Comparison Focus

It has been too long since I posted. However, my account just renewed for a year and I am determined to make the most of it! Today, I decided to write about a strategy I use in the classroom that can be implemented in almost any subject (I think). If you read through and have thoughts, suggestions, stories related to share, please do 🙂

More than 10 years ago, I attended a “Pub & . . .” gathering. We had a guest speaker that night and he opened my eyes. As a group, we talked bi-weekly about various aspects of religion and faith. The guest was a practicing Catholic with a background in theology. Here’s what stuck with me: He argued it was most important and absolutely critical at this point in history for us to look at how we (members of different faith groups or religions) are similar rather than different. What values do we have in common? What beliefs do we share? Where can we agree? He argued when we find these answers, then we will be better able to communicate with one another and find peace.

I remember leaving the meeting and being so excited about changing my own mindset. I went home and told my 79-year-old dad about this. He was the most peaceful man I had ever known and he just smiled, as if this profound truth I felt was just revealed to me was not new. To him, though, it was his way of life. My dad was the least argumentative person I have ever known. He brought people into conversation by listening first, then finding common ground to explore together. Just about everyone that met him loved him. So, in retrospect, I had been raised by a person with the same philosophy that our guest speaker had shared, yet I had never paid attention to that aspect of my father or his subtle teaching of me before.

Now, let’s apply this to the classroom. When preparing for the SAT, I remember learning that compare means to identify what is the same. Prior to that, I thought compare meant to explain the differences. Alas, in SAT prep I discovered contrast is to identify differences. Why did it take me so long, who knows. But, it is important that we know (and teach kids) that to compare and contrast is to FIRST identify what is similar and then identify differences.

Some of you may be rolling your eyes at this point, but to me this is incredibly important. First, we identify what is SIMILAR. Where is there agreement? Why? If that trait, characteristic, value, etc. is the same, what function/purpose does it have or hold for two different species, environments, groups of people, etc.? One value this approach brings to the classroom is accessing prior knowledge. We know this strategy is important and helpful in the classroom, and comparing something familiar with something new helps students by accessing their prior knowledge. This will also help with transfer skills. If a student learned this function, for example, in this context, we can help apply this function to a new context by identifying what is the same across the contexts. (I hope my explanations are working here).

How do I do this in my classroom? Well, I employ several subtle methods like concept mapping and mind mapping, identifying connections to prior learning activities, discussions, etc. but my favorite overt example is when I teach evolution.

During the evolution unit, we explore the history of life on Earth. Because I am in a private school, I am allowed to read the Bible in class. So, for this activity, I do. I read Parts of Genesis and students help me list the order of creation from this story. Then, I share with them the story created by the fossil record. Next, we look at where these two agree. I do this for many reasons, but one is to encourage the students that think evolution is contrary to their faith to see there is agreement between the Bible and the fossil record. I want them to be ok with learning this content and this strategy helps. Another reason is because of the power of comparison. By finding where agreement lies, we uncover more for us to enable understanding.

This year, students asked for more creation stories to be shared. So, I shared a few other origin stories. Again, after each one we discussed the similarities, where there is agreement. In some ways, focusing on similarities also helps us find opportunities for respect.

I hope you found something in this post to ponder. I would love to hear from you 🙂

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