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April 26th, 2010
Being Human
Lesson Activities

Introductory Activity

  1. Explain that in today’s lesson students will explore what makes us human. Ask each student to think of one word to answer the question “What makes us human?” and to write that word down on a sheet of paper. Once everyone has written a word, ask the students to hold up their words to reveal them to the rest of the class. Ask for volunteers to discuss their word choices.
  2. Divide students into pairs or small groups. Assign each group an animal. Ask each group to write down similarities and differences between humans and the group’s assigned species. Encourage each group to list at least 5 ways humans differ from that animal, as well as five similarities. Some possible animals to include are: ant, bird, cat, chimpanzee, dog, fish, lion, monkey, parrot, snake.
  3. Once groups have completed their lists, ask students to share their thoughts with the rest of the class.  Create a two-column list with similarities in one column and differences in another. Write down all the similarities and differences the students describe.
  4. Once all the groups have shared their thoughts, look over the list with your students and ask them to identify the main ways humans differ from most of the species on the list.  Create a new list detailing the ways humans differ from other species. Discuss the list and ask the students if they want to add any additional traits to the list.

Learning Activity 1

  1. Ask students which animal they think is the most similar to human beings. Let students know that one species which is very closely linked to us is the chimpanzee, with 99% of its genetic makeup being the same as in humans. Explain that humans and chimpanzees also share a common ancestor.
  2. Let students know they will be watching a video segment from the PBS program, The Human Spark, which compares the thought processes of humans and chimpanzees. Ask students to discuss how they think human and chimpanzee thoughts might be similar and how they might be different.
  3. After students have shared their thoughts, explain that you are going to play a video segment featuring Daniel Povinelli, the Director of the Cognitive Evolution Center at the University of Louisiana, who conducts research with human children and chimpanzees. Ask students to identify what Povinelli believes are similarities and differences between the ways humans and chimpanzees think.
  4. Play Human vs. Chimp Thinking. After playing the segment, ask students to discuss what Povinelli believes are similarities and differences between the ways humans and chimpanzees think.

Possible points to include in the discussion:

  • Similarities: Both can predict potential direct consequences of actions- for example, taking food away from another. Both can think about things they see, taste and touch.
  • Differences: According to Povinelli, humans can reflect upon their thoughts, while chimps probably cannot. Humans are able to reflect upon unobservable things while chimps cannot. Humans think about abstract things such as God, ghosts and gravity, while chimps probably do not.
  1. Explain that you will now be showing a video segment about human thought. Ask students to identify the ways in which human thinking differs from thinking in other species, as they watch the segment.
  2. Play Beyond the Present. After showing the segment, ask students to write down their thoughts about how human thinking differs from thinking in other species.
  3. After students have recorded their thoughts, explain that you will now be showing another segment about human thinking. As they watch the segment, encourage students to record additional thoughts they have about how human thinking differs from that of other species.
  4. Play Thinking about Thinking. After playing the segment, ask students to discuss what the last two segments showed about how human thinking differs from thinking in other animals.

Possible points to include in the discussion:

  • Other species can reflect upon the present moment and think about how to respond, while humans can think about the present, and also think about the past and what might happen in the future.
  • Humans can think about how to prepare for the future.
  • Humans can learn from mistakes without making them, by thinking about the potential consequences and making decisions based on those thoughts.
  • Humans can think about other people’s thoughts to a much greater extent than other species. Some species, like the great apes, appear to be able to understand what someone else is thinking, but have trouble reflecting upon what someone might be thinking about someone else’s thoughts. Humans, however, can reflect upon what other people are thinking about other people’s thoughts. A human, for example can think about what Person B might be thinking about Person C’s reflections about what Person D is thinking about Person E’s thoughts. Other species do not seem able to reflect upon others’ thoughts to this degree.
  1. Ask students to reflect upon and summarize how they think human thought differs from thinking of other species.

Learning Activity 2

  1. Review the list students compiled earlier of the ways humans differ from other animals. Ask students to add new items to the list, if desired.
  2. Explain that now students will explore the different ways humans differ from other species in more detail. Divide students into small groups and assign each group to one or more of the following topics:
  • Walking Upright
  • Tools & Food
  • Bodies
  • Brains
  • Social Life
  • Language & Symbols

Encourage students to explore the “Human Characteristics” section of the Smithsonian Institution’s “What does it mean to be human?” website at http://humanorigins.si.edu/human-characteristics to find information about their topics.

  1. Ask students to find out the following about their assigned topics:
  • How does this trait/skill distinguish humans from other species?
  • How has this trait/skill evolved in humans over time?

Note: The following brief segments from The Human Spark can be helpful to groups researching the topics, “brains,” “social life” and “language & symbols”:

  • For information about brains: A Matter of Size
  • For information about social life: Cooperation
  • For information about language & symbols:Human Language and The Art Spark
  1. After students have conducted their research, ask them to share information about their assigned categories.

Culminating Activity

  1. Play Insight and Imagination. After showing the segment, ask students to discuss some of the observations Alan Alda makes about how humans differ from other species.
  2. Ask students to reflect on everything they have learned during the lesson.  Ask each student to write an essay outlining the key ways humans differ from other species.
  3. After students have completed their essays, ask students to share their thoughts with the class.
  4. Lead a discussion about what makes humans unique.

Proceed to Video Segments.

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