Can Sorting Teach Students to Make Better Connections Among Subjects?

By Sarah D. Sparks — June 18, 2015 3 min read
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Albert Einstein once described intuition as “a feeling for the order lying behind the appearance.” That ability to make useful connections among disparate bits of knowledge is one of the most sought-after of the so-called 21st century skills, but also remains one of the most challenging to impart to students.

Kenneth J. Kurtz, an associate professor of psychology at Binghamton University, is developing a more advanced version of a child’s sorting game to help kickstart students’ ability to draw out the underlying connections among different problems. In a series of experiments supported by the Institute of Education Sciences, Kurtz and co-principal investigator Andy Cavagnetto, an associate professor of science education at Washington State University, found students are better able to transfer their understanding of science concepts to new situations when they learn the concept by categorizing examples.

“Mastery is a precondition to transfer—you have to get the idea to apply it—but you also have to be cued to apply the knowledge you have to the problem at hand,” Kurtz said in a symposium on the project.

The experiments, previewed at the American Educational Research Association and the Association for Psychological Science conferences this spring and due for release later this fall, used a series of cards containing short stories that represented various scientific concepts. In separate groups of college students and of nearly 500 7th graders, half of each group was asked to fill out a worksheet that explicitly described the concepts or to sort a set of cards that offered good and poor examples of the concepts.

“Undergraduates, we didn’t give any clue of what the concept is, but we used pretty self-evident ones. We started out that way with the 7th graders, and it quickly became clear they needed more support, so we told them the concept,” he said.

Alike or Different?

A card set for one 7th-grade task offers an example. The task focuses on the idea that natural selection leads to changes within a population. One card shows a pack of wolves, some with thick fur and others with thin fur. After a particularly cold winter, the thick-furred wolves survive and the pack continues. Another card describes a population of green-skinned lizards that are able to hide in the leaves of a rainforest. When a drought turns the leaves brown, none can hide and all are eaten.

After completing the worksheet or sorting task, both groups of students were tested immediately, and then again the next day, using both familiar and novel problems. Both groups were able to recall the basic concept, but for those in both college and middle school, the students who had sorted the cards were significantly better at applying the concept to new situations, according to the initial findings.

“We know from the cognition side that when people are learning from different cases that represent the same principal, you don’t want them to be too close because then they miss the principle or abstraction. If they saw [adaptation] in fur in wolves, they could also see it in feathers in birds,” Kurtz told me in an interview. “Eventually, these same principles could be applied in reasoning about human social domains or entrepreneurial domains, where the principle might also carry some weight.”

The game recreates the natural categorization skill that children already use to learn outside of school, Kurtz said. “When we recognize ‘dogs’ and ‘balls,’ we have all these perceptual cues that make it easier to distinguish examples. They give us a basis for this ubiquitous process of making sense of our surroundings,” Kurtz said. “We want to see, when kids are learning about history or English or science or math, can we get that same kind of thing to happen? We can get them to create these ‘tools of thought’ to be able to make sense of the world.”

The researchers plan to pilot a more refined version of the sorting game in six 7th-grade classrooms this fall. While it is part of an ongoing project to develop the intervention in science classes, Kurtz said he thought similar play with categories could help students make connections more broadly across classes, from history to biology.

“Kids get charged up when they notice things in common across their classes,” Kurtz said. “That’s something that we think is very promising.”

Chart: An example of the sorting task used by 7th grade students to learn about adaptation. Source: Kenneth J. Kurtz.


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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.