What are the issues?


Great apes learning language

Working in groups, go through the orangutans story and pick out words or whole sentences that raise issues and applications.


Once you have done that you can compare your thoughts with ours.


The next step is to look into these issues and applications in more detail. There are two ways to tackle this, and very often they shade into each other and you can do both.


One way is to have group discussions about the issues and applications. The other is to carry out a little more research into them - using books and magazines and the Internet, or by emailing the scientists themselves.


Both group discussions and more research are best followed by a presentation to the class on what you have learned and decided.


Once you've explored a few science news stories it becomes fairly easy to pick out the issues and applications, and think of discussion and research topics arising from them yourself. Here's how:


First gather the issues and applications you've highlighted in the story together. Here are the ones we've found in the orangutans story. You might have discovered others.


  1. Plenty of animals tell each other things using sounds or gestures. Scientists keep being surprised by how well some animals can do this.
  2. Most of us don’t look much like apes, but we do have a lot in common with them.
  3. The orangutans were clearly working out if their audience understood them. This surprised the St Andrews University scientists.
  4. The orangutans intended a particular result.
  5. The charades method is one way to build a shared lexicon from learned signals.
  6. More study of how apes communicate could help us learn about how the earliest forms of human language began.


You can now turn any or all of these into a discussion or research topic. Here are some suggestions, and a few links to get you started. You can probably think of other issues yourself.

Topics for discussion, research or pupil presentations

  1. Investigate the many ways animals use to "talk" to each other. Which kind of animals talk most? Is there anything similar about the different ways of life of these animals? What do they talk about? Why do you think scientists "keep being surprised" by how well animals communicate?
  2. Investigate what we have in common with other great apes. Look into both genes and behaviour.
  3. How clear is it that the orangutans were "working out if their audience understood them"? Could there be another explanation for what the scientists saw? Can you think up another test or experiment that would decide for sure?
  4. Most people - scientists and non-scientists - think of animals as very different from humans. We have an inner life, but animals are just soft machines that "nourish a blind life within the brain". More and more evidence is showing however that this view is simply wrong. Many different kinds of animals have feelings, thoughts and intentions. Does this mean that they are "people" too?
  5. What do the two phrases in this statement mean: "shared lexicon" and "learned signals". Pick one example of a shared lexicon - for example human speech, dolphin calls, parrot cries, bonobo communications in the wild - and try to think of how, in the distant past, this might have grown out of just a few learned signals.
  6. Learning how the earliest form of human language began would be a fascinating piece of research. But if great apes are "people" (see issue 4) should we be experimenting on them at all?


More classroom activities



[For teachers]

Tips for science class discussions and groupwork

No 62

  • Make sure the task is clear and has a definite product that has to be communicated back.


  • Make sure pupils have enough knowledge and resources to complete the task.


  • Don’t let it run for too long. Some groups will stray off task.


  • Drop in on groups for short periods with support or challenge as appropriate.


  • Make sure seating lets everyone in a group see each other – round a table is better than side by side.


  • Don’t let one group get too noisy. It will attract interest from other groups, who will lose their identity.


  • Normally groups work best with friends, but be prepared to break up groups that are not working. Some members will be pleased.


  • Allow time for feedback at the end, and value the contributions of all groups.


Adapted from the Nuffield Science for Public Understanding website:



Tips for class discussions and groupwork on ethics

No 5

Most of the secondary science teachers who shy away from incorporating ethics into their curricula are quite clear about the reasons they do so. First, they are uncomfortable with teaching ethics, a subject that science teachers often have very little experience with. Ethics as a discipline is full of unfamiliar terms and its own jargon.


Secondly, teachers fear classroom discussions ‘getting out of control’, degenerating into a battle of opinions, or having parents and administrators confuse teaching about values and morals with teaching particular values and morals.


Lastly, something as seemingly subjective as ethics can be perceived as somewhat out of place in a science classroom, where the focus is ostensibly on objectivity: “Why are we studying values in science class?” Ethics seems like just one more element in an already crowded curriculum.


This primer focuses on tools and strategies for overcoming these barriers, as well as some perspective on the importance of addressing the ethical dimensions of science with students.


The primer is designed to help science teachers in guiding their students to analyze issues in light of the scholarly discipline of ethics. This Ethics Primer provides classroom-friendly lesson ideas for integrating ethical issues into a science curriculum.  


From An Ethics Primer by Northwest Association for Biomedical Research