This lesson engages students in a discussion about learned vs. instinctive behaviors.
Background for Teachers
The idea that some behaviors are actually inherited is a hard concept
for students to grasp. Its easy when discussing barking dogs or purring
cats, but when you try to tell them that some of their actions are instincts,
they have a hard time discerning those from learned behaviors. Make a
list of behaviors on the board with the help of the students. Then go back
through the list with two symbols, one for instinctive and one for learned.
See if the students can decide which behaviors are which. Most of the
behaviors will probably have both symbols, because it is hard to tell
which human behaviors are learned and which are instinct.
Intended Learning Outcomes
1. Use Science Process and Thinking Skills
4. Communicate Effectively Using Science Language and Reasoning
Invitation to Learn
Ask students to raise their hand if they have a pet. If they do, have
them describe some funny things they do. As they tell their behaviors,
ask them to decide if it is something their pet has learned (playing dead,
rolling over, coming to their food dish at the sound of a rustling bag) or if
it is something instinctive to their species (barking at cats, playing with
their tails, pouncing). Tell them that these are obvious behaviors. You
can tell if they are learned from their surroundings or if they would act
that way no matter where they were. Sometimes its not so easy to tell.
- Ask students to describe a behavior that they notice, or somebody
else has noticed, that they do (they giggle a lot, they are very
serious, quiet, surly, jolly, excitable, etc.). If they cant come up
with one, give them an example from your own plethora of
behaviors (I am loud and like lots of people around me.). Ask
them why they think they act that way. Why do you act the way
you do? Let them think about this a little.
- Begin a list of behaviors on the board. Tell students that you
want at least one type of behavior from each of them. It doesnt
have to be one of their own behaviors, but some kind of
act/behavior they have seen, do themselves, or know of. Call on
students one at a time, writing their suggestions on the board.
- Tell the students that there are two ways that they get their actions
and behaviors. First, and sometimes most obviously, their
behaviors come from their environment. Their surroundings are
the easiest place for them to attribute their actions. They will be
the first ones to say, Well, Im pretty hyper, but my house is a
fun and crazy place. Were all pretty quiet at my house because
my dad likes the silence. I mess around with art supplies because
theres nothing else to do at my house. They understand that
there is something in their environment that has influenced them
to be the way they are. If you ask them if they think they would
act differently if they were raised in a different home, they will
almost always say yes.
- Give them a twistask if they might consider the idea that
perhaps they play with art supplies because they are genetically
(instinctively) inclined to do so. With a little investigation they
might find a great grandfather who loved to paint. Their
enjoyment of art might be instinctive, not just a matter of finding
something to do in the family room. Have them stop and think about their personalities. Is one of their parents like them in more
ways than one? A quiet, passive personality can be learned and
passed on through inherited traits.
- Revisit the behavior list, using two distinct symbols to make
instinctive and learned behaviors. See if the students can decide
which behaviors are which. Most of the behaviors will probably
have both symbols, because it is hard to tell which human
behaviors are learned and which are instinctive.
- Help them see that it is difficult to determine which
behaviors are instinctive or learned, but that we definitely get our
behaviors from both.
- Have students complete the Behavior Investigation chart. Complete the portion of the chart in the ME section
during class. If they already know some behaviors they share
with their parents, siblings or cousins, etc., they can fill those in,
also. Students interview their parents and determine behaviors
that they, their parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc.,
share by genes. Parents are very helpful with this because they
often recognize behaviors in their children that they know they
have, and vice versa. They are able to help in finding similarities
with aunts, uncles, and grandparents who the children might not
know as well. Students complete the chart and share at least one
discovered inherited behavior with the class.
Strategies for Diverse Learners
ESL/Special Needs Students
- ELL students who are fairly new to the language have an easier
time drawing pictures of things they like to do and of their
behaviors. Students with special needs, depending on their
abilities, benefit from drawing their behaviors as well. Other
options would be to give them a simpler chart to complete with
only a ME and a PARENTS side. They would only be comparing
their behaviors with their parents, instead of multiple people.
- Challenge students to look into their ancestry, interview
grandparents about great or great-great grandparents and their
behaviors. See if they can find an inherited behavior that has
been passed on through more than two generations. Students who
enjoy this can research more information on twins separated at
birth and the studies that have been done about them.
- Students may enjoy conducting their own Learned Behavior
Study by observing their family at home. Have them watch their
siblings for actions that are similar to their parents. They should
keep a log for a month and share their observations with their
family for a good laugh, and the class as a fun reminder of the
- Students create a new word as a class. Make it a weird funny
word and give it a meaning. For a month, tell the students to use
the word everyday at school, at home, at recess, etc. around all of
their friends and family. Have them tell you when they hear
someone outside the class use the word in natural speech. Keep a
line graph in the class through the month of how often the
students hear other people use their word. This is a great example
of people subconsciously learning new words from the
environment around them. Analyze the graph at the end of the
month. Use of the word should rise dramatically (as long as the
students are using the word regularly).
- Use the activity to talk about how our actions and the words we
use can subconsciously be learned by those around us. With that,
it shows how we can be changed by who we associate with. The
words we use (foul language included) are often peppered with
the words we hear regularly. Our actions reflect the actions of
those we hang around. Therefore, we should surround ourselves
with people we like and admire, so that we will reflect their
- Following the discussion on the discoveries from the home
assignment, have students complete the My Conclusions worksheet. They should write at least two paragraphs.
One paragraph should explain what an instinct is, and include at
least one example from their research of a personal instinct they
discovered in their family. The second paragraph should explain
what a learned behavior is, and include at least one example of a
behavior they do that they think came from their environment.
Conclude with a third paragraph of their opinion of the nature vs.
nurture theory. Do they think we get our behaviors mostly from
our genes, or are they mostly learned? Responses should be
interesting and very telling as to how much students understood
of the overall concept.
- Send a sealed letter home to the parents challenging them to try to
change a simple behavior of their child subconsciously in one
month. Without telling the students, have the parents choose a
certain way they are going to answer the phone such as “Hello,
Williamson Residence” or “Williamson’s” or “Hello this is
________.” Have them choose something distinctive and different
than just “Hello.” See if over a month of just listening to their
parents answer the phone this way, the students will switch over
to it subconsciously. At the end of the month, send a paper home
for parents to complete about their participation and the results.
Share in class.
- Give students a list of ten example behavior situations and have
them tell if it is instinct or learned and WHY (in their opinion).
You are not really looking for a “right” answer. Rather, can they
support their answer with correct logic? Some behaviors should
be obviously learned (The phone rings and I walk over and pick it
up), some obviously instinctive (I jump when I am startled), and
some that are a bit in between (I sing in the shower just like my
- Give students example behaviors and reasons why those
behaviors are in place and see if they can give them the correct
label, INSTINCT or LEARNED BEHAVIOR (e.g., I am scared of
spiders. When I was little my brother would throw big fake black
ones on me. They should write LEARNED as their answer.).