Dissection and Schooling – through the looking glass

[This article was previously published in virtually the form you find here, and is reprinted on this blog with permission. I specifically address the use of animals in science education, an issue now forever married to current capabilities in computer-based simulations which have supplemented or entirely replaced animal dissection in many K-16 institutions, as well as postgraduate veterinary education.  Find additional resources on the UC Davis College of Veterinary Medicine Center for Animal Alternatives website, and in the excellent book, Why Dissection, by Lynette Hart, Ph.D. ]

tree frog on branchYou, an enthusiastic medical student in London in 1815, late at night to attend your class in anatomy, your professor turns to request you meet a cart just now arriving at the school’s stable door.  You open the heavy, wooden double door and your nose is met by the combined smells of lathered horse, fresh earth, and perhaps just the hint of decay.  You witness two of your classmates lugging a heavy, six-foot-long, limp object wrapped in canvas from the cart bed and into the shadows of the school surgical theatre.  Their black overcoats, boots and gloved hands are covered in fresh, moist earth, faces radiant, voices animated.  Your learning will proceed, thanks to the activities of these body snatchers, or “resurrection men” as they were fondly known; illegal, but acknowledged as a necessary evil in the burgeoning medical school business of 19th century London.

Your 21st century sensibilities may not help you share the sense of wonder and excitement of those medical students, though they were part of our own modern age of enlightened science, and the for-bearers of life science educators everywhere.  While the events and forces bringing change in our current sense of ethical conduct are beyond the scope of this article, it is useful to reflect on the journey, that our current ethical construct is but one point on a continuum of change.  We have some sense of where we have been, but where are we going as a culture, and what is our place as educators?  Do we respond begrudgingly to change, or should we be leading it like that professor in the medical school?  Where and what is our place on the cutting edge, so to speak?

Like all children in all times, our 21st students have been lapping up the culture provided by their parents’ generation, including those aspects of culture we think of as “education reform” and technological progress.  The past thirty years have produced massive changes in both realms, and to expect students to arrive in our secondary science classrooms in a state related to our own experience as students would be the social equivalent of us being handed the fruits of a body snatcher.

Most science education professionals have arrived at a personal code of conduct related to the sacrifice of living animals for education purposes, or at least have questions or concerns about it.  If you are younger than age thirty-five or so, it’s also quite possible you are, in fact, a product of social trends and curricular reforms that brought life science values to you as a child.  Whether by living through the experiences of Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy on Sesame Street or by being a first-hand witness to the life cycle of a silk moth in kindergarten, understanding oneself as but one part of a complex web of life on our rather smallish planet is no longer unusual among young people.

Today’s children have had no less a life-centric experience.  A majority of your students have not only had these life-affirming experiences, they have also ingested an unprecedented level of desensitizing violence through gaming and other entertainment media.  Students coming into classrooms today are less homogeneous than ever in human history, and with the breakneck pace of media and life experience diversification, this trend will not reverse any time in the foreseeable future.  There is no single, unifying experience of childhood any longer, making the entire notion of teaching a “class” increasingly anachronistic.  Here are some safe generalizations, though:

  • Many students are entering secondary life science classes with a highly developed sense of responsibility to their world and its inhabitants, thanks to early science education and a society-wide call for greater ecological accountability for all.  Consequently, many do not accept dissection as morally acceptable.
  • There will be great diversity among any group of students regarding any expectation to dissect or not dissect, and students are can be very sophisticated regarding their rights in the classroom, but they are also keenly aware of tradition.
  • Students bring a significant degree of confusion into your classroom around nature, violence, and personal identity.

In very dramatic contrast to this wide diversity of individual experience and expectations, though, are the young digital nativists’ connections to their peers through social media and an abiding reliance on their personal network.  My twenty-year-old son has honored me with Friend status on Facebook, giving me permission to “stalk” him and his friends as they move together into life (and no, I do not participate there).  I have observed his personal network growing in numbers and complexity, moving from high school into college.  When I went to college, my high school friends were mostly displaced by my college friends, and each major life transition thereafter resulted in a new set of nearly-exclusive contacts.  Modern social networking means that my son’s support system, with roots in preadolescence, persists in an evolving form with physical distance and changing venues presenting no threat, a form of interpersonal stability unknown to my generation.

I admit to being envious of this continuity of relationships my son and his peers are able to enjoy, but it forces me to consider the implications for teaching in our standards-based, resource-constrained world.  The model of successfully teaching a “class,” an entity that consistently responds in a predictably homogeneous fashion, may be a place that only exists in the mind of a teacher who came of age there.  Is it any wonder teachers, particularly urban ones, increasingly find themselves the lone invader in a foreign land?  You can’t speak their language and you can’t find their leader.  With national dropout rates persisting at nearly 20% for some ethnic subgroups and continuing calls for better higher education and workforce preparation, it may be time to retool our practice and relationship to the “classroom.”

During a recent professional development session in which life science teachers were being asked to consider alternatives to traditional dissection practices, one teacher became rather animated and insisted that “My students must understand what is real in their world!”  This teacher, no doubt, was trying to make the case for his dissection habit, that a hands-on-animal-tissues practice is the only viable experience for authentic life science learning.  The teacher was also inadvertently making the case for requiring his students to relive his own personal learning path, drawing on sensibilities and values formed three to four decades earlier.  There was nothing wrong with that teacher’s learning path, and it is one I happily shared, but each day of life can bring us new information and greater awareness, and paths diverge leading to new, unanticipated destinations.

The rich social networks inhabited by our digital natives work for one simple reason.  Because there is far less broad-based homogeneity of life experience among them, the binding force is a deeply human, heart-felt and compassionate connection to peers and friends.  The teachable moment, the access point for teaching this highly networked group is not access to their networks, so don’t even begin to think you can be part of it.  It is, however, gaining access to that aspect of your students that makes their networks tick: recognition and deep appreciation for the experience and values of each separate student.  To expect uniform responses from a collection of unique and diverse individuals is to consciously opt for failure for many of those students you serve.

So what, exactly, is this going to look like in the context of thirty or more hormonal and unique students?  There are standards to address, lessons to teach, exams to grade, and professional stakes to manage.  Here are a few ideas to consider:

  • All students value honesty in adults who hold power over them, perhaps above all other qualities we bring to the classroom.  To share with students your personal ethical constructs as you make instructional decisions about the use of animal tissues in the classroom, describing how you intend to manage your teaching task as informed by your ethics, is a powerful way to communicate to them your own struggle with a complex world.  They will get it.
  • As you do your planning for lab experiences, assume a need for a diversity of experiences.  The law in most states requires an “alternative” to dissection be offered to students who object.  Use of the word “alternative” here communicates dissection as the normative, approved experience, that non-dissection experiences are inferior.  Addressing young people who may not wish to dissect by using this unintentionally demeaning term can be stigmatizing, in the same way characterizing a student who wishes to dissect as being filled with blood-lust would be.
  • Communicate not only your acceptance of the diversity before you, but a true valuing of the many points of view, still in development, represented in your students.  There are future paramedics and orthopedists in your classroom whose hands will someday touch real flesh, as well as surgeons who will someday heal using robotic systems.  Diversity of need calls for diversity in approaches and learning experiences.  Having those diverse experiences (whether models, simulations, text, etc.) prepared in advance will give students options, ones they may even choose to explore multi-modally.

With the many resources available to us for instruction in the technological age, by caring for each student and the unique gifts they bring we will be in the best position to prepare them for a world in need of highly developed talents in professions we cannot today imagine.

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One Response to Dissection and Schooling – through the looking glass

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