21st Century Lesson Plan: What Makes Something Living?

When used correctly and with a sound understanding of education and learning, technology can be used to address students misunderstanding, increase learning and foster students ability to connect learning to other areas.

Students are often confused about what makes something living. This can be a problem in biology since biology is the study of life! While most students understand that a dog is alive and rock is not, they don’t always know why. Common student answers include that that the dog is alive because it moves, breathes and eats while the rock doesn’t. This two-day “What Makes Something Living” lesson kicks off the year in AP Biology to address student misconceptions and provide the solid foundation of what life means.

According to Bransford, Brown and Cocking (2000), misconceptions need to be addressed and broken down before the students can begin to construct correct understanding. Using a mind mapping tool like bubble.us allows students to recall their prior knowledge so that incorrect ideas can be addressed and a scanfold can be constructued on which to build their new understanding. While this initial step should not take more than 10-15 minutes, it is very important before moving on to new learning. Following this mind-mapping activity, the students will take part in a case study. According to the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, “cases can be used not only to teach scientific concepts and content, but also process skills and critical thinking”. Case studies also provide a context for learning that often makes the concepts more relevant for the student. In this particular case study “Life: The Final Frontier: A Case Study on the Characteristics of Life” students are encouraged to think about what it means for something to be alive while investigating characteristics of living things. Students are also asked to respond to questions using Socrative. These “clicker” questions force the students to process the information being presented and makes the learning more active. Most of the characteristics of life will be presented through a short YouTube video. However, the students will also have the opportunity to do their own brief research in Google following the video. This gives the students the choice of what resources to pursue and also helps them to learn how and where to find information. Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown (2011) state that “students must focus more on knowing where to find information than on knowing what.” In today’s society of smart phones and tablets, this is an important skill. Once the students have an idea of the characteristics of life, it is time for them to put this into practice as they research one organism. This continues the same idea of learning where to find information but it also fits with another Thomas and Brown (2011) idea when they say that students must also “learn to generate content that represents their learning.” Once they find their information, this activity also allows students to decide on how they will present their understanding.  Renee Hobbs (2011) lists five core competencies as fundamental literacy practices (access, analyze, create, reflect, and act). This activity fits many parts but specifically addresses the create question “Do students get to use different genres, including narrative, persuasive, expository forms?” When students are allowed a choice, it increases their motivation and creativity. Finally, for the assessment of this lesson, the students will write and post an opinion essay. This step requires the students to take a position on whether or not they think viruses should be considered alive and support their position with specific evidence. This essay allows the students to analyze, create and reflect. All important criteria according to Hobbs (2011).

This 21st century biology lesson plan requires students to use technology to brainstorm, research, create and think critically. When used correctly, the technology listed will support instruction and more importantly, it will increase student learning.


Bransford, J.D., Brown , A.L., & Cocking, R.R. (Eds.). (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Hobbs, R. (2011). Digital and media literacy: Connecting culture and classroom. Thousand, Oaks, CA: Corwin/Sage.

Thomas, D., & Brown, J. S. (2011). A new culture of learning: Cultivating the imagination for a world of constant change. Lexington, Ky: CreateSpace.

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