Section 1

Classifying living things

Introduction

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this section, you will have:
  • collected and displayed real items in a logical way in your classroom to support your pupils’ learning about grouping living things;
  • used model building as a way of recording what your pupils know about different plants and animals;
  • organised your pupils into pairs or small groups to undertake independent research projects on different life cycles.

Pupils need to grow up respecting and caring for our natural world; ideally, we all need to be naturalists. A naturalist is interested, observant, curious and values nature – someone who is learning about and caring for their world all the time. They have a clear, ‘big’ picture in their mind of how things work in nature. New observations will find a place in their big picture. How do teachers help pupils achieve this big picture of how nature works? This section explores how you can help pupils organise and extend their knowledge about living things. You will bring real items into your classroom, organise displays, make models and undertake research with your pupils.

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When we find out something new, we fit it in amongst all the things we already know. We build up our own big picture (organising system) in our heads. That’s how the human mind works. Think about how we organise our ideas of a family. We can represent this in a diagram called a family tree, where you place people where they belong in the big picture. Resource 1: An African family tree shows a typical family tree. You might like to create your own family tree to share with your pupils, or that of a famous person. This is how it is with biology. As a teacher, you need to help your pupils to build up a useful big picture of living things and how they are related. There is an agreed organising system that scientists have developed over years. Resource 2: The current agreed classification of living things shows how biologists organise living things into kingdoms and some of their subdivisions. A good way to start helping pupils organise their ideas about living things is to begin with items in your own environment – objects that pupils are familiar with and can easily investigate. Case Study 1 shows how one teacher did this with her class and Activity 1 shows how to make a display in your own classroom. If your pupils can start to classify (sort) these items into groups, they will be behaving as scientists.

Case Study 1: The big picture of living things

Amaka Ukwu’s pupils in Nguru, Nigeria, were surprised to find two new tables in the class. Without saying anything, Ms Ukwu carefully laid out four self-standing cards in specific positions on the tables. ‘Non-living’ on the table to the left and ‘Living’, ‘Plants’ and ‘Animals’ on the table to the right.

Ms Ukwu gave the class five minutes to go outside and find different examples of non-living things. She talked about what they brought back and helped them to group similar things together on the non-living table. Ms Ukwu deliberately checked that things like bone, wood, cardboard and paper were on the side nearer to the living tables. Why did she do that? Next, each pupil was given a small self-standing card and asked to draw any plant or animal on one side and write its name on the back. It must be different from anyone else’s. The cards were brought to the front and sorted, displayed and discussed. Ms Ukwu ensured that like was sorted with like. (She had in mind the organising diagram from Resource 2 but chose not to confuse her pupils by telling too much too soon.) Ms Ukwu completed the lesson by asking the pupils to look at all the non-living things and divide them into those that were once living and those that were never alive. The pupils worked in groups and had lively discussions about many of the exhibits.

Activity 1: Collecting evidence of life around us

Tell your pupils that they will be developing a display to show non-living and living things around them. Explain that it would not be right to display real animals and plants. They should not damage or kill anything living. Instead, rather like detectives, they should hunt for clues and evidence of any living thing – for example, feathers, droppings, leaves and seeds. Give pupils several days to bring in things for the display. Now talk about the groupings you will have (animals, plants and so on), what defines each group and where each item sits in the display. Pupils could then make labels for the display. In the next science lesson, choose six things from the display – three living and three non-living – and display them on another table. Gather your pupils round the table and ask them which of the six things are living and how they know this. By careful questioning and discussion you should be able to draw up a list of the seven characteristics of living things. Resource 3: The seven common characteristics of all living things gives you ideas for this work on the characteristics of plants and animals.

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Mathematics deals with patterns, so does art, and even in language there are patterns and structures. Thinking scientifically also involves looking for basic patterns. Think of your hands and feet. They have the same basic plan. They are joined to a limb by a joint (wrist/ankle), there is a flat part (palm/sole) and there are five jointed digits (fingers/toes) with hard nails on the upper tip. Scientists group things by similarities and differences in the basic patterns of their structure or form. Pupils will enjoy looking for basic patterns in the plants and animals they know and find. One way to find out what your pupils observe about patterns in plants and animals is by asking them to make models. Talking about their models will help them make more detailed observations of the living things. In Case Study 2 pupils showed their teacher what they knew about plants by building models. This gave a starting point for developing their skills of observing and understanding plants. Activity 2 guides you through a similar exercise that is appropriate for your curriculum.

Case Study 2: Models of plants

At a teacher education session, teachers worked to plan more practical, hands-on science lessons that would help them see what children already knew and could do. They explored the use of model making as a way to assess what children knew about something like the structure of plants. Then, after comparing each other’s models and observing real plants more carefully, the pupils could choose to improve their old models, or make new ones to show new learning. One of the teachers, Okoro Mohammed, demonstrated how she had used a cardboard box of scrap material (cloth, cardboard, paper, plastic, old tights, elastic bands, used containers etc.) as a resource for children to build models to show what they already knew about plants. She explained how much more detail the children had taught themselves after comparing each other’s work and going out to observe plants more carefully. They included bark and buds, and finer details like leaf veins, or specific patterns of branch formation. Improving their models seemed to give the pupils a real reason to sharpen their observation and extend their understanding of plant structure. See Resource 4: Plant models for more detail on how to carry out this activity.

Activity 2: Making models of animals

In many parts of Nigeria, entrepreneurs make a living by selling lifelike models of animals. We feel that all pupils are entitled to the chance to extend this natural desire to make models to extend their study of different animals. By asking children to make models, you will also be integrating science with technology and art. You can add to the classroom displays set up in Activity 1 by getting children to work at making models of different types of local animals like chickens, dogs or cows using appropriate materials. (See Resource 5: Pupils’ models of animals for examples and suggestions.) We suggest you organise the pupils to work in groups, three or four pupils in each group usually works well. (See Key Resource: Using group work in your classroom to help you decide how you will organise the groups.) You could organise your groups by mixing lower and higher achievers. Encourage pupils to bring in materials for their models. As they are building the models, move around the classroom, talking to the groups; with younger pupils ask them to name the parts of the animal they are modelling – paws, tails, ears and so on. With older pupils, ask questions about the shapes and functions of the different parts of the animals – how do they help the animal move? eat? keep warm? cool down? sense that predators are near? Think about how you could encourage your pupils to reflect on their work. Could you ask different groups to comment on the other group’s models? Make sure you allow time for pupils to talk about their work and to improve it. Did this activity work well? Were you surprised by the detail of the pupils’ models? Is the detail of the pupils models accurate? What could be improved? Did it help pupils to see similarities and differences between animals?

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In this section we have been exploring patterns in living things. There is a basic pattern to the life cycle of all living things. There is fertilisation and development of an embryo in a seed/egg/womb. Then there is a process of birth/hatching/germination. Next comes feeding and growth through a number of stages. At maturity, the final stage of reproduction can take place and the cycle begins again. In Case Study 3 teachers use story wheels to help pupils understand this pattern in life cycles. Story wheels are useful tools to use because they:
  • show the stages in the life cycle of the plant or animal;
  • help pupils to organise their ideas about life cycles;
  • help pupils to move from the known to the unknown – from the pictures to the labels with the scientific terms.
Read the case study for more detail about how story wheels can be used with pupils. You might like to try story wheels with your classes; there are some labels and pictures to help you in Resource 6: Story wheel of the life cycle of the bean. All types of living things have their own distinctly different life cycle pattern. It is interesting for pupils to find out how different living things have adapted their own life cycles. Having discussed the basic life cycle pattern in class, and perhaps done some plant story wheels, your pupils will be ready to do some research projects of their own on life cycles in the Key Activity. This activity builds on pupils’ observations of living things in their environment. Pupils take responsibility for planning, doing, reporting and assessing their own learning on their chosen animal. At the end of the activity, it is important to look at all the life cycles and discuss how they all have the same basic pattern. You might like to look at the Key Resource: Researching in the classroom to help you plan this activity.

Case Study 3: Plant life cycle patterns

Mrs Aderinto gathered her class round her, held up a green bean pod and told the story of the life cycle of the bean. She used the words seedling, germination, growing and adult plant so that her pupils learned the correct words. Then she divided her class into four groups: Groups 1 and 2 each had three pictures showing one of the stages in the bean’s life cycle, Group 3 had the rectangular labels (describing the pictures) and Group 4 had the round labels (describing the steps in the life cycle story). Resource 6 shows these labels and pictures. Mrs Aderinto then drew a large circle on the board and divided it into six equal parts. She asked the group with the first picture to come and put it in the story wheel. She then asked what came next and asked the pupils to put in the next picture. When each part of the wheel contained a picture, she asked Group 3 to add their labels. Finally, Group 4 placed their labels in sequence on the story wheel and explained the steps to the class. She finished by asking pupils to copy the story wheel and explain in their own words the story of the bean’s life cycle – they could start anywhere on the cycle. Mrs Aderinto found this lesson worked really well with her pupils and they wanted to do story wheels for other plants and animals.

Key Activity: Animal life cycle projects

  • Organise your class into groups of three or four.
  • With your pupils, make a long list of animals that can be found in your local environment. Write this list on the board or on a large piece of paper stuck to the wall.
  • Ask each group to choose an animal from the list; try to ensure that no two groups choose the same animal. Suggestions include: grasshopper, butterfly, frog, turtle, mosquito, beetle, elephant, bird and fish.
  • Give the class some basic guidelines for the work on life cycles; how long they have, what you expect from them and how they should display their work. For younger pupils, you would expect them to give you three/four pictures in the story wheel shape and to put some basic labels on the pictures such as egg, chick, adult, baby and to have the pictures in the correct order. Older pupils should be able to discover something about each of these five stages:


They should draw detailed diagrams with clear labels and notes. They should include the number of babies born together, the time for each stage and how the animal gets its food at each stage. You will need to guide them so that they can work fairly independently with confidence. One way to help the pupils is to have a list of useful words on the classroom wall; they can then feel confident about spelling these words.
  • Encourage each group to start by recording what they already know about their animal. Then they should find out more by investigation, research and observation. Pupils might want to ask people in the community or to use books or the Internet (see Key Resource: Using new technologies) if you have access to these.
Working in this way, your pupils will really be thinking and acting scientifically. Did your pupils seem interested in this activity? What do you think they learned?

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