“One of the major differences in performance of gifted children and other students is the repertoire of strategies which gifted children develop and use appropriately. Many students will never spontaneously generate a strategy for doing a task more effectively, but they can learn and use a strategy they are taught.” Tuel, F.S. & Ballard, R.K. 1993. Developing Higher Order Thinking in the Content Areas K-12
I encourage parents to actively teach their children these strategies through the direct instruction of higher order reasoning skills. In the next few columns, we’ll be looking at some of the core thinking skills considered predictive of school success - important skills and strategies for raising more thoughtful children. In this article we begin with the skill of classification.
Both the OLSAT (Otis-Lennon School Abilities Test) and the CogAT (Cognitive Abilities Test) are comprised of subsections which assess the classification abilities of students. Both contain subsections which assess classification using shapes (Figural classification) and words (Verbal classification). The OLSAT also includes a subsection entitled Picture Classification. These assessments are widely used to measure the cognitive abilities considered essential building blocks of learning and predictive of school success. Students demonstrating high proficiency with these skills gain access to gifted and talented programs, through which they will have opportunities to extend their use. Students demonstrating a low proficiency with these skills will oftentimes be identified as needing interventions.
Classification is one of the skills necessary for the acquisition and ordering of information for understanding. Classification is defined as the systematic grouping of items by kind. Developing the ability to classify things we see, experience, and learn about, helps us understand and make sense of our world. These classification skills also help us organize what we know in ways that have deeper personal meaning for us, or provide us with new understandings.
Most of us remember several classification systems from our school years, such as those in biology- the classification of organisms and in mathematics – the classifications or classes of real numbers. Children have the ability to work with classification systems from a very young age. Examples of classification systems common to early childhood and primary years: color, size, and shape.
Parents can build and strengthen their child’s classification abilities at all ages. Here are some suggestions for you:
When working with classifications, require a higher level of thinking by asking not only that your child identify the shape and the group of shapes to which it belongs, but also that he explain the specific attributes of the group into which that shape is being classified, and the characteristics of the group that makes the items, pictures, or words similar. If you listen closely, you’ll hear your children doing their own classifications. Some will be correct while others will be errors – oftentimes because the child did not consider all the attributes. When you hear this kind of mental work being done, first and foremost – recognize, acknowledge and praise it. Whether the child gets it right is not nearly as important as the fact that she is ‘thinking’ about and attempting to organize her understanding of her world. This is the beginning of her school success. Applaud!
After the applause, discuss with her how the items or things she is classifying are alike, how they are different. Give examples of similar but not ‘matching’ items and guide her to identify the attributes of these items to determine the ‘fit’. Make it a game, and ask her to quiz you by coming up with her own test items that may or may not fit into the class.
For example, if working with a child on figural classification, ask the child, while showing a rectangular shape – what are its similarities to the set of squares; what are its differences? Or, in other words: What makes these the same and in what ways are they different? Then, assist the child to determine on what basis the rectangle would ‘fit’ in with the squares, if at all. By counting the sides and measuring the sides, children can be guided to understand for themselves what makes a square a square, and how a square can be a rectangle, but a rectangle cannot be classified as a square. This type of learning is far more interesting than the more common methods that state the definition of a square, then require the child to memorize that definition, without having the opportunity to discover it for themselves.
By using a set of attribute blocks, the various dimensions on which the classification hinges can expand exponentially. With attribute blocks, there will be opportunities to build sets based on differences of size, shape, color, and thickness. Parents should teach as much vocabulary for the characteristics as possible and do that over time – thicker, thickest, thin, thinnest, names of colors, names of shapes, expanding with synonyms and more advanced vocabulary as more time is spent in the activity.
Parents, with a little effort, can give their children an expanded vocabulary just by playing around with synonyms. A child can be taught that there are several words, called synonyms, that can be used in place of the word ‘square’: four-sided, right-angled, rectangular, quadrangular, tetragonal. Or, those for describing thicknesses: broad, fat, wide. And perhaps, you’d want to expand their vocabulary with some synonyms for ‘red” - rosy, ruddy. Next, think about how to use antonyms to keep things from getting boring! And, while your at it, introduce the beginnings of measurement, by grabbing a ruler to measure that square, rectangle, and triangle’s sides.
Finally, teach the child the thinking vocabulary along with the skill. The skill is classification. It means we group like things by characteristics (class) – shape, color, size, thickness. When we put things together in the way they are alike, then we can understand more about them: fish swim and live in water. We might predict how they will act: birds lay eggs, mammals give birth to live young. Or, we could understand that an item, or thing which is not classified with that group, will likely not behave in the same way as that group.
Well, I hope this has given you some ideas and some motivation to encourage your child to move deeper in his use of classification as a strategy and skill for thinking about his learning.