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Teaching Techniques for a Humane Science Class

Bill Samuels, Ph.D., ASPCA Director Humane Education


Curiosity Breeds Kindness
Teaching techniques for a humane science class


At its heart, science is a way of gathering and thinking about information. Scientists observe events as carefully as they can, and then try to interpret them logically and rationally. This may hardly sound like a recipe for helping children learn to treat animals with kindness and respect, but don’t be fooled—it can be a great opportunity.

To help students approach problems like scientists, teachers guide their students as they make observations, form guesses about what is going on, figure out ways to test their guesses, conduct and evaluate those tests and then communicate their results to others. This inquiry- or discovery-based teaching method can bring the material to life for children. As they make their own decisions about solving the problem, students develop critical-thinking skills and come to understand their own unique learning style. Just as important, they often come to care more about what they study.

Cultivate Curiosity
Whetting children’s curiosities about animals—especially those right around them—is a great way to begin their journey toward caring for them. For example, kids are often curious about bugs, but this interest is often squashed—along with the bugs. There is a wonderful world among the insects, and fortunately, bees can tell us about some of it. With a little help from science teachers, bees can show kids that they have their own simple language, the waggle dance, and may not be the mindless machines they appear to be. First, teachers can tell kids that bees do have their own language, and have kids hypothesize what bees might “talk” about. Then, in a lesson that incorporates spatial learning, following instructions and physical education, we can teach our students parts of the waggle dance (, and let them discover for themselves. For lesson ideas, visit

Learning by Doing
When talking to children about sensitive subjects, how often have we said, “Imagine how you would feel if…?” Students can learn empathy for animals when they discover for themselves the ways in which we are similar. Imagine combining inquiry-based learning and teaching respect for animals by showing children how to train a dog humanely. Instead of lecturing, we start by amazing them with the behavior of a happy and well-trained dog, by bringing one into the classroom or by playing a videotape. Then, we ask the kids how they think the dog could have been trained. Without judging the children’s ideas, we write down what they say on the chalkboard. Presumably, some will suggest punishment, and others positive reinforcement. We then ask for a volunteer to pretend to be the dog. Next, we train him or her using the different methods suggested by the students. Imagine how much the children would learn by witnessing firsthand how much more effective positive reinforcement is than punishment, and by hearing from the “dog” which method was more enjoyable. To master the art of positive reinforcement, children could also take turns “training” each other.

Predictive Projects
Student-centered inquiry can help children care about even more abstract animal issues. Take, for example, the topic of endangered species. After using the Internet to find out which animals are endangered (in their neighborhood or around the world), students can search for information to create a mock recovery plan for that animal ( Next, students can compare their recovery plans to the actual strategy in use. If no recovery plan exists—and many endangered plants and animals have none—they can then discuss one of their own.

For another exercise, let students study bird behavior at feeders set up on school grounds. Following Darwin’s footsteps among the Galapagos finches, students can make—and test—predictions about the diets of local birds based on the shapes of their bills. This project can be tailored to children’s age levels; older students can even collect data for scientific projects, like Cornell’s Project FeederWatch (

The interactive process and contemplation involved in inquiry-and discovery-based methods of teaching help students retain what they learn and apply it to other situations. With humane projects in the classroom, we can do better than simply show students why animal welfare matters; we can let them show themselves. These methods also accommodate different learning styles, and so they treat students humanely, as well. This flexibility can encourage students—from precocious fourth-graders to budding scientists—to better enjoy the process of learning. AW

Bill Samuels is the director of ASPCA Humane Education. He has a Ph.D. in educational assessment. Send comments to

Reprinted from ASPCA Animal Watch, Winter 2003, Vol. 23, No. 4, with permission from The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 424 East 92nd Street, New York, NY 10128-6804

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424 East 92nd Street
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