In this paper we explore the possibility of doing away with the current practice of animal dissection in schools, which as per the current norms is an integral part of the Biology curriculum for most examination boards. However, it seems desirable to make a dent in this state of affairs. The issue has been deliberated upon at length for many years now, in this school and elsewhere, and it appears that alternatives are available that could replace experiments in dissection. This brief paper attempts to put together some preliminary ideas and suggestions on the matter.
We start by taking a fresh look at the basic objectives of the Biology curriculum and ask whether any changes are needed in this area. To see why such a re-examination is necessary one merely has to reflect upon the changes taking place in the world today. Environmental crises are starting to overwhelm us by their multiplicity and complexity, and it is becoming clear that fragmentary patch-up efforts at reform, which is what nations the world over are trying to do, have very little lasting significance. What is needed is a change in the human being himself, and this requires that we examine with clarity and honesty our own values and priorities. In particular it requires us to examine how we view nature and life itself.
If we look closely at the life-styles that urban people adopt the world over, it becomes clear that human beings have for the most part lost touch with nature. Over the years, nature has become a 'resource', a commodity to be valued in economic terms, and with this change, the relationships of human beings with one another have changed too. If we as educators are concerned about the state of affairs in human society today, then we must examine the hidden curricula of our schools. In particular we must examine the hidden message contained within the wide-spread practice of animal dissection. In effect it appears to communicate, in a non-verbal manner, the idea that to kill an animal in order to acquire some skills and to satisfy one's intellectual curiosity is acceptable. Today, however, there are increasingly many of us who feel that it is not right, for ethical as well as ecological reasons. This being the case, it is imperative that we search for alternatives to replace dissection.
Aims of the Biology Curriculum:
- To develop an understanding of the relationship between man and other organisms as well as between various organisms and their environment.
- To stimulate an interest and care for living organisms and their environment, and to develop an awareness of the need for long term conservation of species and their habitats.
- To develop an awareness that the study of science is subject to social, economic, technological, ethnic and cultural influences and. limitations, and that the applications of biology may be both beneficial and detrimental to the individual, the community and the environment.
- To promote a deeper understanding of the scientific method and its applications as well as its limitations.
- To develop scientific rigour as well as the capacity for intuitive thinking.
- To provide an educational experience that will engender an appreciation for the diversity, intelligence and sacredness of life, and develop a feeling that biological science if correctly and rigorously applied is a universal language of science.
Learning Outcomes of the Practical Curriculum:
- Learning the effective use of scientific instruments, including techniques of safe operation; specifically, learning the use of the microscope;
- Learning how to tackle problems independently;
- Developing a closer understanding of the nature of one's environment, and of the role of various organisms in the ecosystems; acquiring a deeper knowledge of plants and their uses;
- Overcoming prejudices regarding certain creatures (snakes, insects, ...);
- Acquiring an understanding of how adaptation functions;
- Acquiring an understanding of how biological control works;
- Learning how to make accurate observations;
- Learning the use of statistical techniques (diagrams, graphs, charts, tables) in recording observations;
- Learning how to formulate hypotheses and design experiments, how to use information in identifying patterns and trends, and how to draw conclusions;
- Developing an appreciation of how errors in observation can lead to problems at different levels;
- Developing an appreciation of the beauty of diverse forms of life. . .
In place of having complex dissections, we can have experiments with a greater focus on ecology and behavioural biology. A few suggestions are listed below.
The experiments can be done as projects that require students to work the year round and submit their observations in the form of detailed reports; or they can be short-term projects carried out during practical classes. Either way, projects should be designed keeping in mind the broad objectives and specific learning outcomes listed above.
- Analysing water samples for
- Learning how to make temporary mounts of moulds, bacteria, protozoa, blood...
- Culturing microbes and classifying them.
- Culturing protozoa such as paramecia; studying the effect of environmental factors on paramecia (light, food.. .).
- Studying the effects of different factors on the growth of microbes.
- Culturing earthworms' vermiculture and the study of behaviour of earthworms.
- Rearing grasshoppers.
- Studying the feeding mechanisms in organisms.
- Studying the effects of exercise on rate of breathing.
- Studying metamorphosis in insects.
- Studying the breeding patterns of fishes in aquaria with particular reference to inheritance of observable traits (e.g., tail colour in guppies).
- Preparing and staining root tip squashes to show mitosis.
- Studying conditions required for germination of seeds.
- Studying the soil with regard to
- water-holding capacity;
- Studying the effects of chemicals on the growth of plants.
- Studying chromatography (with chlorophyll and other pigments).
- Identifying and learning how to propagate a few plant species in a given area. (The plants selected should be of value to man and environment and not be merely ornamental; for instance they may have medicinal implications.)
- Critical study of an ecosystem.
Suggestions for action:
It should be clear from the arguments and proposals presented above that there do exist feasible alternatives to replace dissection. However, if policy changes are to be made at a national level - by the examination boards and the NCERT and other such bodies - then it will be necessary for a larger body of biology teachers to meet and deliberate upon the issue. Such a meeting could also explore more generally the perspectives and methodologies to be adopted while teaching biology in schools. The matter assumes great relevance in the context of the very rapid advancements taking place today in biology, especially in genetics and molecular biology, advancements that inevitably throw up questions of deep significance for education and society in general.
The KFI is well-placed to host such a meeting. Leading ecologists and environmentalists and leading educators could be invited to address the deliberations. Biology is a dynamic subject, but to many students it is merely a subject in which a vast number off acts (and names) need to be memorized. It would be most worthwhile for the KFI schools to take an active role in developing a curriculum that is at once stimulating and relevant to the complex crises of our times.
We acknowledge with gratitude help received from G. Gautama, and G. Ananthapadmanabhan and Prema Veeraraahavan of The School, who sent us an early draft of their deliberations on the possibility if doing away with dissection, and Stephan Harding of Schumacher College. For the 'Aims' and 'Learning Outcomes' sections, we have made use of the Cambridge document.