge 7 years ago from Concord VA

      Very interesting. Congratulations on LotD!

    • profile image

      examish 7 years ago

      I used to eat frog legs. Wish I could find a good restaurant that sells them. My wife loved them when she was pregnant (although she did not know it was frog legs, she had just started to eat from the plate I got for myself)

    • burgessvillian profile image

      burgessvillian 7 years ago

      Congratulations on lotd. I knew some people were against dissection in high school, but I didn't realize how strongly some are opposed. 5*s

    • justholidays profile image

      justholidays 7 years ago

      Congratulations on your LOTD! It's well deserved!

      I've never understood the interest of dissection at school, at least not in what you name college and lyceum especially because all students aren't supposed to become biologists or doctors or anything that might have an interest in dissection. Personally I've always hatred to have to kill an animal for those courses and refused to bring those required by the school program at the time I was in school. Got ZERO in my report but didn't mind.

      Really, really great lens!

      Dom.

    • norma-holt profile image

      norma-holt 7 years ago

      Congrats on this important subject and on LOTD. Blessed and featured on Sprinkled with Stardust and also on Lenses That Shine

    • hlkljgk profile image

      hlkljgk 7 years ago from Western Mass

      wonderful info on an often overlooked issue. congrats on LOTD!

    • juliannegentile profile image

      Julianne Gentile 7 years ago from Cleveland, Ohio, US

      Thanks for creating this lens, thanks for being an enlightened teacher, and congrats on the LoTD!

    • hayleylou lm profile image

      hayleylou lm 7 years ago

      Good lens on an interesting topic - I find it cruel that this still happens - congrats on LOTD and 5*

    • delia-delia profile image

      Delia 7 years ago

      I remember my Biology class and I refused to dissect anything, I made such a fuss they were glad to rid me in that class...It traumatized me...I think this is something that should not be done in High School. There are other types of virtual programs for dissecting that are just as effective in learning...congrats on LOTD!

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      anonymous 7 years ago

      It should be offered to students of appropriate grade levels wishing to pursue studies in the biological sciences, in becoming researchers or doctors. Alternatives are okay for the curious but getting one's hands dirty provides one with a learning experience beyond that of the dissection itself.

    • stacy mcdaniel profile image

      stacy mcdaniel 7 years ago

      Congratulations on lens of the day. I remember in seventh grade having to dissect a frog. I thought it was awful. I'm just glad that I was in a group with three boys. They did the gross part and I did the paper work.

    • eclecticeducati1 profile image

      eclecticeducati1 7 years ago

      Congratulations on your LotD! Thank you so much for this lens. I am a homeschool teacher and will be doing biology next year with my oldest son. I did not want to include dissection. I personally learned nothing from it when I was in school and I have never used the information in my entire life (I'm 39 yrs. old). The biggest problem I had was, homeschooler are held in such close scrutiny. People are always assuming our education is inadequate. I was finding it hard to tell people that I was going to leave out what is considered a big part of biology. I think even my husband was having problems with this! Now if anyone questions me, I can point them to this lens! I know its the right thing to do and I know I don't need to worry what others are thinking. I can give my son a good background in biology without cutting open a frog! Thank you!

    • MissBuffySpears profile image

      MissBuffySpears 7 years ago

      Congrats on LotD...this lens deserves it!

    • sittonbull profile image

      sittonbull 7 years ago

      Very persuasive analogy of the dissection options and congratulations on your LOTD.

    • callinsky lm profile image

      callinsky lm 7 years ago

      Great lens! Congrats on LOTD; it is well deserved.

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      Sherry Venegas 7 years ago from La Verne, CA

      This is a wonderful page for Squidoo and the reading world. Balloons and confetti for your LotD! I hope it helps to launch your lens into world review. Be sure to build your backlinks.

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      investorconscio 7 years ago

      I enjoyed dissection in biology. It is one thing to read about anatomies of frogs, and it is entirely different experience seeing one.

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      Joan4 7 years ago

      Oh, and a huge congratulations on LOTD and a super lens!

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      Joan4 7 years ago

      Freshman biology in college was my introduction to the dissection practice. I was shocked. And I immediately went to the Dean and dropped the course, in tears. I refused to do it! Never did do it, in fact! Gross, crude, unnecessary!

    • SciTechEditorDave profile image

      David Gardner 7 years ago from San Francisco Bay Area, California

      As a former biology major (almost an MS in it), and former biology teacher, I agree that dissection is not and should not be a requirement in the lower grades biology classes. With the new computer simulations, plastic models, and other things available--and, with the environmental concerns of the preservatives (formaldehyde etc.) exposure and disposal of the carcasses, dissection is just not a viable option. Nice lens! 5* and favorited.

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      RuneGard 7 years ago

      Outstanding lens and I know the animals thank you as do I! Since the first year it started, I have supported PCRM Physicians Committee For Responsible Medicine (early 1980s) which has spearheaded this very issue and helps educate and end this cruel and unnecessary practice in schools and academia. We must be the voices for those who have none. Great lens!!

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      kimmanleyort 7 years ago

      Very thoughtful and persuasive presentation. I never liked dissection day myself and think the alternatives are better. Congrats on LOTD.

    • aka-rms profile image

      Robin S 7 years ago from USA

      Congrats on LotD!

    • verymary profile image

      Mary 7 years ago from Chicago area

      My kids are so stressed about this already, as an exercise they may have to endure in high school. I told them they can be conscientious objectors! Hope the school is okay with that....

    • nightbear lm profile image

      nightbear lm 7 years ago

      Excellent lens, great subject

    • sheriangell profile image

      sheriangell 7 years ago

      I always made sure I was sick on dissecting day when I was in school. Hated the thought of it. Another 5* lens!

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      JFB91 7 years ago

      Thoughtful. Links to superb products. Thanks!