When in the park, students will use a dichotomous key using leaves to identify individual plans within the park.  In this lesson, students will create a dichotomous key using shoes to identify individual classmates.

The student will learn the purpose and function of a dichotomous key.


Included is the dichotomous key PDF [548K] used in the Discovery Pack Field Journal.  Students will use this key to identify plants once in the park.  You may use this key as an example to develop the following lesson. Students can also practice using the online dichotomous key activity in the student section. (That activity is also at the bottom of this page.)


Tell the students that they will create a human dichotomous key dividing the students using their shoes. Have all students look at each other’s shoes and classify them into two groups using a factor for sorting.  For example, you can divide the class into two groups using shoes with laces and shoes without laces.  Take many ideas from the students and remark on how many things make them unique.  After deciding, divide the group.  Go to group one and ask how they may further be divided.  Ask group two to think of a way as well.  For example, everyone in Group 1 does not have laces.  They decide to divide into sandals and non-sandals.  Group two decides to divide into white and not white.  Continue dividing until the students understand the function of a dichotomous key.  Tell students that like each of them have unique qualities, so do the plans around us. The dichotomous key they will use divides plants by using leaf types.

Extension Activity

Have the students chart the human dichotomous key.  Use the plant dichotomous key as an example. Each branch of the chart should eventually lead to the name of the student in the class.  Then throw the shoes in a pile and have each student grab a shoe that is not his or her own.  See if students can correctly identify the owner of the shoe using the dichotomous key.

Academic Standards


As a result of activities in grades 5-8, all students should develop--

  • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
  • Understandings about scientific inquiry


As a result of their activities in grades 5-8, all students should develop understanding

  • Structure and function in living systems
  • Populations and ecosystems
  • Diversity and adaptations of organisms

Academic Standards:

National Science Education Standards:

Teachers of science plan an inquiry-based science program for their students. In doing this, teachers

  • Develop a framework of yearlong and short-term goals for students.
  • Select science content and adapt and design curricula to meet the interests, knowledge, understanding, abilities, and experiences of students.
  • Select teaching and assessment strategies that support the development of student understanding and nurture a community of science learners.

Teachers of science guide and facilitate learning. In doing this, teachers

  • Focus and support inquiries while interacting with students.
  • Orchestrate discourse among students about scientific ideas.
  • Challenge students to accept and share responsibility for their own learning.
  • Recognize and respond to student diversity and encourage all students to participate fully in science learning.
  • Encourage and model the skills of scientific inquiry, as well as the curiosity, openness to new ideas and data, and skepticism that characterize science.

Teachers of science engage in ongoing assessment of their teaching and of student learning. In doing this, teachers

  • Use multiple methods and systematically gather data about student understanding and ability.
  • Analyze assessment data to guide teaching.
  • Guide students in self-assessment.
  • Use student data, observations of teaching, and interactions with colleagues to reflect on and improve teaching practice.
  • Use student data, observations of teaching, and interactions with colleagues to report student achievement and opportunities to learn to students, teachers, parents, policy makers, and the general public.

Teachers of science design and manage learning environments that provide students with the time, space, and resources needed for learning science. In doing this, teachers

  • Structure the time available so that students are able to engage in extended investigations.
  • Create a setting for student work that is flexible and supportive of science inquiry.
  • Ensure a safe working environment.
  • Make the available science tools, materials, media, and technological resources accessible to students.
  • Identify and use resources outside
    the school.
  • Engage students in designing the learning environment.

Teachers of science develop communities of science learners that reflect the intellectual rigor of scientific inquiry and the attitudes and social values conducive to science learning. In doing this, teachers

  • Display and demand respect for the diverse ideas, skills, and experiences of all students.
  • Enable students to have a significant voice in decisions about the content and context of their work and require students to take responsibility for the learning of all members of the community.
  • Nurture collaboration among students.
  • Structure and facilitate ongoing formal and informal discussion based on a shared understanding of rules of scientific discourse.
Model and emphasize the skills, attitudes, and values of scientific inquiry.
Activity Specifics
Extension Activity
Academic Standards

Grade Level:
4th-6th Grade

Subject Area:

Duration of Activity:
30 mintes to 1 hour

Materials Needed:
• Pencil, Paper, Shoes (whatever studenst are wearing)
Reading the Rocks
How Water Changes the Earth's Surface
I Fall to Pieces
Oreo Plate Tectonics
Plan Your Route to Grand Canyon National Park
Plate Tectonics
Rock Art
Three Kinds of Rocks
What's Inside the Earth?
Geologic Timeline
Animal Activities
Animal Game
• What is a Dichotomous Key?
Human History Timeline
Split Twig Figurines

DIRECTIONS: A dichotomous key is a useful tool when trying to identify different plants. It groups plants by their different characteristics, and you can use the visible traits of an unknown plant to figure out its identity.

Try using our virtual dichotomous key above to identify the plant pictured on the left.