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July 3rd, 2010
Social Skills
Lesson Overview

For a printable version of this lesson, click here: (PDF) (RTF)

Grade Levels: 9-12

Time Allotment: Two to three 45-minute class periods

Overview: In this lesson, students will use selected segments from the PBS series The Human Spark to investigate the differences and similarities between the respective social dynamics of humans and our closest primate relatives and what they may tell us about what—if anything—may make us uniquely human.

In the Introductory Activity, students are asked to brainstorm what the basic building blocks of human society are, and asked to consider whether any of these are indeed unique to humans, or if they may also be found in the animal world. In the Learning Activity, they will watch a series of excerpted clips from The Human Spark comparing and contrasting the social and individual behavioral tendencies of humans and primates along three main themes: altruism/helping/cooperation, laws/rules/power/politics, and learning/teaching. In the Culminating Activity, students will divide into groups to compare the observations they have made throughout the lesson on their student organizers and make brief presentations to the rest of the class.

This lesson is best used as an introduction to (or supplement to) a unit on anthropology or sociology.

Subject Matter: Anthropology, Sociology, Psychology, Evolutionary Biology

Learning Objectives:

Students will be able to:

  • Outline the essential elements of human society
  • Describe the basic dynamics of chimpanzee society
  • Define a relationship in anthropological terms
  • Provide experimental examples of an innate human tendency to cooperate
  • Compare and contrast the learning and teaching behavior of humans and primates
  • Explain why the extent of our ability to cooperate may constitute a “human spark” distinguishing us from animals

Learning Standards

(From the National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies available at

Chapter 2—The Themes of Social Studies


Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of culture and cultural diversity.

Human beings create, learn, share, and adapt to culture. The study of culture examines the socially transmitted beliefs, values, institutions, behaviors, traditions and way of life of a group of people; it also encompasses other cultural attributes and products, such as language, literature, music, arts and artifacts, and foods. Students come to understand that human cultures exhibit both similarities and differences, and they learn to see themselves both as individuals and as members of a particular culture that shares similarities with other cultural groups, but is also distinctive. In a multicultural, democratic society and globally connected world, students need to understand the multiple perspectives that derive from different cultural vantage points.


Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of individual development and identity.

Personal identity is shaped by an individual’s culture, by groups, by institutional influences, and by lived experiences shared with people inside and outside the individual’s own culture throughout her or his development. Given the nature of individual development in a social and cultural context, students need to be aware of the processes of learning, growth, and interaction at every level of their own school experiences. The examination of various forms of human behavior enhances an understanding of the relationships between social norms and emerging personal identities, the social processes that influence identity formation, and the ethical principles underlying individual action.


Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of interactions among individuals, groups, and institutions.

Institutions are the formal and informal political, economic, and social organizations that help us carry out, organize, and manage our daily affairs. Schools, religious institutions, families, government agencies, and the courts all play an integral role in our lives. They are organizational embodiments of the core social values of those who comprise them, and play a variety of important roles in socializing individuals and meeting their needs, as well as in the promotion of societal continuity, the mediation of conflict, and the consideration of public issues.

Media Components:


Selected segments of The Human Spark: So Human, So Chimp

Chimp Politics

Host Alan Alda and scientist Franz de Waal observe and compare two alpha-male chimpanzees’ different approaches to sharing at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta.

Social Networks and the Spark

Oxford University’s Alan Dunbar compares human social networks  to those of chimps;  at Yale University, host Alan Alda observes how babies as young as three months old favor cooperative puppets over those that won’t play.

How We Learn

Host Alan Alda observes experiments at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology which demonstrate how differently human children and orangutans learn how to complete tasks.

Monkey See, Monkey Do

At the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta. Vicki Horner explains the ways chimps “passively tolerate” learning as opposed the “active” engagement of human teaching.

Cooperation Over Competition

Scientists discuss what may be the uniquely “human spark” which separates us from animals: our ability to communicate, cooperate, and collaborate with others.


For the teacher:

1 projected computer with internet access

Social Skills Student Organizer Answer Key (PDF) (RTF)

For each of three groups of students:

1 computer with internet access

For each student:

Social Skills  Student Organizer (PDF) (RTF)

Prep for Teachers:

Prior to teaching this lesson, you will need to:

Preview all of the video segments used in the lesson.

Download the video segments used in the lesson to your classroom computer, or prepare to watch them using your classroom’s internet connection.

Print/copy the Social Skills Student Organizer for each student.

Proceed to Lesson Activities.

Inside This Lesson

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