This story originally appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of Animal Action.
Animal dissection continues to be a commonly-performed classroom exercise in the United States and has been a deeply-rooted tradition in American biology classrooms for decades. Not all students who have the chance to cut into once-living animals are keen to participate, however, and over time, many students have objected to the practice for religious, ethical or other reasons. Objection to animal dissection has led to laws and policies being adopted in 16 states and Washington D.C. these laws and policies give students the right to opt out of classroom dissection exercises without penalty and ensure they have access to dissection alternatives. NAVS strongly believes that no student should be punished for standing up for their right to choose a humane dissection alternative, and through our Compassionate Humane Options in Classroom Education (CHOICE) initiative, we have been working hard to encourage legislators in states lacking student choice measures to consider introducing student choice legislation. Recently, we have also taken on another effort—one designed to investigate
whether such student choice laws and policies are working as intended. Student choice measures are, after all, only effective if teachers and students are aware of them and if the laws and policies are properly implemented.
We originally raised this question because a nationwide survey on dissection and dissection alternatives that we conducted a few years ago revealed a general lack of awareness among educators about student choice measures. This suggested to us that information about student choice measures is not widely disseminated among educators, raising concerns about their implementation.
As part of our effort to promote humane education, this past summer, NAVS conducted a new survey of biology educators who teach in states with student choice measures. In doing so, we hoped to better understand if and how teachers are notified about these measures and if they are complying with them.
We also used this opportunity to collect general information on the prevalence of dissection and use of dissection alternatives. We reached out to 13,216 biology teachers in states with student choice measures and received responses from 1,527 individuals. Of these individuals, 1,453 taught a biology class within the past two years and their responses were further analyzed.
Our study revealed that animal dissection still continues to be a common practice, but perhaps not as prevalent as before. While 81% of educators polled revealed that they had used dissection at some point during past school years, only 59% indicated that they were planning to conduct animal dissection exercises during the current school year.
We also learned that 70% of biology educators polled use dissection alternatives in some capacity, with 34% of teachers using them in place of animal dissection. Thirty-six percent of educators used alternatives in conjunction with animal dissection, 11% of educators did not use alternatives at all, and 18% used neither dissection nor dissection alternatives. Most educators polled, 73%, indicated that they had access to web-based dissection alternatives at their school, while access to 3-D models and interactive CDs/DVDs was available to 30% and 21% of educators, respectively. Educators ranked all available alternatives as useful, but they identified webbased programs as the top tier of “very useful” alternatives.
Just as we found in our previous survey, our current study revealed that many biology educators in states with student choice measures are not aware of the existing laws or policies. Only half of the biology educators polled were aware of the student choice measures in their state. Eighteen percent reported that there weren’t student choice measures, and 32% indicated that they didn’t know if there were student choice laws or policies.
Concerned about this lack of awareness about student choice measures, we further investigated whether educators were formally notified of the student choice policy at their school. Only 45% of educators said that they had been formally notified. Thirty-seven percent of respondents did not receive notification, and 18% did not remember. Teachers who had been formally notified about student choice greatly varied in their responses as to how they received such notification. Teachers most often received student choice notification by their department chair or supervisor, by word of mouth, or by their administration.
Our survey further revealed that 92% of educators in states with student choice measures permit their students to use an alternative instead of animal dissection, if requested. Eight percent of educators in these states do not allow their students to use dissection alternatives when requested and are not in compliance with their state’s student choice law or policy.
So how are we tackling these issues?
Because greater efforts to inform educators about student choice measures and available dissection alternatives are necessary in order to improve educator compliance and to ensure that students have access to these alternatives, NAVS has been working hard to help spread the word about student choice laws and policies. Each academic year, we contact state departments of education and boards of education and ask individuals there to disseminate information about student choice to superintendents, principals and teachers. This year, we provided those state departments and boards of education
with state-specific survey results so they could better understand whether or not educators in their state were complying with student choice laws or policies.
This year, we also contacted all of the superintendents in states with student choice measures, asking them to share NAVS’ information with principals and teachers in their district. We received many positive replies from these individuals, who said they would notify the educators in their schools. We will also be sharing the results of our survey with educators directly at the National Association of Biology Teachers Annual Conference this fall in Chicago.
But we know that outreach to schools will only address part of the problem.
The results of our surveys and discussion with educators point to an overarching institutional challenge. Despite laws, policies and student requests for alternatives, dissection is still, unfortunately, perceived as the “gold standard” for studying the life sciences. A key driver in the perpetuation of this line of thinking is the fact that the standards published by major educational organizations—notably the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT) and the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA)—promote to their members the notion of dissection as an indispensable aspect of a biology course.
In fact, a recent update to the NABT’s position statement on the Use of Animals in Biology Education calls dissection “a total sensory experience that removes abstraction as students learn about structure, function, adaptation, and diversity.” And while the statement pays lip service to being “sensitive to the beliefs of each student,” it states that the use of alternatives in place of dissection “may constitute a disservice to many students and does not acknowledge the well documented educational benefits of hands-on dissection.”
NAVS has long sought to re-orient the educational community’s commitment to dissection as a mandated element of student life. However, the goal of replacing the outdated use of animal dissection with superior alternative methods can only be achieved if the key players in this field are persuaded that doing so is the best course of action. We are fighting a mindset—and until that mindset changes, true progress will continue to be stymied.
Changing long-held beliefs is not a challenge that will be overcome quickly. However, we believe that it can happen—and that it will.
Over the coming year, NAVS will be putting renewed effort into working directly with educators and educational experts in the field of biology and related areas, in order to examine the desired learning outcomes of traditional dissection. We will weigh the value of dissection against that of alternatives, including the educational, financial and environmental benefits of each method.
NAVS will then be able to clearly demonstrate that the current course of action (e.g. animal dissection) that is sanctioned and promoted by the NABT and NSTA is not based on core educational values. Doing so will allow us to recommend the development of new educational standards which recognize the equivalence or superiority of dissection alternatives.🐾