Why Do We Do Card Sorts?

Picture this. You are in a meeting, and the agenda has you discussing the curriculum, future lessons, and possible activities. What is the one suggestion you can make that you will not have to justify at all, thereby allowing you to raise your hand, score brownie points with the boss, and sit back and chill for the remainder of the hour? It is, of course, the card sort.

In a world where Ofsted has more bells and whistles than Santa’s sleigh, the humble card sort is the most anodyne of classroom practices. Why is this? It is because learning is invisible, but Ofsted inspections are short, which means that when they visit schools, they expect to see something. There is no requirement upon Ofsted inspectors to teach regularly, interact with pupils, or secure GCSE results. Once upon a time, they may have done so, but even then, many of them taught during the Educational Dark Ages, when learning styles were an article of faith and teacher training involved sitting on tatami mats chanting quotations from Emile by Jean-Jacques Rousseau: ‘give your scholar no verbal lessons; he should be taught by experience alone’.[1]

You can’t ever see learning taking place.[2] It is like an x-ray or gamma wave: you can infer its presence, and over the long term, it is definitely detectable. You cannot, however, see it with your bare eyes. The problem is that many at observers think that learning is more like a microwave, that it should be ready within sixty seconds, steaming hot, and out of a foil-lined cardboard tube.

This is where the card sort makes its mark. Children sit on tables, in groups, and manipulate cards that have propositions on them. For example, the task could involve sorting the short-term and long-term causes of the First World War. If you hand out twenty causes, per table, in a little brown envelope – well, that’s enough cards for everyone, isn’t it? You’ve singlehandedly broken the monopoly on knowledge. Every child will absentmindedly shuffle whatever fraction of cards they received, and although pupil A might be more active, pupil B will undoubtedly chuck in a card or two.

I believe that although the card sort is great for making mediocre teachers look like a cross between Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society and a Yu-Gi-Oh! protagonist, it is also a wicked practice for two reasons. You are preventing your pupils from doing any intellectual heavy lifting. There are two kinds of resistance training: free weights and nautilus machines. Imagine doing a bench press. When you lift the barbell above yourself and begin pressing, your chest muscles are activated, but there are also hundreds of stabiliser muscles that contribute to the movement. When you lift with a machine, however, the movement follows a predefined course and the stabiliser muscles are not engaged.

It is the same with card sorts. Whatever your thoughts on Bloom’s Taxonomy, I am sure we can all agree that knowledge is the foundation of learning. By neglecting knowledge retrieval and recall – by having facts located externally, on printed pieces of paper – you are not allowing them to develop the stabiliser muscles of learning. By facilitating card sorts in your classroom, you are breeding intellectual flabbiness, and pupils will never retain knowledge over the long term, since you are making no demands on their long- or short-term memory.

The second reason is that it contributes to a showstopper-lesson culture, where teachers being observed are expected to deliver everything short of riding into class on a skateboard, pulling off a sick ollie and having the kids observe how what a ‘radical’ subject geography is. Why put on a show? Because every other teacher does, that’s why. It’s the same reason rappers wear larger chains, peacocks grow brighter feathers, or Carol bakes that decadent triple-tier rocky road fudge gateau for the annual WI conference.

Not only is this practice bad for the children, it is bad for staff, since leadership are assessed on Ofsted and not everyday classroom practices. Teachers who can ‘switch it on’ will obviously secure more status than those who teach in a practically effective yet understated manner. Yet we do not have unlimited reserves of time and effort. Card sorts take far too long. They’re wasteful. And unless your Trust is sponsor-led by Hobbycraft, you probably shouldn’t be doing them.

[1] Daisy Christodoulou, Seven Myths, p. 11. It is also important to note for this paragraph that a) I wrote it a long time ago and b) my views on Ofsted are now different, although I still think the culture of ‘Working Towards Ofsted’ gives rise to many accountability distortions. The more up-to-date interpretation is that it is not Ofsted itself that is behind these distortions, because, as Rebecca Allen & Sam Sims note: ‘What is strange about this coercive force is that Ofsted claim they didn’t mean for this auditable trail of teaching activities to be created. Even if they did mean it once, it is clear that they regret it and want it to go away. Not all school inspection systems generate the need for paperwork.’ The Teacher Gap [Kindle Edn.], loc 1,702

[2] David Didau, What If Everything You Knew About Education Was Wrong?, p. 2: ‘The main thing I think we’re wrong about is the belief that we can see learning.’

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