Research: Do animals in class aid teaching?

From dogs in classrooms to farm visits – researchers want to find out if animals can help enhance learning and welfare

Amy Gibbons

Animals in education

Academics are launching a new study to investigate the extent to which bringing animals into the classroom may help boost pupils' literacy and empathy skills.

The research, carried out by Nottingham Trent University, aims to evaluate the impacts of "animal assisted interventions" on learning, to address a perceived lack of understanding in the area.

It is hoped the findings could be used to provide schools with additional advice, support and guidelines on best practice.

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The researchers say the use of animals in educational interventions has "grown in popularity over the years", but "little is known" about how exactly this is done, with approaches varying "significantly" from school to school.

Examples include children reading to dogs instead of a teacher or class, or learning about empathy through interactions with different animals.

"Animals are sometimes brought into classrooms by professional organisations or charities, or sometimes schools have them living on site," the university said.

"Staff may also bring their own pets – usually dogs – into school with them. Additionally, students may be taken to sites, such as farms, to visit the animals in the environment where they usually live."

It added: "The researchers want to identify what educators see as the benefits and also potential risks to involving animals in order to enhance learning – and to hear from schools who don't currently engage with animals in educational activities to understand the potential reasons."

Backed by the Society for Companion Animal Studies (SCAS), the academics intend to work with primary and secondary schools across the world.

Lauren Finka, an animal welfare expert in the university's school of animal, rural and environmental sciences, said: "The concept of including animals in educational settings to enhance student learning, concentration and wellbeing is becoming increasingly popular.

"Despite this, we know relatively little about how animals are actually being handled, managed and the activities they are involved in in these situations, and how this might impact both positively and negatively upon them.

"It's very likely that certain species and temperaments of animals are much more suited to be involved in these sorts of interventions than others but, as a starting point, we really just want to get a better idea of what species are being included and how.

"We hope that we can then use this information to highlight where further advice, support and guidelines could be targeted to ensure as much as possible that sessions are undertaken to the benefit of both the children and animals involved." 

Emma Vardy, a lecturer in the psychology department, said: "Animals, especially dogs, in educational contexts anecdotally offer numerous benefits to children.

"Learning to read is a complex skill to master and reading to a dog, for some children, can possibly alleviate fear associated with reading aloud, so that a child can practise reading, developing their reading skills in a safe and secure environment.

"There is little robust evidence, however, to support observations regarding the benefits of these activities, hence the need for our project.

"Furthermore, as well as the children, we need to consider the welfare of the animals in these situations and support educational settings to implement high-quality animal-assisted interventions, which benefit children and consider the animal's welfare."

Elizabeth Ormerod, chair of the SCAS, said: "The Society for Companion Animal Studies was delighted to award a grant to researchers at Nottingham Trent University to research the educational and therapeutic roles played by companion animals in schools, and about how their involvement is managed to help ensure safety and wellbeing for both children and animals.

"This global study, collating information from primary and secondary schools, will also provide information about the species involved and how they participate in the classroom setting. The knowledge obtained will enable the researchers to contribute to the development of best practice guidelines for safe practice and animal welfare in schools."

Those who work in a school, or any other educational setting, and would like to participate in the research can do so here.

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Amy Gibbons

Amy Gibbons

Amy Gibbons is a reporter at Tes

Find me on Twitter @tweetsbyames

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