This is a great way to introduce a unit on taxonomy, the diversity of life, and the six kingdoms of living organisms. This is a group activity, but it could be done individually as well. I am including the full directions below so you can get an idea of what this activity entails. There are four follow-up/reflection questions for students to complete on their own after the activity.
To begin, divide students into groups. Groups of three or four work fine. Larger groups may keep some students from engaging or contributing.
For each group, you will need to assemble a mix of common objects from around the room. Each group should have the same objects. Students will be asked to sort the objects into categories, so you are looking for objects that differ in many respects: color, size, material, use, common, uncommon, usual location, etc. It is also helpful to have objects that are common in some respects and not others (analogous to bats and birds). In the past the objects I have used included: pencils, pens, crayons, and markers in different colors, maybe chalk too. Most of what you need is in your room: paper clips, binder clips, brass fasteners, erasers, plastic utensils, plastic cups, plastic dishes, tapes, papers in different colors, beads, feathers, felt, etc.
Here’s the fun part, explain to the students that they are to divide all of the materials into two or three main groups. Have them write down their group descriptions. There is no wrong way to group the objects, and if there is debate and argument within groups, use that as an opportunity to discuss the arguments and debates taxonomists have about the classification of specific organisms. The history of taxonomy is filled with disagreements, but remind the students that they must be civil. Just as in science, majority rules, but that doesn’t mean that the minority shouldn’t hold onto their views and try to support them.
Continue by having the students divide their larger groups into two or three smaller groups, repeating until the groups finally contain only one, two, or three objects.
You will have requests to expand the number of groups to four or five on any one level, and this is fine, if the students explain why. What you want to avoid at the outset is having every object placed in its own group. When students have completed their groupings, have each group share their groups, and the choices they made, with the class.
Now is the time to explain that there are many ways in which scientist could group living organisms. We could classify them by where they live, or by their color, or diet, or habitat. Our current system of classification is based on physical structure and our understanding of organisms’ common ancestry. We may be moving toward a system based on genetic similarity, and DNA sequencing is already being used to resolve some disagreements and is creating many more.
If you like, you can also mix up the groups and repeat the activity or tell the same groups that they should try again and purposefully come up with completely different categories.
After the students have had a chance to share, there are questions for them to answer on their own. The rubric I use for this activity is combined with my other taxonomy photo activity. I have included the rubric, but some of the elements are for the other activity (I grade both together). You do not have to buy both activities, but you will need to modify the rubric if you do just one activity.
Note: the history of our taxonomic system of classification would be a great extension activity for older students to research.