Sort of Rethinking Card Sorts

During my ITT and NQT year, my colleague (a science teacher) and I just couldn’t get our heads around the idea of ‘card sorts’ which were pushed on us by our university tutors in particular. Why use them when, even then, we realised there are more time efficient and yet equally effective ways of encouraging students to think about and sort information.

Eventually we started using the term ‘card sort’ as a term of derision used to describe a particular type of teacher who insists on using ‘card sorts’ (and any other activity where the input didn’t seem to justify the output). “Oh that Mr Jones, he’s a bit of a card sort him” or “Ms Khan has got six different coloured worksheets out again, what a card sort”. Furthermore, as a teacher, nothing irks me more and immediately switches me off than having to undertake a ‘card sort’ in an inset session  as part of an attempt to disseminate and drip-feed staff ‘good’ classroom practice and I always imagined many students think similar things when faced with one in the classroom.

And that was that. No card sorts for me ever. Or so I thought….

I was recently given a ‘card sort’ activity by a colleague on classifying data and I threw caution to the wind and gave it a go thinking of it as a substitute for a large number of textbook style questions which I didn’t have to hand on this particular topic.

The activity was, to misquote Obi-Wan Kenobi, (it was Star Wars Day this week after all) “more powerful than I could have possibly imagined” and far more effective than textbook style questions could have been. The activity allowed students to appreciate that not all categories of data are mutually exclusive and that data can for instance be both primary and continuous.

Perhaps this is an obvious point and but too often I have seen card sorts used, and indeed been ‘subject’ to, card sort activities which just get students to consider and debate whether something belongs to one of a number of categories or just as a substitute for getting students to write things down in oder. A quick search on TES yielded the following card sorts:

  • A Geography card sort-‘Reasons for population control vs. reasons against population control’;
  • A card sort in which students had to order chronologically the events and personalities leading to the discovery of the structure of the atom;
  • A card sort of the chronology of the events leading to the outbreak of the Second World War;
  • A card sort on the positives and negatives of nuclear power.

In such cases I just think teachers can use their and their students’ time far more efficiently than preparing and doing such an activity. If you want students to learn and put things in chronological order, just get them to write the damn things in chronological order. There is only one answer here- moving cards around on a page won’t change that. You want students to debate the positives and negatives of nuclear power? Great- get them to draw out a table (a skill in itself), or better yet, get them to write about the issue. If you want to encourage students to consider all sides of the argument or decide between the importance of various factors and are worried writing things down will lead them to keep one opinion rather than consider changing it, then perhaps a card sort does have more value. Although I still think there ways of doing this that won’t require the preparation, cutting and sorting that could instead be used planning, teaching, learning and thinking (mini whiteboards that can quickly be erased spring to mind here).

However, in cases such as the one above, where students have to consider non-mutually exclusive overlapping categories, I found that it genuinely contributed to learning in a way that I don’t think could have been done by other means.

Card sorts shouldn’t be used to order things chronologically. They shouldn’t be used to sort things into simple, exclusive categories ‘chemical change vs. physical change’ for instance. They probably shouldn’t be used to encourage students to debate issues where there is no right answer, although there is perhaps some merit to this. Where card sorts do have a use is in encouraging students to appreciate that things can fit into multiple categories at once (sorting shapes is another area that could lend itself to this sort of activity). I wonder how many of the card sorts used at INSET sessions fulfil this criterion!