How Can Humane Education Motivate Students?
Humane education promotes compassion and respect for all living beings and the environment (Weil, 2012). For my doctoral thesis, I studied the motivational effects that humane education can have on students and, more specifically, how teachers perceive of its impact across grade levels and subjects. My study, which focused on animal welfare, explored the animal topics that students were most engaged with. I also analyzed educators’ experiences with school administrators’ reactions to the use of humane education curriculum. Finally, I explored the larger educational impact of using humane education to increase student motivation and engagement.
How do Animals Motivate Students to Learn?
Students who are motivated and engaged experience higher levels of achievement in school. Many studies support the idea that learning with and about animals stimulates and engages students. Therefore, I argued that any subject has the potential to become more engaging if topics related to animals are used to communicate the lessons.
To understand the most effective strategies for using humane education to increase student motivation and engagement, I interviewed eight teachers who had a minimum of two years’ experience teaching humane education (specifically, animal well-being) to students in kindergarten through high school. Four of the teachers were employed in New Jersey school systems and three were educators in New York schools. I also reviewed related classroom artifacts such as lesson plans, classroom photos, and student work samples.
The teachers did not use live animals in their classrooms; rather, they infused the topic of animal kindness in lessons across all subjects. They felt that humane education developed students’ curiosity and interest and was inherently motivational because of children’s natural affinity for animals.
Humane Education Topics
I discovered that farmed animals emerged as the most engaging topic for students. The teachers in the study believed this was due to students’ daily interest in food. However, “safe” or familiar humane education topics such as companion animals were also initially motivating for students. Therefore, some of the teachers felt that these topics could serve as points of entry to more controversial humane education lessons such as veganism or laboratory animals.
What Impacts the Effectiveness of Humane Education?
Teachers in this study felt that both boys and girls were equally motivated by humane education, but they acknowledged that gender differences were more pronounced during certain types of learning activities and in response to the animal being taught. For example, the teachers found that boys are more engaged in lessons about wild animals and girls in lessons about domestic animals. The teachers also observed that students demonstrate their engagement in diverse ways. For example, students would bring in additional books and facts about topics, or they would attend after- or before-school animal-related activities. Importantly, the teachers noted a decrease in engagement among boys’ as they age.
Students’ familiarity with animals also plays a role in the motivational effectiveness of humane education, with urban students interested in different animals than suburban and rural students. According to the teachers, students’ varied cultural opinions about animals impact the effectiveness of lessons (i.e., a culture more permissive of hunting, as was the case in a rural New Jersey school district, makes students less open to humane education lessons about meat production).
The successful delivery of humane education requires teachers to navigate relationships with colleagues, school administrators, and parents. I argued that private schools provide the academic freedom necessary for teachers to deliver humane education lessons in a more expansive way. In public schools, the principal plays an important role, either supporting or working against humane education curricula. I discovered that parents are most motivated to complain about the topic of veganism: nearly half of the teachers in the study noted negative parent feedback on discussions of meat. Interestingly, veganism was the only topic to receive such feedback. However, all of the teachers felt that the motivational power of humane education outweighs these challenges.
Uses of the Study
My study explored the link between increased student achievement and animal-welfare-focused humane education curriculum throughout different school subjects. My findings provide educators with evidence of humane education’s potential to increase student motivation and engagement. As such, I hope this study contributes to an expanded use of animal-focused humane education in the classroom.
Weil, Z. (2012, March 29). Creating a generation of solutionaries. Educational Horizons Magazine, 90.