The Debate over Dissection: Dissecting a Classroom Dilemma

By Madrazo, Gerry M., Jr. | Science Educator, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

The Debate over Dissection: Dissecting a Classroom Dilemma

Madrazo, Gerry M., Jr., Science Educator

As the debate over dissection in the classroom continues, attention is being paid to the benefits of actual dissections, as well as to the advantages of dissection alternatives for the science education of students.

Policy makers, curriculum developers, administrators, teachers and students across the country have begun to reevaluate the science curriculum and scrutinize the role of dissection in science teaching-particularly in the science classroom. Recently, a new wave of court cases and legislation has brought nonhuman animal dissection to the forefront of science education issues. Also, teachers, students, and parents are questioning the value of classroom dissection. Some dissection objections stem from animal rights concerns, students' moral values, and parental concern for the emotional well being of students. From a different perspective, many teachers fear the loss of academic freedom in the classroom and the possibility of a less effective educational environment resulting from this controversy.

Although there has been increasing interest on the issue of animal dissection, little attention has been given to the issue in educational publications. There is still a dearth of research on dissection as a tool for learning, but animal dissection certainly deserves analysis on the part of science teachers and concerned educators. Data must bring both student and teacher opinion and the value of dissection as a learning technique into consideration. Findings from a student poll published in the North Carolina Science Teachers Association's (NCSTA) The Journal (Hounshell and Hill, 1996) indicate that over one third of the students polled do not enjoy dissection. Of those who enjoy it 53% said they enjoy it only 'a little' and 36.1% think you learn only 'a little.' As far as mandating dissection, 63%Io of students polled believe dissection should not be a required activity in science classes. Still, Hounshell and Hill recognize the limits of past studies by commenting that "incredibly, with all the dissection in elementary, middle school, and high school, we do not have research evidence either to support or refute dissection as a classroom strategy." A 1993 scientific study published by the Journal of Research in Science Teaching examined "The Effects of an Interactive Dissection Simulation on the Performance and Achievement of High School Biology Students" (Kinzie, Strauss, and Foss). The experimental findings suggested that IVD (Interactive Videodisk-- based) simulation was at least as effective as actual dissection in promoting student learning of frog anatomy and dissection procedures." However, the most effective strategy carried out in this study was IVD simulation used as a preparation for actual dissection. Participants in this trial performed subsequent dissections much more effectively, achieved more of the activity goals, and retained more knowledge than both the dissection-- only and IVD-only groups.

Where They Stand

Leading national organizations recognize the immediate need to address the "dissection issue," and many groups have published position statements concerning dissection in the science classroom. Often, groups such as the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) and the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT) leave the issue of dissection to the teacher's discretion in his/her particular environment. NSTA's position [see figure 1] states that animal dissection "enables students to develop skills of observation and comparison, a sense of stewardship, and an appreciation for the unity, interrelationships, and complexity of life." Still, this NSTA position statement stresses that teacher supervision and effective, responsible instruction are essential. Teachers must provide a safe, knowledgeable and respectful environment for dissection labs. The NABT promotes a similar policy. When confronted with the dilemma of whether to dissect in the classroom, NABT states "biology teachers are in the best position to make this determination for their students" as long as dissections are "conducted within the long established guidelines of proper care and use of animals, as developed by the scientific and educational community. …

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