As educators, we’re always looking for new ways to motivate our students and invigorate our teaching. In my class of English-language learners, students often, justifiably, are fearful being in a new country and having to make new friends. Naturally, not feeling comfortable in class can become an obstacle to learning.
But when I integrate humane education, teaching about kindness to animals, in my lessons, I see my students light up.
One of my students who was hesitant to speak in English found her voice when talking about the rabbits and chickens on her grandmother’s farm in Ecuador and how she missed playing with the animals outside. Her participation invigorated a discussion with the other students about animals.
The lowered stress level allows my students to open up, learning more English and engaging in their lessons in a deeper, more attentive way. The room immediately becomes a warmer and friendlier environment.
This learning framework, humane education, is character education that includes teaching about kindness to animals. Fostering compassion and empathy for others, including non-human animals, is one of its overarching goals.
But humane education is not about preaching. Instead, students are encouraged to problem solve. When students learn about the impact humans have on animals, they frequently want to use their voices to work toward a more just and fair world for all of its inhabitants.
Research supports what most teachers and parents know empirically—children are particularly engaged when learning about and interacting with animals. Building on that connection, schools across the country have implemented “reading to dogs” programs because of both the comfort and motivation the animals elicit.
However, the presence of a live animal may not always be feasible or appropriate. Just learning about animals, especially issues of animal welfare, can motivate students to engage with standards-aligned curriculum content and enhance their critical thinking skills.
While character education is unfortunately often viewed as a separate, standalone curriculum, humane education can and should be incorporated into the teaching of academic subjects. For example, math lessons about pet overpopulation teach multiples, readings on endangered species teach children about conflict and problem solving, and advances in testing for product safety allow for science teachers to teach the chemistry and technology behind animal-free testing methods.
In my classes, students learn the academic language and writing format necessary to craft a business letter when they write to local politicians about animal-friendly legislation. They also employ reading, critical thinking, and reasoning strategies when researching the background of the bills. The topic of animals is the gateway to deliver the content you need to teach.
Unfortunately, most adults, let alone children, do not fully appreciate the impact humans cause to the world in which we live. We need to ensure that critical information is relayed to young people, all of whom are set to inherit a currently harmful legacy. Humane education can help future generations address the environmental issues they will face.
Recently, the federal government has opened the national parks to logging and drilling, weakened the Endangered Species Act and animal welfare requirements in organic food labeling, and allowed an increase to trophy hunting, affecting wild animal populations throughout the world.
Most alarmingly, Animal Welfare Act reports have been pulled from public record, making it harder for the public to learn which companies are violating even minimal AWA standards.
As students learn about protecting the habitats of non-human animals, they become aware of how our personal and national decision-making affects all species.
The Institute for Humane Education calls students who participate in humane education “solutionaries,” because when they learn about new topics, they are tasked with problem solving. This can mean problem solving on a global scale—how to protect wildlife habitats or slow climate change. But humane education also promotes interpersonal cooperation and conflict resolution.
In this way, humane education can complement schoolwide goals of social-emotional learning and antibullying initiatives. The framework asks educators and students to expand their definition of “others” to include non-human animals, teaching compassion.
Teaching about kindness to animals awakens the empathy that helps children improve all of their interpersonal relationships, and it develops children who will become change agents for a more positive future.