Probing prior knowledge is a critical component to success. It gives me a baseline before beginning a study and that makes it easier to measure progress. It prevents me from wasting students time and losing their attention by going over something they already know and it also brings to light misconceptions. It's something I work to mark part of my practice in all subjects and thus an identical lesson plan may work out differently depending on the group. I think adjusting in the moment is one of the most critical teaching skills.
These are a few of the questions I might ask, and as I tie this in to a series of science lessons on animal classification, I ask a lot of these. If I were teaching this just as a math lesson, I'd keep the initial discussion to about 5-7 minutes.
Then I ask students to list every animal they can think of, without worrying too much about spelling. I find it leads to richer discussions if I do not guide their list, so I let them write items that are redundant (such as bird, and eagle - I will guide them to the more specific later) or incorrect (Garden Snake for Garter Snake). The point is to generate interest, and give them a basis for comparison later on.
I provide students the characteristics for the common vertebrate classes, and for spiders, insects, and crustaceans. The final category I used was a catch-all: non-arthropod invertebrates. Depending on the needs of your classroom, you may want to simplify this and only use the vertebrate classes and then group all invertebrates together. I have provided another version of that graph here for that use.
I ask students to sort the animals from their list into the groups. They put a letters for the representative category next to each animal on their list.
cf= cartilagenous fish bf= bony fish a= amphibian r= reptile b= bird m=mammal ins= insect sp= spider cr= crustacean oi=other invertebrates or simply i=invertebrate
Here is a reference sheet on Basic Animal Categories. It is not all inclusive and many of the characteristics here are simplified and/or are not considered defining characteristics of that animal group, rather I have included them as criteria that might be recognized by the students.
While there are no numbers or calculations involved yet, this is math. They are reading and interpreting a list and using that information to categorize the animals on their list. The categories must be established and understood prior to the construction of a meaningful and manageable table and graph.
If possible, I split this lesson (before and after lunch, for example) because that gives me time to look at their lists and enter animals into categories and decide ahead how to deal with repeated names, overlaps (puma, mountain lion and cougar for example), and inaccuracies (wildcat – this is not the name of any actual animal but here in Tucson where it’s the mascot of the U of A, many children don’t realize it’s a bobcat).
I provide students with this Animal Categories Table that I fill in with them as individual students are called on to add to the list. (I prefer to use a document camera for this but it can just as easily be projected from document form or on a a SMARTBoard).
Tomorrow we graph the data and write a series of questions that can either be answered by the graph or are raised by the graph.
Note: You will probably observe that students name a disproportionate number of mammals. There’s a reason for this! It will probably be a disproportionate number of mammals. In general, most people are more aware of charismatic megafauna. What are charismatic megafauna? Charismatic megafauna are those popular animals that everyone seems to know (e.g., Giant panda, Bottlenose dolphin).
This simple pictograph gives students an approximate count of the actual number of species in animals groups from this lesson's activity. It's a simple review of the idea of a pictograph as a way to have a picture (in this case a square) represent a value greater than one. In this pictograph, each square has a value of 100 species. You can also use this short movie clip to talk about the number of species students were able to name (based on my experience, I set this bar at 100 but the number is usually far less) out of the total number of species in that group. For example, on the first slide, 100/5000 is represented. Approximately 100 species out of approximately 5000 (rounded to the closest thousand).
For homework, they can ask an adult at home how many mammal (or any other group) species they thin there are. It's a fun jumping off point for a conversation about what they did in school, and I make a point of letting students know that until I started to really read about all the diversity in the animal world, my guesses were no closer than anyone else's! This lesson isn't about guessing the correct numbers, it's about examining numbers in a familiar context (we all know animals!) and using that as a jumping off point for a conversation about data collection, approximation, fractions, pictographs, sorting and categorizing, or animal classification.