The following is one of fifty engagement tasks in Aaron's newest book Worksheets Don't Work. Each image is hyperlinked to a Google Slide that can be copied and edited as needed. The last section has been added to modify this task for virtual learning. To have upcoming blog posts in this series sent directly to your inbox, add your email address here.
When students care about what they are learning about, they are much more motivated to engage in instruction. While this truth might be universally recognized, it’s sometimes difficult to realize in the classroom. Students like Fortnite, not the Civil War. They like Instagram, not the periodic table of elements. However teachers might like to dress things up, there is a set of state standards they must plow through. Rarely do those objectives include pop culture and the latest hip-hop music videos.
Instead of letting those restrictions limit the material that can be introduced in class, teachers can throw open the doors to students’ lives by utilizing comparison. Students start with a teacher-approved concept or skill to serve as the subject of comparison. The analog, or topic of comparison, is then left completely up to the student. They can bring in their own passions, interests, and areas of expertise to any subject as a point of comparison. Who wouldn’t want to learn more about the similarities and differences between Romeo and Juliet and the Kardashians?
Why It Works
It might not seem obvious to students, but comparing and contrasting is a valuable life skill. It helps them interact with the environment around them. More importantly, a lot of the information students process is done by comparison to known information. Think about how students learn about lions and tigers. One of the first things they come to understand is that they are similar in that they are both cats but also different in significant ways. Add to that the distinctions between house cats, alley cats, lynxes, and mountain lions, and students explore a host of nuances that fall under the umbrella of feline. In order to classify, students must first be able to distinguish how things are alike and how they are different.
Yet our inclination to compare goes even deeper than that. One of the first thoughts we have as infants is the difference between our mother and other people. Though comparison is a natural thought process, that does not mean it cannot be improved with careful practice. What separates many novices from masters in various pursuits is the degree to which they can discriminate between pieces of information. By focusing on analyzing pairs of ideas, this strategy strengthens both critical thinking and recall. It also helps make abstract ideas more concrete and can provide structure for organizing disparate data.
Instead of a simple or restricted comparison, though, this technique leaves the analog, or comparative object or idea, in the hands of the students. When students are tasked with comparing two ideas that are unknown or barely known, the degree to which they can accomplish the task is diminished. Instead, letting them choose what to compare the subject to ensures that they at least are familiar with half of the content. This is also highly engaging since it taps into the motivational facets of autonomy and value. Their choice in comparison can be something they care about rather than a distant idea forced upon them.
Even though this worksheet alternative can work at a moment’s notice to replace any task, there are a few things to consider in order to ensure a smooth rollout.
1. Think about the subject that students will compare and how familiar they are with it. If it is a well-known topic, either through prior knowledge or where it falls in the current unit of study, expect some deep comparisons. If it’s a relatively unknown subject, however, the students will most likely produce more basic comparisons.
2. For the first few times that you implement this strategy, practice it as a group by producing multiple comparisons for the same topic. This shows students that there is more than one correct answer and success comes from flexibility of thought.
3. Decide how the comparisons will be communicated. Whether or not they result in a written product, allow students, if paired together, the chance to talk about the different possibilities. Trying to mentally fit ideas together to make a successful comparison is greatly aided by constructive student dialogue.
4. If the comparison will be graded, provide a rubric for students to reference. Even though it can be judged for gradebook purposes, it is a highly subjective task. Providing descriptors for various levels of proficiency and certain items to include will help students create quality comparisons.
5. Be prepared with a few options for students to use as an analog for the task. Most will find it exhilarating to be able to compare, for example, multiplication with Legos, but others will find the openness of the task daunting. The point is to provide practice with deep comparisons, not generate random pop culture references. If some students would rather choose from a list of analogs, that’s fine. They will still be required to do the mental heavy lifting of the comparison.
6. Decide how the comparisons will be shared. If turned in for a grade, how much will students need to write? Will they need to use complete sentences or can they list their thoughts using bullet points? Are illustrations acceptable and, if so, will they add to the grade in any way? If it isn’t for a grade, students might be able to simply share their comparisons orally with the class.
The students in Mrs. Camacho’s 7th grade language arts classes had just finished reading the Newbery Medal-winning book The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin. The book was filled with so many colorful characters that they created a character journal just for the novel. As they read, they took notes on the many different fictional people. They recorded the characters’ traits, both internal and external, and their own thoughts and opinions about them as well.
As part of a celebration planned for the completion of the book, Mrs. Camacho wanted to do something academic but also highly engaging. Throughout the novel, the students were constantly connecting the characters to people in their own lives and even fictional characters from television and the movies. Capitalizing on the richness of the book’s descriptions, she decided to ask them to compare and contrast one of the characters. Instead of giving them the object or person to compare the character with, though, she was going to leave the choice up to them.
“Students, I know you loved reading The Westing Game and solving the mystery around Mr. Westing’s strange death. You’ve done a lot of work in your character journals and some of yours are quite extensive. I’ve especially enjoyed the connections you’ve made to the characters. Who’ll ever forget Paola’s connection that Otis Amber reminds her of the old, bald-headed dancing guy from Six Flags commercials?
“For our end-of-book celebration, I want you to let your imaginations run wild. We’ve been discussing these characters all throughout our reading. I think it would be fun if you thought about one of your favorite characters from the book and compared that person to anything you want. When I say anything, I really mean anything. For example, you can compare Grace Windsor Wexler to an apple, a pigeon, or a bunk bed. You can make any comparison you want as long as you can describe at least one similarity.
“In your journals, write a sentence comparing the two using the stem I’ve written on the board. Then, write another sentence contrasting the two using the next stem. If you need to add a few more sentences because you have more than one similarity or difference, that’s fine. The fun part will be sharing our comparisons with each other. If you want, you can simply read them to a partner. If you’d like a challenge, though, don’t reveal your character’s name. Instead, say my character instead of his or her name. Your partner will then try to guess who you are talking about based on the comparisons you make.”
For some that need additional structure, the steps needed for the comparison can be made concrete. First, students must identify both the idea they would like to explore and a related concept to serve as the analogy. After describing the relevant features of both, students should explain what the two have in common. Next, they can detail how the idea and that analog concept are different. Finally, students can sum up what they’ve learned about the idea after the exploration of the analogy.
Restricting the students’ choice in finding a comparison would greatly limit the power of this strategy. That does not mean, however, that students cannot be guided toward a certain option. An easy way to encourage certain comparisons would be to provide challenges for students, possibly for extra points on the assignment. For example, students in a biology class might be finishing a unit on cell structures. In their task to compare one of the cell structures to something of their choice, they can earn five extra points if their comparison comes from something they learned in that class previously. They might even earn ten extra points for finding an analogy from one of their other classes, such as English or history.
Many students would enjoy drawing their comparisons. They could simply use a line to split their paper into two sections and use each half to represent the original idea and the comparison. Others, though, might prefer to integrate the two and draw a mash up. They could visually represent how the two ideas are similar and different in addition to writing the ideas out with words. If students are advanced enough artistically, they could communicate their thoughts through their picture and a simple caption rather than writing out complete sentences.
Another take on compare anything would ask students to write detailed descriptions of both the original idea and the analog. Instead of finding one similarity and one difference, the students would expand their thinking to include at least three of each. Finally, they could share their creations with a partner or the class. The twist, though, is that both the idea and the analog are hidden. Using sentences such as, “The two are similar because…” and, “The two are different because…”, students would play a guessing game. After reading the obscured sentences, their partners or groups would try to identify both concepts based on the detailed descriptions.
Modifying This For Virtual Learning
Students can take their comparisons to new dimensions by utilizing free online tools to make memes. Using a site like MakeAMeme.org, students can either upload their own photos or select from a stock of widely used photos to make their meme. Customizing the text on the top and bottom of the photo, they can use words, the image, or both to show their comparison.
Additionally, you can take a class set of comparisons and turn them into a Jeopardy!-like game using a Google Slides template. Using an assignment similar to the Dare to Compare mentioned above, you can take each comparison of a book character or historical event that students create and link them to one of the answers. As a class, you can split up into teams and play the game to review the content.