Classroom Classification

Meghan Willison


This game attempts to simulate the process of organizing plants or animals according to their phylogeny, i.e. systematics. Players of the game are given a selection of pictures of imaginary animals as well as a description of their classification philosophy, and are asked to group their animals accordingly. Following this, players discuss the different groupings that were created and the factors that affected the composition of the various groupings.


The purpose of this game is to convey the idea that the way we typically classify living things is not the absolute truth, but is based on the way in which we choose to do the grouping. The game also serves to introduce students to the processes scientists typically use to create phylogenetic trees.

Depending on the number of students playing the game, players may play as individuals or as groups. The game can be played with a minimum of four players, and there is no upper limit (a whole class can play if desired). There are four classification philosophies (see below), so each player may represent one philosophy (four players), or there may be four groups of players. 

Classification Philosophies:

1) Colourists believe that organisms should be grouped according to their colour. 

2) Featurists group organisms based on their facial features.

3) Audioists insist that the ears are the most important feature for classifying animals.

4) Contourists use the shape of the head to group organisms.

To play the game, one must make use of a set of imaginary animals that differ based on the four characteristics corresponding to the classification philosophies, i.e. (1) colour, (2) facial features (eyes, nose, mouth, etc.), (3) ear size and/or shape, and (4) head shape. The set may consist of any number of animals, though a set of between 8 and 20 animals is recommended. The difficulty of the game will increase with the number of animals in the set, so this may be modified according to grade level and student ability. An example of a set of animals is provided (see below). Anyone using the game may make use of this set, or they may create their own. 

Figure 1: An example of a set of imaginary animals.




 Each player or group of players is given (a) a description of his/her/their classification philosophy, (b) the set of animals, and (c) paper and pencils to create their phylogenetic trees. Because each player/group will be using the same set of animals, these may be shown on individual pieces of paper or cards or displayed for all players on a data or overhead projector.

Players are then instructed to create a phylogenetic tree* based on their classification philosophies. To assist in creation of the trees, the teacher/game instructor may provide students with (a) a name for each animal and/or (b) small cards with one animal pictured on each (players can easily move these from one place on a tree to another if they find this helpful). Once a player or group of players is satisfied with the tree they have created, they are asked to answer a series of questions independently:

1. Explain any difficulties you encountered while creating your phylogenetic tree.

2. If you were working in a group, did group members ever disagree about where to place a particular animal? If so, how was this resolved?

3. Did you find yourself looking at characteristics other than those specified by the classification philosophy that was provided for you? If so, what were they?

4. Did you ever feel as though there should have been an animal with a particular set of characteristics that wasnt in the set provided?

Once players have answered these questions, each player or group of players presents their phylogenetic tree to the other players. They are to explain their philosophy as well as the process they used to create their tree. Players are then asked to share their answers to the individual questions. Next, all of the players answer the following questions as a group:

1. What differences did you see between the phylogenetic trees that were created?

2. Would you say that one grouping is better than another? If so, which one?

3. Can you think of another way that the set of animals could have been grouped?

The last stage of the game involves a discussion of how the process players just experienced relates to the work of systematists in the real world. Specifically, the discussion should center around the individual and group questions, though any other connections players may come up with are fine.

* Players should already have a basic knowledge of the ideas behind and the method for creation of phylogenetic trees.



 The following links contain useful information needed as background knowledge for this game: 

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