Hierarchy Theory: An Inquiry Approach

 Author:   Kaesha Neil

DisciplineLife Sciences 

 Grade Level: 9 – 12

 Created in 2004


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Hierarchy theory, multi-level organization with interaction across the levels, is essential to understanding the structures and functions seen at any level of organization of a system. The purpose of this lesson is to teach hierarchy theory and a hierarchical organization of life, from subatomic particles to biomes. This is taught by unifying concepts learned in previous lessons into one hierarchical organization. Students begin by organizing something with which they are familiar: where they live. From this, the concept of hierarchy develops and is applied to biological life. Thirteen concepts that had been introduced in previous lessons are presented to organize hierarchically. Students present and discuss their organization schemes and develop the “official” hierarchical organization as a class. Via this class discussion, the concepts that had been learned separately in previous lessons are reinforced and coalesced into one general concept that allows them to better see how they relate to one another. I developed a deck of cards based on this hierarchical organization that can be used to apply and reinforce their knowledge. Card games were chosen because they are a fun and engaging method of learning. In summary, by developing the organization themselves, the students play an active role in their learning and can apply their new knowledge to something they enjoy and with which they readily relate—card games. This lesson may be adapted for grades 7-12 and college level introductory science classes.

Students will learn:
1. A hierarchical organization of life.
2. How the different concepts they have learned interact and produce the structures and functions they see



Students will be able to:

1. Define hierarchy and hierarchy theory and draw a diagram that demonstrates both of these concepts.

2. Identify and organize biotic levels from biomes to subatomic particles.

3. Explain how the levels of organization of multicellular organisms compare to unicellular organisms.

4. Apply hierarchical organization to a new system.

5. Explain how different levels in a hierarchy interact to produce specific patterns and processes at different temporal and spatial scales.

Keywords: Hierarchy theory, Classification Systems, Structure and Function, Organization


National Science Education Standards
Content standards (Grades 5-8 and 9-12)
STANDARD C - Diversity and adaptations of organisms

Arizona State Standards (Grades 9 - 12)

Strand 4: Life Science

Concept 4: Biological Evolution - Understand the scientific principles and processes involved in biological evolution

PO 6: Analyze, using a biological classification system (i.e., cladistics, phylogeny, morphology, DNA analysis), the degree of relatedness among various species.

Concept 5: Matter, energy, and Organization in Living Systems (Including Human Systems)

PO 5: Describe the levels of organization of living things from cells, through tissues, organs, organ systems, organisms, populations, and communities to ecosystems.  


 Lesson Plans (pdf / doc)
 Worksheet (pdf / doc)
 Worksheet Key (pdf /doc)
 Example Quiz (pdf /doc)
 Question Cards (pdf /doc)
 Hierarchy Cards (pdf /doc)

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