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Learning objectives

Students will:

  • understand the meaning of sentience
  • identify the characteristics of a sentient being
  • identify ways in which scientific knowledge of animal sentience helps us understand the effects of our actions and inform personal and community decisions.

Vocabulary: sentience, sentient, observation

Lesson prep

Information for educators

This lesson will help students explore the concept of animal sentience, and why sentience ought to be considered when making ethical decisions about the treatment of animals in practices like food production, entertainment and animal testing.

Sentience is the capacity to feel, perceive or experience things, such as pain, hunger, heat or cold.

Read more about sentience here.

Materials required

References/additional links

  • A short YouTube video to play in class here.

Lesson procedure


1. Explain the meaning of sentience. Sentience is the ability to perceive and feel things. Animals are sentient because they are capable of being aware of their surroundings, their relationships with other animals and humans, and of sensations in their body, including pain, hunger, heat and cold.

Explain that sentience is an important feature that distinguishes animals (including humans) from other living things such as plants.

2. Ask students how they think humans discovered that animals are sentient. Common sense and experience have convinced most people (especially those who live with companion animals) that animals have a level of awareness and are able to feel things like we do.

Ask students to remember a time when they recognised animal sentience, whether at home, in the wild or on TV.

Part Two

3. Play the YouTube video ‘Rats show kindness toward strangers, a new study shows‘ in class.

4. How does science and observation show us that animals have complex mental abilities and emotions? Researchers study how animals behave using controlled experiments (like the one in the video). Sometimes we can observe things for ourselves if we are patient and attentive. As a class, brainstorm what humans can learn about other animals by watching them. For example, simple observation can show us:

  • how animals learn new things (e.g. training a dog)
  • how animals communicate with each other (e.g. observing two cats interacting)
  • how animals solve problems (e.g. observing how a bird finds shade when it’s sunny)
  • how animals react to certain situations (e.g. observing how fish hide away from predators).

Part Three

5. Tell students that they will research and write a report using the worksheet provided. They must choose one of the following topics:

  • the use of whips in horse racing
  • the use of animals in cosmetic animal testing
  • the use of wild animals in circuses
  • the use of hens in egg production
  • the use of dolphins in marine parks.

Younger students may require support researching and answering the questions. Please note you may wish to monitor student research to avoid accessing websites with potentially graphic and upsetting images.

Research Report Evaluation

Use the following rubric to assess student reports:

  • Demonstrates an understanding of sentience and provides examples of observable features that suggest sentience in their chosen animal. (2 points)
  • Conducts research to explain how scientific knowledge of natural animal behaviours can be used to inform personal decisions. (4 points)
  • Demonstrates an understanding that scientific knowledge of animal sentience helps people to understand the effect of their actions. (4 points)

Extension activity (ACSHE083, ACSHE100)

Ask students to think about ways in which humans have changed their actions after better understanding animal sentience. Think about what stories have been in the media recently. For example, New South Wales pledged to ban greyhound racing because of animal cruelty (this has since been overturned). Consumers are choosing to buy free range eggs to ensure hens don’t suffer in confined cages. People are refusing to buy cosmetics that have been tested on animals. A growing number of people are choosing to become vegetarians or vegans to reduce the amount of suffering experienced by food animals in intensive farming practices. Students should understand that the more we learn about animals, the more we feel obligated to protect them.

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