Legal Personhood: Lesson 4 English, Yr 10

Are Humans Able to Measure Animal Cognitive Capacities?

This activity follows the inquiry-based-learning model. Initially, students are introduced to the relatively new concept of high levels of cognitive capacity in other animals. They are then encouraged to investigate scientific developments dispelling the idea that humans are the only cognitively developed animals on the planet. Choosing a species of personal interest, students delve into the research around this species and their capabilities. Students publish a two-page written and visual account of their findings that forms part of a group booklet on animal capacities for use in a primary school library.

Time Allocation

Five lessons.

Voiceless Resources

Key Inquiry Questions

Whilst students will ultimately direct this inquiry, teachers could begin with the following:

  • How have attitudes towards animal cognitive capacity changed over time?
  • Do beliefs about animal capacities differ between various groups of people?
  • What is an example of cognitive capacity in one particular species? * What does this quote, often attributed to Einstein, mean: ‘Everybody is a genius. If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid?’
  • How might understanding animal cognitive capacity challenge the assumption of human superiority over animals?
  • What are the ramifications for our use of animals if we recognise them as autonomous and self-aware beings? (Refer to the Quizlet in Activity 1 to familiarise students with the vocabulary)

Suggested Learning Activities


Begin with a general discussion about animal cognitive capacities. Which species do we consider to be self-aware and autonomous, and why? Why do students think humans are seen as the most cognitively advanced animal on the planet?

Watch and discuss the Voiceless video Animals: Property or Persons?

In groups, read the Voiceless Fact Sheet Animals: Property or Persons?


Professor Frans de Waal is an expert in animal cognition from Emory University in Georgia, Atlanta. His book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? challenges the idea of human intellectual superiority and encourages us to look closely at animal cognition to gain a better understanding of our place in the world.

As a class, students watch the TED talk given by Frans de Waal, and summarise the key points in five or six dot points.

With teacher facilitation, students begin the process of inquiry into a species they would like to research where scientific developments have shown interesting findings that challenge our pre-conceived ideas on animal cognition.


Once students have chosen their species, ask them to form groups of five. Aim to have five different species covered by each group. Students then work collaboratively to discover the ways in which new learning on animal intelligence is challenging the assumption of human superiority over animals.


Each group will produce a booklet that can be laminated, bound and presented to an upper-primary school library. Each student should contribute two pages to the booklet including an eye-catching heading, their findings about their species and images to engage younger learners.


It is important that students take the time to reflect on their inquiry. Aspects they enjoyed or found challenging should be explored and suggestions about how they might approach similar tasks in the future considered. This reflection could take the form of a written piece or a conversation within the groups and with the teacher. Feedback from the primary school students on the booklets would also be invaluable for the researchers.


On animals as persons or property: Voiceless video Animals: Property or Persons? Voiceless Fact Sheet Animals: Property or Persons?

On Inquiry Learning:

On animal cognition:

For a species-specific example of self-awareness and autonomy, see our Dolphins in Captivity APE.

To help us improve our materials, we would appreciate any work, feedback or thoughts you would like to share:

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