Pointing finger

Lesson idea: Are you responsible?

This idea and the accompanying resources are designed to engage young people in discussion about the brain, how it controls behaviour and whether we are always fully responsible for our actions, using podcasts as a stimulus

This is a whole-class activity involving group work, self-directed learning and practical applications. Note: Strictly speaking these aren’t actually podcasts, but downloadable MP3 radio programmes. The difference is you can subscribe to podcasts using RSS newsfeeds, which update themselves automatically. There are some good sources of freely available technical help on podcasting on the web – see How to make a podcast for more information.

Learning outcomes

Post-16 students will develop essential knowledge and understanding of concepts of biology, and the skills needed to use these in new and changing situations. They will become aware of advances in technology relevant to biology; recognise the value and responsible use of biology in society; and consider ethical issues of responsibility. Students will learn about styles of reporting in the media and how to create podcasts as a way to distribute information.

Objectives

Are we responsible for our actions? Using specially commissioned podcasts as stimulatory material, students will discover more about the human brain, its structure and function, and its control over human behaviour.

Students will:

  • think about and discuss the ethical and social issues of reporting science news and the influence different styles of reporting can have on the public’s perception of a story
  • develop knowledge, skills and understanding of brain structure and function
  • develop understanding of how the brain controls behaviour and what happens when the brain changes
  • develop knowledge and understanding of the law, personal responsibility and citizenship
  • draw on existing knowledge to show understanding of the ethical, social, economic, environmental and technological implications and applications of biology, specifically neuroscience
  • contribute to group and exploratory class discussions
  • research a biomedical topic and use it as a basis for creating a news story
  • using the resources provided, create a podcast delivering a biomedical news story.

Suggested timescale

  • 1-hour lesson.
  • 1 hour of homework (to include listening to the podcasts).

(These resources can be adapted to suit any lesson length or teaching style.)

Resources

These resources have been specially commissioned to accompany the issue. These resources are linked to where possible and can also be downloaded individually or as a set at the bottom of this page for offline use.

  • Podcast: two news reports totalling 15 minutes in length.
  • Topic guide [PDF].
  • Homework guide for students [PDF].
  • How to make a podcast.
     

Introduction

Students listen to two podcasts featuring news reports of a fictional court case. In the classroom, students discuss the court case, the styles of reporting and the verdict. Students then research another biomedical story related to responsibility and create their own news story and podcast using the knowledge and skills they have developed during the lesson.

Podcasts

Students will have access to two fictional podcast news reports describing the history, verdict and reactions to a controversial court case. The defendant had a brain tumour at the time he attacked and killed a colleague. His defence was based around the claim that the physical changes in his brain caused him to become more aggressive and impulsive, making him less responsible for his actions. The story is covered in two very different reporting styles.

As well as considering the scientific and legal facts of the case, students must also be aware of the different styles of reporting and how that may influence listeners’ points of view.

Though fictional, the podcasts are based on scientific and legal fact. Scientific, legal and journalistic experts were consulted in the creation of both the podcasts.

Podcast 1: Broadsheet version

This is recorded in the style of a typical BBC-style news programme. All the facts in the case are reported and it gives a clear timeline for the story. The programme team have made the most of the fact that they had exclusive access to the defendant’s family and used this to tell his side of the story. The listener is led to the conclusion that there were victims on both sides of the case.

Podcast 2: Tabloid version

This is recorded in the style of the sort of news programme that might be found on a pop music station. In the report different clips are used to cast doubt on the verdict and the leniency of the sentence. The programme expects its audience to be similarly outraged by the sentence.


 

Case history

Our brain controls our behaviour. Throughout history we have discerned the functions of the brain by studying brain injury and lesions, and the resulting effects on patients’ behaviour.

This case is based on a true story, but has been altered slightly to make it more palatable to a younger audience.

Pete is a 35-year-old carpenter who had previously worked on a number of skilled and successful jobs. Until last year he was happily married with two small children, and was considered generous, considerate and very popular with friends and colleagues.

Pete began to behave very differently. He made inappropriate advances towards women, had many arguments with his wife, frequently lost his temper and became much more aggressive. One day he was taunted and highly provoked by another man and killed him.

In prison it is discovered that Pete has developed a tumour in his frontal cortex that appears to cause him to have an extremely short fuse; on occasions he is unable to control his impulses.

The case goes to court and the brain scans and behavioural evidence are weighed up. Was he really responsible for his actions or is his brain tumour ultimately the cause?

The jury find Pete not guilty of murder but guilty of manslaughter by reason of diminished responsibility. However, because he has already served time in prison, the judge gives him a suspended sentence (and appropriate supervision orders etc.) and he walks free from court. This is a high-profile case, which attracts plenty of publicity.

Notes for teachers

Please be aware that students undertaking research for ‘murder’ or ‘diminished responsibility’ are likely quite quickly to find themselves at extremely unsavoury (depraved) and inappropriate websites. We therefore do not advise students lead their own research on this topic, but use the resources and web links we have provided. See our topic guide.

Suggested lesson plan

These resources are flexible and can be adapted by teachers to suit their lesson length and teaching styles.

Homework: 30 minutes

Listening to podcasts and considering prompt questions on the homework sheet.

Exploration of brain science, the law and science reporting using the topic guide provided.

Introduction to lesson: 10 minutes

Group discussion: 15 minutes

Split students up into groups of four.

Students should use the prompt questions from the homework sheet to guide their discussion.

Prompt questions:

  • Did the jury come to the right decision?
  • What do you think the jury discussed?
  • What medical evidence would you want if you were on the jury?
  • What other information would you require if you were on the jury?
  • Should legal tests be based on current scientific understanding?
  • Was the man responsible for his actions?
  • How much control did he have over his behaviour?
  • How much does your brain control your behaviour?
  • Do you think he now has control over his behaviour?
  • Will this change?
  • Which report did you believe and why?
  • Do you think the public need to see justice, i.e. people serving time in prison?
  • What do you think scientists want the media to say when reporting science stories?
  • What do you think reporters view as important when reporting science stories?
  • Can you think of other examples where someone might not be responsible for their actions?

Summary: 10 minutes

Whole-class review of thoughts and opinions generated during group discussion.

Class suggestions of other examples of questionable responsibility.

Research and write news story: 20 minutes

Students choose another topic where responsibility for actions is in question. For example:

  • alcohol
  • drugs
  • sleepwalking
  • schizophrenia
  • mental illness
  • genetics.

Students decide/are allocated the ‘style’ in which to report. For example:

  • daily tabloid
  • daily broadsheet
  • science magazine (e.g. ‘New Scientist’)
  • scientific journal (e.g. the ‘Lancet’)

Students then write the script for the news story.

Encourage students to use content from this issue in their research.

Create podcast

Homework: 30 minutes

Complete the script for the news story.

Plenary: 5 minutes

Summary of issues raised in the lesson.

Options for taking action/further research.

Extension activities

  • Record the news stories and post them online. This may require collaboration with your IT department.
  • Collect newspaper articles from a range of newspapers/online sources and compare language and style.
  • Use the material as a stimulus for project work.

Special thanks

Thanks to the following for reviewing the activity materials and being interviewed for the podcasts:

  • Lisa Claydon, University of the West of England (legal consultant)
  • Chris Frith, Wellcome Department of Imaging Neuroscience (neuroscience consultant).

 

Lead image:

a2gemma/Flickr CC BY

Downloadable resources

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Thinking’ in September 2006 and reviewed and updated in August 2014.

Topics:
Neuroscience, Psychology
Issue:
Thinking
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development