Comparison thinking prepares students for new horizons

We cannot prepare students to work in the world they’ll encounter 10 or 20 years from now.

2025 calendarWe can, however, enable them to learn the information and skills they will need in tomorrow’s workplace.

One of the most common ways to learn something new is by comparing it to something already known.  The value of the comparison is not in a side-by-side list of features, but in the question(s) that can be answered by such parallel lists.

To teach students the value of comparison thinking, begin by teaching students to consider what they can learn about their world using comparisons.

You could show some side-by-side photos (use of images plants the notion that comparisons are tasks ordinary people do outside the classroom), and ask students what questions could be answered by comparing the two objects.

For example, what kind of questions could be answered by comparing  these two objects?

Two windows, one with a box fan in it, the other with an air conditioner

If students look bewildered, you can ask who might need to compare the two objects. What reason might that person have for needing to compare them?

Other comparisons that are easy to present visually include such things as:

  • Two food items
  • The school football team and an NFL team
  • A laundromat washing machine and a home washer
  • A newspaper and an online news website
  • A laptop computer and a smartphone

It doesn’t take students long to see that comparisons are routinely used to guide decisions, particularly buying decisions.

Students also soon realize that many times there may be several feasible reasons for comparing any two items.  For example, two food items might be compared to answer such questions as

  • Which is a healthier choice?
  • Which is better to take on a picnic?
  • Which is easier for an inexperienced cook to make?
  • Which is cheaper per serving?
  • Which is more appealing to elementary school students?

The more plausible, specific questions students can suggest that could be answered by a comparison, the better.

After students understand what comparisons can do in out-of-school situations, give them some opportunities to do the same exercise with school topics, such as:

  • Compare algebra to geometry.
  • Compare tennis to soccer.
  • Compare a spreadsheet to a database.
  • Compare historical research methods to scientific research methods
  • Compare learning computer coding to learning Spanish.

Some of the questions students develop through this comparison activity might become the basis for:

  •  An original experiment
  • An essay or research paper
  • An oral presentation
  • A video or podcast
  • An infographic

As I write this, the New Horizons spacecraft is sending back data about Pluto to scientists who have long lists of questions they hope to answer by comparing the data about Pluto with data about earth.

Students who can figure out what questions they want answered and what comparisons are likely to yield those answers will be positioned to learn in 2025 and beyond.

2 thoughts on “Comparison thinking prepares students for new horizons

  1. As always. Great idea and information to use in the classroom. I have always fought against the traditional contrast and compare essays taught at the college developmental level. There is no true value for the student in that. Students need to be able to use what they learn in college in the real world of work. This is a great starter to help students develop their own questions for a contrast/compare paper on say finding the right computer for your office or sales department. Thanks!


    1. Thank you, Susan.

      As you know, I like to give students some ideas and skills they can put to immediate use. That makes them more willing to put up with ideas for which they can’t see an immediate use.


Comments are closed.