Comparison is the most pervasive cognitive activity the human brain actively seeks to engage. From the earliest stages of life, infants are able to discriminate their mothers among photographs (Berrara & Maurer, 1981) as well as among other caregivers, often using multiple clues: visual, aural, and scent. As children mature, they continue to hone skills of discrimination as they innately begin to compare experiences and build preferences for food, activities, and people. Adolescents and adults use comparison throughout the day as they are faced with decisions: what to eat, what to buy, how fast to drive, which route to take, whose proposal to accept, which idea to reject, and on and on. No decision is made in a vacuum. Every decision is made in context with previous experience and knowledge gained. Comparison, in that context, is among the most used and most important of our thinking skills.
Only recently has the ability of our young students to compare and contrast, to integrate ideas, and to analyze how ideas work together been fully brought to test. The Common Core Standards values the ability (and as I’ve pointed out, the regular and repeated practice of comparison), and therefore, so do the assessments growing out of the standards. In the past, students were taught to compare and contrast by using a simple Venn diagram. The issue with Venn diagrams as they are typically used is their limited capacity. All the Venn can do is support one’s effort to compartmentalize what is similar and what is different between two “things.” The diagram does not support parallel comparison and therefore, cannot support logical decision making or analysis.
Let me provide an example. I asked my students to compare the oft incomparable: apple and orange. As you can see and perhaps is your experience, whether we are brainstorming or citing evidence from a text, the concepts that comprise a Venn diagram are at best random. Moreover, they are disconnected from the similarities the two “things” share, those very aspects which allow distinct “things” to be contrasted. Unlike the connections our sophisticated brain makes as it sees concepts side-by-side and weighs those attributes (in the fuzzy way our brain “sees”), the Venn is simply a one-dimensional shadow box.
Indeed, the Venn is a fine example of often used graphic organizers, a tool cited in John Hattie’s ground-breaking publication, Visible Learning (2009) that supports the use of advance organizers noting a d = 0.41 effect size. However, advanced organizers “‘broadly defined as bridges from from the reader’s previous knowledge to whatever is to be learned…more abstract and incluse than the more specific material to be learned…provide a means for organizing new material'” (Stone, 1983, p. 194 cited in Hattie p. 167) seem not to include the Venn diagram. Venn diagrams provide no bridge between old and new learning and fall victim to Hattie’s general conclusion of advance organizers, “Too often…ignore challenge” (p. 168).
And so, I suggest a simple organizer that acts more like a concept map to provide structure as thinkers compare and contrast “things” encountered in reading or through life experiences. Concept maps are shown to produce a stronger effect size d = 0.57 attributed in part because of its “emphasis on summarizing the main ideas to be learnt” (p. 168). In the chart below, I have mapped the same concepts previously listed within the compartments of the Venn but expanded those concepts even further.
Studies cited in Hattie’s work indicate that effects are highest with “those students least likely to know the relationships between lower and higher order notions; that is, with lower rather than higher ability or highly verbal students” (p. 169). Gains are credited with the organizers ability to help readers/thinkers focus and the reduction of the cognitive load by “‘explicitly labeling links to indentify relationships'” (Nesbit & Adesope, 2006, p. 434. cited in Hattie, p. 169).
This discussion returns me to the Common Core Standards, standards which explicitly incorporate the cognitive processes of comparison within Standard 9: “Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take” (Common Core State Standards, 2010, p. 9). To my way of thinking, standard 9 is the most important of the reading standards. What makes this standard so important? Like all other facets of comparison, the value of the standard is in the fact that it does not stand alone. Standard 9 demands reader proficiency with other standards. Standard 9 “stands” on Reading Anchor 2: “Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development” as well as Reading Anchor 3: “Analyze how and why individuals, events, and ideas develop and interact over the course of a text” as well as Reading Anchor 5, the text structure standard and Reading Anchor 6, the perspective or point-of-view standard. Can you hear all of those standards in the language and diction of Anchor Standard 9: themes, topics, approaches? Moreover, Reading Anchor 9 begs for Writing Anchor 7: “Conduct short as well more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating knowledge of the subject under investigation.” Through the process of writing one is able to consciously reflect and hone the aspects of comparison, discriminate the choices made and justify those decisions by explaining thought through diction.
Both Common Core Assessment companies draw on the power of Literacy Standard 9 in evaluating the depth to which our students are attaining the standards through a variety of written performance tasks. As early as third grade, students are asked to read and consider multiple texts as the foundation for writing. The grade three SBAC practice test asks students to read two informational texts before writing “an informational article that is several paragraphs long that will help the students in your class know what the job of an astronaut is like.” PARCC’s grade three literary analysis provides two illustrated short stories and then asks students to write an essay that explains how the words and actions of one character in each story (Old Mother West Wind and Sandwitch) are important to the plots of the stories. In upper grades, the use of multiple texts continues. The seventh grade SBAC practice assessment asks students to read multiple texts and then develop an argument in which the student addresses the opposition and sufficiently elaborates on their own ideas. PARCC’s seventh grade literary analysis asks students to compare and contrast the development of a similar theme in two separate texts while the research simulation task asks test-takers to read three texts and then compare and contrast the purposes of the three texts, providing the test-taker with three specific aspects to consider: explanations, demonstrations, and descriptions. Throughout the grades, the similar thread among performances tasks are the inclusion of multiple texts with tasks of comparison, integration, or analysis (as appropriate to grade-level standards).
Recently, these assessments have drawn criticism from literacy experts and education theorists as well as practitioners (see Literacy Expert to Obama on PARCC Test: Too Hard, Too Confusing, or Absurd?). I will grant the critics of assessment their fears; they’ve been operating from an old system that really didn’t teach students how to read and how to write to complex prompts that addressed multiple texts. However, what I would like to show is using the flexible organizer that I have shared above can take some of the tension away. Let me provide an example using the very prompt and texts critiqued by Rebecca Steinitz in her letter to the President. The prompt asked readers to “write an essay that explains how Old Mother West Wind’s and the Sandwitch’s words and action are important to the plots of the stories” (PARCC Grade 3 Literary Task Prompt). Below is the flexible organizer I would work with students to develop in relationship to the prompt:
Is this practical–can it be done? I used this organizer with great success for nearly twenty years. Over the last year, I have introduced it to teachers from PreK through high school. Always, I hear rave reviews as feedback. Granted, in early grades, you may have to scaffold students before moving to the multi-columned organizer. Below is an image of my favorite five-year old’s comparison of pirates (from How I Became a Pirate) to Spiderman (from any movie of that name!), a comparison you may have seen in an earlier blog, The Quest Pattern & CCSS: in Life & Literature. Not only did Harry, a pre-schooler then, compare the two rabble rousers (pirates and superheroes) by how they traveled but he also compared where they lived, how they fought, and why they fought. That was nearly one year ago. He still remembers his comparisons and has grown quite apt as a first grader.
Will this work at older grades? Another of the PARCC items taking heat from the public and public school teachers is found in the 9th grade Research Simulation Task. After reading a passage from a speech delivered by Robert Oppenheimer, a letter from eminent scientists to H.S. Truman, and an essay on Truman’s decision to drop the bomb, students are prompted to write, “an essay that compares and contrasts a primary argument in each text…regarding the decision to drop the bomb…explain how effectively you think each author supported that claim with reasoning and/or evidence.” I’ll get you started with my chart…then venture to the PARCC website and see how you would fill in the cells.
The next step, is of course, writing the comparison/contrast essay, a format I’ve found most teachers don’t understand because they have been using the Venn diagram for years and tend to think there should be a paragraph on similarities and then a paragraph on differences. Yes, that can work for an elementary student but beyond the fourth grade, writers of comparison essays should be using the block or point-by-point methods. By using the organizer, a student can readily construct a point-by-point essay by moving across the rows of the organizer and a block essay by organizing the writing moving down the columns; more on that in my next post.
Barrera, M.E. & Maurer, D. (1981). Recognition of a mother’s face by three-month old infant. Child Development, 52(2). 714-716.
Hattie, J. (2009). Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. New York: RoutledgeShare Online