Hands-On Learning

Developing Higher Order Thinking Skills with Sorting Activities

Have you ever felt that getting your students to think outside of the box is like pulling teeth? Some kids either just don’t know how or they are afraid of being “wrong”.
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Today, I’m going to share with you a strategy that I just sort of stumbled upon that has become my absolute favorite to use in class. The kids love, love, love (!!) doing these, and you will be amazed at some of the connections your students make. Sounds like a win / win situation to me.
Several years ago when I first started teaching science, I wanted some activities that would address different learning styles yet still allow me to quickly assess understanding. Soooo….I created some sorting activities.

Open Sorts

The first type of sort I did with my students was an open sort (although I didn’t really know that was what it is at the time – I told you…I stumbled upon this jewel). I don’t even remember if I made the cards or what the concept was that we were studying. What I remember was the results!

Basically I gave small groups of students a set of cards and told them to sort them. That’s all…. just sort them. At the time I was expecting that they would see the relationships between the cards and the concept and sort the cards into certain categories that I had in mind. For example, I may have given them cards that were examples of solids, liquids, and gases, and I assumed (you know what they say about assuming) the kiddos would categorize the cards by those rules.

But, they didn’t and I was blown away! Given a little time and discussion with their peers, they made some connections that I never would have made. And the real beauty of this activity is that when you encourage your students to share their sorts with their classmates, kids start to see that there can be more than one way to observe something and that there can be more than one right answer.

Here are some recent examples from my class. We have been studying environments, adaptations, and types of animals (vertebrates).

Here you see that the kiddos grouped a shark, a venus flytrap, a rose, jungle plants (because they thought some markings on the tree bark were spikes…that’s okay), an aloe vera, a raspberry plant, a sunflower, and a cactus plant. Their commonality was that they all had sharp pokey things (their words, not mine!). If they can rationalize it, I’m good.

The students grouped the chameleon, the caterpillar, the snow leopard, the rattlesnake, and the zebras because they all demonstrate the use of some sort of camouflage. Again… if they can rationalize then its all good.

This one cracked me up because of what one my student said. This group included the butterfly (mimicry) and the hibernating bat (upper left hand corner). I asked why they included the bat and one little one said that the cards were grouped by patterned or textured outer coverings. She said that the bats folded wings looked textured to her, and that this may protect the bat from predators that may have “texture issues”.  She then went on to explain that she can relate to this, because she too has texture issues…!

Closed Sorts

Closed sorts are a little more straight forward. With a closed sort, students sort cards into predetermined categories. These are great for a simple assessment of concept understanding. Check out the sort below.

This sort is not complete, but there are some cards that require the students to do a bit of comparing and contrasting. For example there are two cards that say “lay eggs in water” (fish and amphibians), mostly lay eggs on land (reptiles), and lay eggs (birds).  So a little bit of careful differentiation is necessary. Once they understand the concept, then the higher order thinking fest can begin.

Teacher Tips

  1. I suggest copying your sorting cards and mats on cardstock and laminating them for durability.
  2. Once your students have moved on to a new concept, previous sorts make great choice centers.
  3. Closed sorting activities can definitely be repurposed as open sorts. Just give your littles the cards and let them have at it.
  4. Don’t be frustrated if some of your students have a hard time with open sorts. There are always those that have to be correct and it is very hard for them to be flexible. Give them time. (See tip #6)
  5. Allow students to start where they are. For example if they sort whatever cards that you give them by characteristics that seem to simple to you… remember that they are children and that this is new to them. Again…give them time. (See tip #6)
  6. Try modeling an open sort by having either the whole class gather around the edges of the carpet or a small group around a table. Put one card in the center, and then in round robin fashion have students suggest what other cards might have a characteristic in common with the first card. Start building different categories led by the students’ ideas.  This activity builds their confidence and really encourages careful analyzing (higher order!) I promise you that you will be thrilled with the results!

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