The Brain: Our Sense of Self
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The Brain: Our Sense of Self

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Teacher's Guide

Implementing the Module

The five lessons in this module are designed to be taught in sequence for approximately seven days as a replacement for a part of the standard curriculum in middle school life science. The following pages offer general suggestions about using these materials in the classroom; you will find specific suggestions in the procedures provided for each lesson.

What Are the Goals of the Module?

The Brain: Our Sense of Self is designed to help students reach these major goals associated with scientific literacy:

What Are the Science Concepts and How Are They Connected?

We organized the lessons to move students from what they already know about the brain and nervous system, some of which may be incorrect, to having the students gain a scientific perspective of the nature of the brain and nervous system, as well as the importance of the brain and nervous system to their lives. Students are engaged in the topic by exploring various higher brain functions (A Difference of Mind). Next, students investigate functional specialization within the brain (Regional Differences). Students expand their understanding of the role of the brain within the nervous system by building neural pathways for involuntary and voluntary actions (Inside Information). Students examine brain plasticity and learn about the process of science by exploring the effect of environment on learning in mice (Outside Influence). The final lesson (Our Sense of Self) allows students to draw on the understandings they have developed over the course of the module to evaluate whether the brain contains our sense of self. The following two tables illustrate the science content and conceptual flow of the classroom lessons and activities.

Science Content of the Lessons
Lesson Science Content
Lesson 1 Functions of the brain
Lesson 2 Structure and function of the brain
Lesson 3 Neural pathways; reflexes and voluntary actions
Lesson 4 Learning and factors that affect learning
Lesson 5 Pulling it together: our sense of self

Conceptual Flow of the Lessons
Lesson Learning Focus* Major Concepts
Lesson 1
A Difference of Mind
Engage Explore
  • The human brain performs diverse functions.
  • Each person’s brain responds differently from every other person’s brain to tasks related to these brain functions.
Lesson 2
Regional Differences
Explore Explain
  • Specialized regions of the brain process information from specific sources, such as the eyes, ears, or skin.
  • The location of these specialized regions in the brain is similar between individuals.
  • Responses by the brain differ between individuals, even though the individuals receive information from the same sources in the same specialized areas of the brain.
Lesson 3
Inside Information
Explore Explain
  • The body receives and delivers information through the nervous system.
  • The nervous system is an interconnected set of specialized parts, including the brain, the spinal cord, and nerve cells outside the brain and spinal cord.
  • Information flows in one direction through a nerve cell.
  • Reflex pathways lead to rapid, involuntary responses and include only the spinal cord and nerve cells outside the brain and spinal cord.
  • Voluntary response pathways involve choice and thus include the brain as well as the spinal cord and nerve cells outside the brain and spinal cord.
Lesson 4
Outside Influence
  • Learning is an important brain function.
  • There are factors that affect learning.
  • Laboratory animals can serve as experimental models for investigating learning.
  • The ability of the brain to learn is not fixed.
Lesson 5
Our Sense of Self
  • The nervous system can be damaged through injury or disease.
  • Damage to the spinal cord does not change who we are.
  • Damage to the brain can change who we are.
*See How Does the 5E Instructional Model Promote Active, Collaborative, Inquiry-Based Learning?

How Does the Module Correlate to the National Science Education Standards?

National Science Education Standards iconThe Brain: Our Sense of Self supports you in your efforts to reform science education in the spirit of the National Research Council’s 1996 National Science Education Standards (NSES). The content of the module is explicitly standards based. Each time a standard is addressed in a lesson, an icon appears in the margin and the applicable standard is identified. The following chart lists the specific content standards that this module addresses.

Content Standards: Grades 5–8
Standard A: Science as Inquiry
As a result of activities in grades 5–8, all students should develop
Correlation to The Brain: Our Sense of Self
Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry  
  • Identify questions and concepts that guide scientific investigations.
Lessons 4, 5
  • Design and conduct a scientific investigation.
Lessons 4, 5
  • Use appropriate tools and techniques to gather, analyze, and interpret data.
Lessons 4, 5
  • Develop descriptions, explanations, predictions, and models using evidence.
Lessons 4, 5
  • Think critically and logically to make the relationships between evidence and explanations.
Lessons 4, 5
  • Recognize and analyze alternative explanations and predictions.
Lessons 4, 5
  • Communicate scientific procedures and explanations.
Lessons 4, 5
Understandings about scientific inquiry  
  • Different kinds of questions suggest different kinds of scientific investigations. Some investigations involve observing and describing objects, organisms, or events; some involve collecting specimens; some involve experiments; some involve seeking more information; some involve discovery of new objects; and some involve making models.
Lessons 3, 4, 5
  • Current scientific knowledge and understanding guide scientific investigations. Different scientific domains employ different methods, core theories, and standards to advance scientific knowledge and understanding.
Lessons 3, 4, 5
  • Technology used to gather data enhances accuracy and allows scientists to analyze and quantify results of investigations.
Lessons 2, 4
  • Scientific explanations emphasize evidence, have logically consistent arguments, and use scientific principles, models, and theories. The scientific community accepts and uses such explanations until displaced by better scientific ones. When such displacement occurs, science advances.
Lessons 3, 4, 5
  • Science advances through legitimate skepticism. Asking questions and querying other scientists’ explanations is part of scientific inquiry. Scientists evaluate the explanations proposed by other scientists by examining evidence, comparing evidence, identifying faulty reasoning, pointing out statements that go beyond the evidence, and suggesting alternative explanations for the same observations.
Lessons 2, 3, 4, 5
  • Scientific investigations sometimes result in new ideas and phenomena for study, generate new methods or procedures for an investigation, or develop new technologies to improve the collection of data. All of these results can lead to new investigations.
Lessons 3, 4, 5
Standard C: Life Science
As a result of their activities in grades 5–8, all students should develop an understanding of
Structure and function in living systems  
  • Living systems at all levels of organization demonstrate the complementary nature of structure and function. Important levels of organization for structure and function include cells, organs, tissues, organ systems, whole organisms, and ecosystems.
Lessons 2, 3, 4, 5
  • All organisms are composed of cells—the fundamental unit of life. Most organisms are single cells; other organisms, including humans, are multicellular.
Lessons 3, 4
  • Cells carry on the many functions needed to sustain life. They grow and divide, thereby producing more cells. This requires that they take in nutrients, which they use to provide energy for the work that cells do and to make the materials that a cell or an organism needs.
Lessons 3, 4, 5
  • Specialized cells perform specialized functions in multicellular organisms. Groups of specialized cells cooperate to form a tissue, such as muscle. Different tissues are in turn grouped together to form larger functional units, called organs. Each type of cell, tissue, and organ has a distinct structure and set of functions that serve the organism as a whole.
Lessons 2, 3, 4, 5
  • The human organism has systems for digestion, respiration, reproduction, circulation, excretion, movement, control, and coordination and for protection from disease. These systems interact with one another.
Lessons 2, 3, 4, 5
  • Disease is a breakdown in structures or functions of an organism. Some diseases are the result of intrinsic failures of the system. Others are the result of damage by infection by other organisms.
Lesson 5
Reproduction and heredity  
  • The characteristics of an organism can be described in terms of a combination of traits. Some are inherited, and others result from interactions with the environment.
Lesson 4
Regulation and behavior  
  • Regulation of an organism’s internal environment involves sensing the internal environment and changing physiological activities to keep conditions within the range required to survive.
Lessons 2, 3, 4, 5
  • Behavior is one kind of response an organism can make to an internal or environmental stimulus. A behavioral response requires coordination and communication at many levels, including cells, organ systems, and whole organisms. Behavioral response is a set of actions determined in part by heredity and in part by experience.
Lessons 2, 3, 4, 5
  • An organism’s behavior evolves through adaptation to its environment. How a species moves, obtains food, reproduces, and responds to danger is based in the species’ evolutionary history.
Lessons 2, 3, 4, 5
Diversity and adaptations of organisms  
  • Millions of species of animals, plants, and microorganisms are alive today. Although different species might look dissimilar, the unity among organisms becomes apparent from an analysis of internal structures, the similarity of their chemical processes, and the evidence of common ancestry.
Lesson 4
  • Biological evolution accounts for the diversity of species developed through gradual processes over many generations. Species acquire many of their unique characteristics through biological adaptation, which involves the selection of naturally occurring variations in populations. Biological adaptations include changes in structures, behaviors, or physiology that enhance survival and reproductive success in a particular environment.
Lesson 4
Standard F: Science in Personal and Social Perspectives
As a result of their activities in grades 5–8, all students should develop an understanding of
Personal health  
  • The potential for accidents and the existence of hazards impose the need for injury prevention. Safe living involves the development and use of safety precautions and the recognition of risk in personal decisions.
Lesson 5
Risks and benefits  
  • Risk analysis considers the type of hazard and estimates the number of people who might be exposed and the number likely to suffer consequences. The results are used to determine the options for reducing or eliminating risks.
Lessons 2, 3, 4, 5
  • Students should understand the risks associated with natural hazards (fires, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions), chemical hazards (pollutants in air, water, soil, and food), biological hazards (pollen, viruses, bacterial, and parasites), social hazards (occupational safety and transportation), and personal hazards (smoking, dieting, and drinking).
Lessons 2, 3, 4, 5
  • Individuals can use a systematic approach to thinking critically about risks and benefits. Examples include applying probability estimates to risks and comparing them to estimated personal and social benefits.
Lessons 2, 3, 4, 5
  • Important personal and social decisions are made based on perceptions of benefits and risks.
Lessons 2, 3, 4, 5
Science and technology in society  
  • Societal challenges often inspire questions for scientific research, and social priorities often influence research priorities through the availability of funding for research.
Lessons 2, 3, 4, 5

Teaching Standards

The suggested teaching strategies in all the lessons support you as you work to meet the teaching standards outlined in the National Science Education Standards. The module helps teachers plan an inquiry-based science program by providing short-term objectives for students. It also includes planning tools such as the Conceptual Flow of the Lessons chart and the Suggested Timeline for teaching the module. Teachers can use this module to update their curriculum in response to their students’ interest in this topic. The focus on active, collaborative, and inquiry-based learning in the lessons helps teachers support the development of student understanding and nurture a community of science learners.

The structure of the lessons in this module enables teachers to guide and facilitate learning. All the activities encourage and support student inquiry, promote discourse among students, and challenge students to accept and share responsibility for their learning. Using the 5E Instructional Model, combined with active, collaborative learning, allows teachers to respond effectively to the diversity of student backgrounds and learning styles. The module is fully annotated, with suggestions for how teachers can encourage and model the skills of scientific inquiry, as well as foster the curiosity, openness to new ideas and data, and skepticism that characterize successful study of science.

Assessment Standards

You can engage in ongoing assessment of your teaching and of student learning using the variety of assessment components embedded within the module’s structure. The assessment tasks are authentic; they are similar in form to tasks that students will encounter in their lives outside the classroom or in which scientists participate. Annotations guide teachers to these opportunities for assessment and provide answers to questions that can help teachers analyze student feedback.

How Does the 5E Instructional Model Promote Active, Collaborative, Inquiry-Based Learning?

Because learning does not occur through a process of passive absorption, the lessons in this module promote active learning. Students are involved in more than listening and reading. They are developing skills, analyzing and evaluating evidence, experiencing and discussing, and talking to their peers about their own understandings. Students work collaboratively with others to solve problems and plan investigations. Many students find that they learn better when they work with others in a collaborative environment than they can when they work alone in a competitive environment. When all this active, collaborative learning is directed toward inquiry science, students succeed in making their own discoveries. They ask questions, observe, analyze, explain, draw conclusions, and ask new questions. These inquiry experiences include both those that involve students in direct experimentation and those in which students develop explanations through critical and logical thinking.

This viewpoint that students are active thinkers who construct their own understanding out of interactions with phenomena, the environment, and other individuals is based on the theory of constructivism. A constructivist view of learning recognizes that students need time to

This module provides a built-in structure for creating a constructivist classroom: the 5E Instructional Model. This model sequences the learning experiences so that students have the opportunity to construct their understanding of a concept over time. The model takes students through five phases of learning that are easily described using five words that begin with the letter E: Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, and Evaluate. The following paragraphs illustrate how the five Es are implemented across the lessons in this module.


Students come to learning situations with prior knowledge. This knowledge may or may not be congruent with the concepts presented in this module. Engage lessons provide the opportunity for teachers to find out what students already know or what they think they know about the topic and concepts to be developed.

The Engage lesson in this module, Lesson 1: A Difference of Mind, is designed to


In the Explore phase of the module, Lesson 2: Regional Differences and Lesson 3: Inside Information, students investigate how the brain functions as the body’s center for information processing. These lessons require students to make observations, evaluate and interpret data, and draw conclusions. Students


The Explain phase provides opportunities for students to connect their previous experiences and to begin to make conceptual sense of the main ideas of the module. This stage also allows for the introduction of formal language, scientific terms, and content information that might make students’ previous experiences easier to describe and explain.

In the Explain lessons in this module, Lesson 2: Regional Differences and Lesson 3: Inside Information, students


In Elaborate lessons, students apply or extend the concepts in new situations and relate their previous experiences to new ones. In the Elaborate lesson in this module, Lesson 4: Outside Influence, students make conceptual connections between new and former experiences. They draw upon their knowledge about the brain and nervous system to evaluate data related to learning. In these lessons students


The Evaluate lesson is the final stage of the Instructional Model, but it only provides a “snapshot” of what the students understand and how far they have come from where they began. In reality, the evaluation of students’ conceptual understanding and ability to use skills begins with the Engage lesson and continues throughout each stage of the model, as described in the following section. However, combined with the students’ written work and performance of tasks throughout the module, the Evaluate lesson can serve as a summative assessment of what students know and can do.

The Evaluate lesson in this module, Lesson 5: Our Sense of Self, provides an opportunity for students to

To review the relationship of the 5E Instructional Model to the concepts presented in the module, see the chart Conceptual Flow of the Lessons.

When a teacher uses the 5E Instructional Model, he or she engages in practices that are very different from those of a traditional teacher. In response, students also participate in their learning in ways that are different from those seen in a traditional classroom. The following charts, What the Teacher Does and What the Students Do, outline these differences.

What the Teacher Does
Stage That is consistent with the 5E Instructional Model That is inconsistent with the 5E Instructional Model
  • Piques students’ curiosity and generates interest
  • Determines students’ current understanding (prior knowledge) of a concept or idea
  • Invites students to express what they think
  • Invites students to raise their own questions
  • Introduces vocabulary
  • Explains concepts
  • Provides definitions and answers
  • Provides closure
  • Discourages students’ ideas and questions
  • Encourages student-to-student interaction
  • Observes and listens to the students as they interact
  • Asks probing questions to redirect the students’ investigations when necessary
  • Asks questions to help students make sense of their experiences
  • Provides time for students to puzzle through problems
  • Provides answers
  • Proceeds too rapidly for students to make sense of their experiences
  • Provides closure
  • Tells the students that they are wrong
  • Gives information and facts that solve the problem
  • Leads the students step-by-step to a solution
  • Encourages students to use their common experiences and data from the Engage and Explore lessons to develop explanations
  • Asks questions that help students express understanding and explanations
  • Requests justification (evidence) for students’ explanations
  • Provides time for students to compare their ideas with those of others and perhaps to revise their thinking
  • Introduces terminology and alternative explanations after students express their ideas
  • Neglects to solicit students’ explanations
  • Ignores data and information students gathered from previous lessons
  • Dismisses students’ ideas
  • Accepts explanations that are not supported by evidence
  • Introduces unrelated concepts or skills
  • Focuses students’ attention on conceptual connections between new and former experiences
  • Encourages students to use what they have learned to explain a new event or idea
  • Reinforces students’ use of scientific terms and descriptions previously introduced
  • Asks questions that help students draw reasonable conclusions from evidence and data
  • Neglects to help students connect new and former experiences
  • Provides definitive answers
  • Tells students that they are wrong
  • Leads students step-by-step to a solution
  • Observes and records as students demonstrate their understanding of concepts and performance of skills
  • Provides time for students to compare their ideas with those of others and perhaps to revise their thinking
  • Interviews students as a means of assessing their developing understanding
  • Encourages students to assess their own progress
  • Tests vocabulary words, terms, and isolated facts
  • Introduces new ideas or concepts
  • Creates ambiguity
  • Promotes open-ended discussion unrelated to the concept or skill
What the Students Do
Stage That is consistent with the 5E Instructional Model That is inconsistent with the 5E Instructional Model
  • Become interested in and curious about the concept/topic
  • Express current understanding of a concept or idea
  • Raise questions such as, What do I already know about this? What do I want to know about this? How could I find out?
  • Ask for the “right” answer
  • Offer the “right” answer
  • Insist on answers or explanations
  • Seek closure
  • “Mess around” with materials and ideas
  • Conduct investigations in which they observe, describe, and record data
  • Try different ways to solve a problem or answer a question
  • Acquire a common set of experiences so they can compare results and ideas
  • Compare their ideas with those of others
  • Let others do the thinking and exploring (passive involvement)
  • Work quietly with little or no interaction with others (only appropriate when exploring ideas or feelings)
  • Stop with one solution
  • Demand or seek closure
  • Explain concepts and ideas in their own words
  • Base their explanations on evidence acquired during previous investigations
  • Become involved in student-to-student conversations in which they debate their ideas
  • Record their ideas and current understanding
  • Reflect on and perhaps revise their ideas
  • Express their ideas using appropriate scientific language
  • Compare their ideas with what scientists know and understand
  • Propose explanations from “thin air” with no relationship to previous experiences
  • Bring up irrelevant experiences and examples
  • Accept explanations without justification
  • Ignore or dismiss other plausible explanations
  • Propose explanations without evidence to support their ideas
  • Make conceptual connections between new and former experiences
  • Use what they have learned to explain a new object, event, organism, or idea
  • Use scientific terms and descriptions
  • Draw reasonable conclusions from evidence and data
  • Communicate their understanding to others
  • Ignore previous information or evidence
  • Draw conclusions from “thin air”
  • Use terminology inappropriately and without understanding
  • Demonstrate what they understand about the concepts and how well they can implement skills
  • Compare their current thinking with that of others and perhaps revise their ideas
  • Assess their own progress by comparing their current understanding with their prior knowledge
  • Ask new questions that take them deeper into a concept or topic area
  • Disregard evidence or previously accepted explanations in drawing conclusions
  • Offer only yes-or-no answers or memorized definitions or explanations as answers
  • Fail to express satisfactory explanations in their own words
  • Introduce new, irrelevant topics

How Does the Module Support Ongoing Assessment?

Because teachers will use this module in a variety of ways and at a variety of points in their curriculum, the most appropriate mechanism for assessing student learning is one that occurs informally at various points within the five lessons, rather than something that happens more formally just once at the end of the module. Accordingly, integrated within the module’s five lessons are specific assessment components. These “embedded” assessment opportunities include one or more of the following strategies:

These strategies allow the teacher to assess a variety of aspects of the learning process, such as students’ prior knowledge and current understanding, problem-solving and critical-thinking skills, level of understanding of new information, communication skills, and ability to synthesize ideas and apply understanding to a new situation.

assessment iconAn assessment icon and an annotation that describes the aspect of learning that teachers can assess appear in the margin beside each step in which embedded assessment occurs.

How Can Controversial Topics Be Handled in the Classroom?

Teachers sometimes feel that the discussion of values is inappropriate in the science classroom or that it detracts from the learning of “real” science. The lessons in this module, however, are based on the conviction that there is much to be gained by involving students in analyzing issues of science, technology, and society. Society expects all citizens to participate in the democratic process, and our educational system must provide opportunities for students to learn to deal with contentious issues with civility, objectivity, and fairness. Likewise, students need to learn that science intersects with life in many ways.

In this module, students have a variety of opportunities to discuss, interpret, and evaluate basic science and health issues, some in the light of values and ethics. As students encounter issues about which they feel strongly, some discussions might become controversial. The degree of controversy will depend on many factors, such as how similar the students are with respect to socioeconomic status, perspectives, value systems, and religious preferences. In addition, the language and attitude of the teacher factor into the flow of ideas and the quality of exchange among the students.

The following guidelines may help you facilitate discussions that balance factual information with feelings.

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