'I don't feel that these practicals are ethically justifiable - their education value does not exceed other methods of learning the same principles'
It's tough being a veterinary student with a plethora of lectures and practical classes throughout the course and a huge amount of information to take in. Much of the pedagological method to which they are exposed could be what Friere described 45 years ago as ‘banking’ (1); students are seen as empty accounts waiting to be filled with deposits of information from the teacher. Freire quite rightly rejected such an approach as dehuminising to both students and teachers. He was not, of course, the first to critique a pedagogy whereby the goal of education was mere the transmission of facts. Dewey hailed education as a mechanism for social change far more than solely the transfer of knowledge; ‘education is a regulation of the process of coming to share in the social consciousness....the only sure method of social reconstruction’ (2). But the day one competencies of veterinary graduates required by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons include ‘a thorough knowledge of the structure and functions of healthy animals’ together with ‘...clinical signs, diagnosis and treatment of common diseases...in domestic species’ (3). How are students expected to gain this volume of knowledge if not through a banking style pedagogy?
But the Royal College also demands a set of day one practical competences such as 'Handle and restrain an animal safely and humanely’, 'Perform a complete clinical examination'..and much much more (3). And these practical skills need to learned by doing them. As Aristotle remarked ‘for it is from playing the lyre that both good and bad lyre-players are produced.’ (4). It is by actually handling the animals or taking the sample that the animal handling or sample taking can be learned, not through hearing a lecture, reading a book or even seeing a demonstration performed. And so for many years veterinary students have been taught not only through numerous lectures but also with seemingly endless practical classes from greyhound dissection through experiments on live animal tissue demonstrating physiology and pharmacology to classes teaching practical animal restraint. Maybe these give just the practical experience which Dewey would have considered ideal education. But are they all really worthwhile educative experiences? As Dewey comments, 'Some experiences are mis-educative. Any experience is mis-educative that has the effect of arresting or distorting the growth of further experience' (5). Teaching staff clearly feel that the practical classes allow a much deeper education than just seeing a video or reading about experiments. But such demonstrations do require use of animals from dead dogs to tissue harvested from freshly dead rodents. These animals are kept in conditions which aim to optimise their welfare and then they are euthanased humanely, but even so many students may question the educational value and ethical justification of such classes. Are their opinions actually heard?
Dewey was passionate about what we would now term student voice (5) and I was interested to learn, through hearing the voices of veterinary students, what they feel is important for planning and implementing teaching involving animals. What do the students think? Are they included in lesson planning? And what do the vet school graduates feel, on reflection? Can they assess how valuable the practical classes are to them now, as working vets?
50 students and graduates were asked to give their responses to a set of statements on animal use in their education using a Likert scale and also to write a free-text response on their opinions on the practical classes. These qualitative data were subjected to a thematic analysis.
Some undergraduates wrote positive comments such as 'I enjoyed the practical sessions', and 'I did enjoy the practicals, they were a nice change from the many lectures'. The majority of graduates however felt the opposite: 'I don't feel that these practicals are ethically justifiable - their education value does not exceed other methods of learning the same principles' and 'I think that the ethical value is highly dubious for pre-graduate students where nothing new is being learnt/demonstrated'. Another wrote; 'Researchers must adhere to the three R's, Replacement, Reduction, and Refinement [of animal use]. We should apply these tenants to the use of such animals in undergraduate teaching..' Others ranged from ' I could have learnt the theory behind the practicals without having live tissue there, and I don't think the educational benefit outweighed the ethical issues surrounding the practical.' to ' I was disgusted by the heart practical and found it a pointless waste of animal life.'
The responses, anonymised but otherwise unaltered, were given to the senior teaching staff who read them and, to their credit, responded by altering the practical classes which had remained previously much as they were when I took the course 30 years ago. Hearing the student voice and gauging the weight of their opinions through this survey has resulted in a reduction in animal use with video and computer models taking the place of animal tissues, just as many respondents suggested. The aim now is to extend this listening to the student voice to improve the educational experience of veterinary students throughout the course. It is hoped that this exercise in hearing and responding to the student voice will provide a degree of democracy in veterinary education of which Dewey would have approved (6).
(1) Friere P. (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Pelican, New York p66
(2) Dewey, J. (1897). My Pedadogic Creed.The School Journal 54: 77-80.
(3) Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (2014) Day One Competences at http://www.rcvs.org.uk/document-library/day-one-competences/
(4) Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics book II page 1 available at http://classics.mit.edu//Aristotle/nicomachaen.html
(5) Dewey J (1938) Experience and Education Ch 2 p9 New York, Kappa Delta Pi Foundation
(6) Dewey J (1916) Democracy and Education ch 22 p317 Simon and Brown New York