When I first heard two of the largest animal welfare organizations had eliminated their entire humane education departments, my heart sank. Yet I was not surprised. Historically, when times get tough, humane education is the first to go. Lack of funding, lack of research, undefined goals, difficulties integrating programs into schools are common reasons cited. The fact that schools themselves often fail to prioritize their version of humane education—social and emotional learning or character education—is also not surprising, yet deeply disturbing as educating children to be kind and just citizens, capable of making wise and ethical decisions in a democratic society, was one of the founding principles of compulsory education.
I also find this disturbing because of how eager, almost desperate, children seem for a forum to talk about animals and social relationships and to explore the complexities that go into making good decisions. And keeping children engaged and motivated to learn is another overarching goal of educators. There is nothing more engaging to a child than to genuinely ask him or her what he or she thinks and to really listen. And this level of engagement and the development of critical thinking skills is exactly what they need to be able to navigate the complex moral decision-making they will need to do in their lives, including how to treat people, animals and the environment.
What is critical thinking?
The Center for Critical Thinking defines it in this way: “Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.”
Researchers have found that critical thinking correlates to advanced moral judgment in young adults1, yet this has not been a central goal of most character or humane education programs. The main difference here is that traditional programs advocate particular values or behaviors; but in order to affect moral judgment, these values need to be integrated internally, which calls for a considerable amount of deliberation and reflection.
How can critical thinking be applied in humane education?
The RedRover Readers (formerly Humane Education Ambassador Readers, or HEAR) program, developed in 2007, is designed to develop critical thinking and integrates well into schools. The RedRover Readers program gives elementary-age students an opportunity to practice their moral reasoning skills and language skills while learning about animals. Volunteers and teachers implement the RedRover Readers curriculum, which consists of 13 discussion and activity guides for pre-selected picture books that highlight relationships between people and animals. RedRover Readers and the children they reach share information about animals, reflect on the roles of animals in their communities and determine our responsibilities toward them. Volunteers and teachers are explicitly trained how to utilize open-ended, non-leading question strategies to facilitate engaging discussions and promote critical thinking and empathy.
On my second visit to a third-grade classroom, as part of a 5-week RedRover Readers session, the students swarmed up to me when I walked in the door; one student hugged me. Through the course of my visits I read Max Talks to Me, Buddy Unchained, Mrs. Crump’s Cat, Orville: A Dog Story, and Ginger, I asked questions, and I listened. And they listened to each other. I listened to how they thought a boy and a dog could communicate, and why they thought it was important to listen to a dog. I listened to their observations of a lonely old woman becoming friends with a cat, and how they thought the woman’s life was now better. I listened to peers debate with each other over why people have pets and how pets should be treated; and I heard them take the perspectives of animals abandoned, neglected and lonely. I listened and watched their faces as they grappled with how patience plays a role in friendship and the question of how long they thought it took to make a friend. I talked with them individually as they wrote and illustrated their own stories about animals; I learned about their lives with animals, how they felt about pets they’d lost, pets that had died, animals loose in their neighborhoods, a dog they saw being shot at, dogs left in backyards, and litters of kittens and puppies born behind clothes dryers.
And I felt sad when the 5-week session was over. I would miss hearing their emerging thoughts about animals and relationships and what it means to be a good friend and to be kind. I hoped they would have the opportunity to continue discussing their ideas with their peers, and I hoped that my 5-week session of stories and discussion facilitation was enough to spark some empathy and instill a lasting respect for the human-animal bond.
RedRover will soon hear whether the University of Denver’s Institute for Human Animal Connection will receive a grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to study the RedRover Readers program and determine whether the program increases empathy in children, the program’s main goal. In the meantime, I’m glad I have a folder full of thank you letters.
To learn how to become a RedRover Readers volunteer, sign up for an online class for teachers, read our preliminary research study and learn more about the program please visit redrover.org/readers.
1Weinstock, M., Assor, A., & Broide, G. (2009). Schools as promoters of moral judgment: the essential role of teachers’ encouragement of critical thinking. Social Psychology of Education, 12, 137-151.