This article is from our archives.

Animal, fish or bee?

Come wear your shoes quickly, Ravi Uncle, Adi and Rina are waiting for you at the gate,” called out Radhika’s mother. Radhika was busy trying to decide whether she should wear the red frock or the blue one. She looked at the mirror, “Will the King of the Jungle like red or blue ?” Lion King was her favourite film. She was hoping the lion in the zoo would smile at her. It was very important that he did not get mad at her.

She finally decided on the blue frock. Her mother helped her with the sandals, gave her a bottle of water and waved goodbye as she sat in the big jeep. Adi was about 12 years old and was very excited about taking digital photographs while Rina was looking forward to meeting Ghajini, the elephant. The papers said Ghajini and the mahout played with a ball. Rina was fascinated by the idea of an elephant playing with a ball and wondered if she would be able to play other games too.

Students tend to build several ideas about animals based on what they watch in cartoon films, read in picture books and from their small encounters with their pets. Sometimes these thoughts do not seem to connect very well to those described in textbooks and discussed in the classroom. The animal kingdom is introduced to children at an early age and gradually they learn more about various kinds of species We assume that they are able to classify and make dear distinctions between a fly and a fish, or between a mammal and an amphibian. At times these terms are like mere name tags that a child wears but its significance and its relation to other categories has not been internalised.

Radhika, Adi and Rina reached the zoo. Radhika was a little scared; she wished her mother was with her. Adi held. her hand and Rim said that it was okay As soon as Ravi Uncle came with their tickets they walked through the huge met-al gates covered with creepers reading, ‘Welcome to the Tanka Zoo.’

Ravi picked Radhika up and carried her as Adi and Rina looked out for birds in the frees. Radhika asked softly, “Uncle where is the Lion King?” Adi wanted to see the python first Rina exclaimed, “But Gajini’s park is just here on the left” They all decided to enjoy Gajini’s act first. Radhika loosened up a bit and clapped her hand as Ghajini flung the ball in the air.

On their way to the “Scary Snakes” section, they passed the lion and then the tigers. They threw some peanuts to the monkeys and Rina enjoyed them jump-ing from one end of the cage to the other.

Radhika was tired after all this walking and it was half-past noon. They decided to sit down and take a break at the shed. Ravi got them a snack and a drink Radhika was watching the birds and said to Adi, “Poor animals! They have to live in cages. Birds are luckier. They can fly” Rina disagreed saying, “That’s not true. The fish lives in water, but again the fish is a mammal; Radhika is right, it is quite sad that the animals have to stay in a cage. ” Adi was puzzled. He did not quite understand why the two girls were making such a distinction.

Ravi was amused to hear this too. He wondered why Rina and Radhika referred to lions and monkeys as animals, birds as birds and fish as a mammal. “Radhika, what is an animal,” he asked. She got up from her seat and said, “An animal has four legs and it eats other animals and it looks like …like a crocodile.” Adi said, “In that case, even man is an animal, right?” Ravi laughed while Rina said, “No. Man used to be an animal before. Now he is a human being.”

Research conducted shows that students have various misconceptions about what an animal is. We asked the following question to over 3,000 students to understand their ideas on classification of living organisms.

All living things can be grouped as plants or animals. Which of these in the list below are animals? Fish, Fly, Man, Lion, Grass, Crocodile

  1. All are animals
  2. Lion and Crocodile are animals
  3. Lion, man and crocodile are animals
  4. Lion, man, crocodile, fly and fish are animals

We will be discussing the reasons students harbour these misconceptions with concrete examples from research conducted by our subject experts.

Not an animal?

As we saw, Radhika and Rina had different ideas about what animals are. They argued. that an elephant or a lion is an animal but a bird or a fish is not an animal. Their uncle Ravi was surprised at their conclusions.

However, it is not really surprising because many children tend to think that way. They are introduced to the animal world from a very primary grade. They look at pictures of different animals in their books wild animals like lion, tiger, leopard etc, pet animals like dog, cat etc. and based on all this, they start making models of animals in their mind. They start defining rules in their mind that would help them call an organism an animal. Some of these rules are — it should be four-legged, it should be living on land, it should be able to eat anything etc. They refer to these rules when they have to classify a certain organism as an animal. If that organism doesn’t satisfy these rules, they don’t consider it as an animal.

All living things can be grouped as PLANTS or ANIMALS. Which of these in the list below are ANIMALS?

  1. All are animals.
  2. Lion and crocodile are animals.
  3. Lion, man and crocodile are animals.
  4. Lion, man, crocodile, fly and fish are animals.

Around 3500 students answered the question shown above. The graph below shows how they performed.

Apart from these rules they also have certain terms in their minds which are used for different organisms, For example, a fly is an animal, a fish is an aquatic organism, humans are mammals, the crow is a bird etc. For them all these different terms — insects, mammals, birds, are distinct groups which are not related. So now when they have to classify an organism as an animal, they refer to these rules and nomenclature system. They think that a fly is not an animal because it has six legs and moreover, it is an insect which is different from an animal. They think that fish is not an animal because it cannot live without water. They think that a crow is not an animal because it has only two legs, can fly and is a bird. Another challenge they face is classifying humans as animals. They think that humans were animals at some point of time, like gorillas. But now they are humans — a completely different category Moreover, they tend to say that humans are not animals because they walk on two legs, they do not look like other animals  for e.g. a crocodile or a lion and have a brain. Partly this challenge they face is due to certain ways in which we use the term animals and humans in our day to day language. We call a person not behaving properly an animal and a decently be-having person a human. And children tend to catch these things and append them to the list of rules they have.

It is okay to allow children to make such mental models. But it is equally important that we correct them scientifically at the right age. What students should understand is that when we classify something, we do look at certain features and group them with other things having the same feature. In this case, we may classify all insects or all birds together because they may have some common features. But while we look at the differences between groups, we also need to look at the similarities in them which will make all of them fall under a common broader category – in this case, animals. They should understand that there is a hierarchical system that exists in which there are different categories like birds, insects, mammals etc. but all of them fall under a broader category called animals which is different from plants.

Nishchal Shukla and Anar Shukla

Nishchal Shukla leads the Pedagogical Research division at Educational Initiatives (EI). Pedagogical Research team goes deeper into understanding how students think and how they learn different concepts, and different subjects.

Anar Shukla has worked as the Project Manager in the Marketing team of Educational Initiatives.

Latest posts by Nishchal Shukla and Anar Shukla (see all)