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        Being Human

        Using segments from the PBS program The Human Spark, students explore the question “What makes us human?”

        Lesson Summary


        In this lesson, students view and discuss video segments from the PBS program The Human Spark as they learnabout what distinguishes human beings from other species. In the Introductory Activity, students list similarities and differences between human beings and other species. In Learning Activity 1, students explore how human thought differs from that of chimpanzees and other species. In Learning Activity 2, students explore a variety of traits/abilities (including language & symbols, social life and the ability to walk upright) and learn how they have evolved in humans over millions of years and how these traits/abilities distinguish humans from other animals. In the Culminating Activity, students compose essays about what makes humans unique.


        Students will be able to:

        • Compare and contrast human traits/abilities withthose of other species.
        • Describe how human thinking differs from that ofother species.
        • Explain one specific human trait/ability anddescribe how it has evolved over time.
        • Discuss at least four ways in which humans differfrom other species.

        Grade Level:


        Suggested Time

        Two 45-minute class periods

        Media Resources

        Human vs. Chimp Thinking Video

        Beyond the Present Video

        Thinking About Thinking Video

        Insight and Imagination Video

        Additional segments which students can use in their research for Learning Activity 2:

        A Matter of Size Video

        The Art Spark Video


        Human Language

        Web Sites

        What does it mean to be human?

        This SmithsonianInstitution website explores what it means to be human and provides a varietyof information, photographs and web interactives. The site features a “humancharacteristics” section, which can be used in Learning Activity 2. Thissection focuses on human characteristics which have evolved over the past 6million years:

        The Lesson

        Part I: Introductory Activity

        1.Explain thatin today’s lesson students will explore what makes us human. Ask each studentto think of one word to answer the question “What makes us human?” and to writethat word down on a sheet of paper. Once everyone has written a word, ask the studentsto hold up their words to reveal them to the rest of the class. Ask forvolunteers to discuss their word choices.

        2.Dividestudents into pairs or small groups. Assign each group an animal. Ask eachgroup to write down similarities and differences between humans and the group’sassigned species. Encourage each group to list at least 5 ways humans differfrom that animal, as well as five similarities. Some possible animals toinclude are: ant, bird, cat, chimpanzee, dog, fish, lion, monkey, parrot, snake.

        3.Once groupshave completed their lists, ask students to share their thoughts with the restof the class. Create a two-column listwith similarities in one column and differences in another. Write down all thesimilarities and differences the students describe.

        4.Once all thegroups have shared their thoughts, look over the list with your students andask them to identify the main ways humans differ from most of the species onthe list. Create a new list detailingthe ways humans differ from other species. Discuss the list and ask thestudents if they want to add any additional traits to the list.

        Part II: Learning Activity 1

        1. Ask students which animal they think is the most similar to human beings. Let students knowthat 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 andchimpanzees also share a common ancestor.

        2. Let students know they will be watching a video segment from the PBS program The Human Spark that 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 studentshave shared their thoughts, explain that you are going to play a video segmentfeaturing Daniel Povinelli, the Director of the Cognitive Evolution Center at the University of Louisiana, who conducts research with human children and chimpanzees. Askstudents to identify what Povinelli believes are similarities and differencesbetween the ways humans and chimpanzees think.

        4. Play the Human vs. Chimp Thinking Video. After playing the segment, ask students to discuss what Povinellibelieves are similarities and differences between the ways humans andchimpanzees think.

        Possible points to include in thediscussion:

        Similarities: Both can predict potential directconsequences of actions- for example, taking food away from another. Both canthink about things they see, taste and touch.

        Differences: According to Povinelli, humans can reflectupon their thoughts, while chimps probably cannot. Humans are able to reflectupon unobservable things while chimps cannot. Humans think about abstractthings such as God, ghosts and gravity, while chimps probably do not.

        5. Explain thatyou will now be showing a video segment about human thought. Ask students toidentify the ways in which human thinking differs from thinking in otherspecies, as they watch the segment.

        6. Play the Beyond the Present Video. After showing the segment, ask students to write down theirthoughts about how human thinking differs from thinking in other species.

        7.After studentshave recorded their thoughts, explain that you will now be showing anothersegment about human thinking. As they watch the segment, encourage students torecord additional thoughts they have about how human thinking differs from thatof other species.

        8. Play the Thinking About Thinking Video. After playing thesegment, ask students to discuss what the last two segments showed about howhuman thinking differs from thinking in other animals.

        Possible points to include in the discussion:

        Other species can reflect upon the present momentand think about how to respond, while humans can think about the present, andalso think about the past and what might happen in the future.

        Humans can think about how to prepare for thefuture.

        Humans can learn from mistakes without making them,by thinking about the potential consequences and making decisions based onthose thoughts.

        Humans can think about other people’s thoughts to amuch greater extent than other species. Some species, like the great apes, appearto be able to understand what someone else is thinking, but have trouble reflectingupon what someone might be thinking about someone else’s thoughts. Humans,however, can reflect upon what other people are thinking about other people’sthoughts. A human, for example can think about what Person B might be thinkingabout Person C’s reflections about what Person D is thinking about Person E’sthoughts. Other species do not seem able to reflect upon others’ thoughts tothis degree.

        9.Ask studentsto reflect upon and summarize how they think human thought differs fromthinking of other species.

        Part III: Learning Activity 2

        1.Review thelist students compiled earlier of the ways humans differ from other animals.Ask students to add new items to the list, if desired.

        2.Explain thatnow students will explore the different ways humans differ from other speciesin more detail. Divide students into small groups and assign each group to oneor more of the following topics:

        • Walking Upright
        • Tools & Food
        • Bodies
        • Brains
        • Social Life
        • Language & Symbols

        Encouragestudents to explore the "Human Characteristics" section of the SmithsonianInstitution’s "What does it mean to be human?" website at find information about their topics.

        3.Ask studentsto 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 togroups researching the topics, "brains," "social life" and "language &symbols":

        4.After studentshave conducted their research, ask them to share information about theirassigned categories.

        Part IV: Culminating Activity

        1.Play the Insight and Imagination Video. After showingthe segment, ask students to discuss some of the observations Alan Alda makesabout how humans differ from other species.

        2. Ask students to reflect on everything they havelearned during the lesson. Ask eachstudent to write an essay outlining the key ways humans differ from otherspecies.

        3. After students have completed their essays, askstudents to share their thoughts with the class.

        4.Lead a discussion about what makes humans unique.


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