Our math curriculum had us sorting recently.  For those of you who aren’t preschool teachers, sorting is part of learning math when you are four — you need to be able to figure out how to organize things into sets based on one or more attributes.  Or, as I tell my class, “put the things that are the same into groups.”

The above picture shows that the child working with these bears figured out how to put them into groups by color.  However, this was after we had been working on sorting for a while.

I’ve never had such a tough time teaching sorting before.  This class, as wonderful and smart as they are, was really stumped by sorting.  It took us a week of sorting people (“girls over here, and boys over here” or “red shirts/not-red shirts”) and sorting our shoes and me modeling sorting over and over before it started to sink in.  Miss Slinger would laugh at me when the morning was done because I was practically pulling my hair out.

For example, I had the class sit in a circle, and then everyone who wanted to took off a shoe and put it in the middle in a pile.  Then I sorted the shoes different ways, talking out loud as I did it, with the children’s help.

We sorted the shoes by color, by type (shoelaces here, velcros here, boots over here), and by size (my shoe in one pile, all the others in the other pile).  Then I sorted the shoes according to a sorting rule that they had to guess.  The shoes were in two piles, and any observant kindergartner would have noticed that all the shoes in one pile had pink on them.  “Okay, guys, there is something the same about all these shoes, ” I said, pointing to the pink shoe pile.  “Can you figure out what it is?  What is my sorting rule?”

Chutney said, “it’s big and small.”

I showed her that in one pile, there was my big shoe next to Pumpkin’s small shoe, and that in the other pile, there were shoes both big and small together.  “It can’t be big and small, can it, if there are big ones and small ones in the SAME pile, right?”  Chutney looked at me, uncomprehending.

“Is it big, big, small, small?” she asked.

“No, honey, that sounds like a pattern.  Patterns are cool, but we’re not doing them right now.  Look again at these shoes over here.  Do you see something that is the same about all of them?”

Nope.  I ended up having to explain my sorting rule — pink and not-pink.

After a few more days, they started to get it, so we did sorting stations.  I had four kids at each table, each with a work tray (they used to be airline food trays!), and a different manipulative at each table.

This child sorted attribute blocks into two piles:  thick and thin.

This child sorted them by shape — and was able to ignore the size and color while he was at it.

And this child sorted teddy bears by size, although it is a little difficult to tell from the picture.

By the end of the sorting theme, I was exhausted.  Also a little curious — with a class this bright, why was it so difficult?

5 thoughts on “sorting

  1. Ah, you take me back to my studies of Piaget ( and some of his studies of young children. As you have discussed, sorting items by shape, size, color and so forth can be quite challenging for young children. Sorting is a complex cognitive thinking skill that for most preschoolers needs to be learned in stages.

    Perhaps this group of preschoolers needed to back up a step and start with just identifying the difference between two very basic objects. Then go on to identifying objects that are the same. When you are certain this is a no brainer for the children, then you can begin to sort two items that only have one difference in attribute. Like this bear is red and this bear is blue – lets put all the blue bears over here and all the red ones there (in every other way, the bears are the same).

    Having more than one attribute can confuse the very basic need to focus on a single attribute when beginning the sorting process. It sound like you took the plunge and went for full out sorting of all kinds of objects with all kinds of attributes. I am amazed you did so well in such a short amount of time – or that your students did so well.

    Mathematics is all about building on one process and then adding another – even when it comes to algebra:) Thanks for your honest sharing of your mathematical discoveries with your students. I enjoyed reading your post.

  2. It sounds like we may have the same math curriculum 🙂 I found that teaching the “sorting rule” is extremely difficult for 4’s, not many of my classes were able to guess my sorting rule until after we had done sorting for many months, but our curriculum had them doing it right out of the gate. I suggest just teaching sorting by colors first- like for several weeks, that seems to be the first and easiest step to teach, then teach sorting by attribute (very simple, only give them two attributes to choose from) and teach that for several weeks etc. We teach “guess my rule” more towards the end of the year after they really have sorting all different ways down pat.
    Good luck!

  3. Thank you for the thoughtful comments. Actually, I’ve taught sorting every other year, and none of my other classes have had this much trouble with it, which is odd, since this may be one of the brightest, most attentive classes I’ve ever had.

    Today we sorted shoes again, after a break of a few weeks, and it was amazing how quickly they got it. I asked them for suggestions, and they came up with lots of ways to sort our shoes. We sorted them by size (mine was by itself, all the others were in the “small” group), color (brown, black, pink, white, silver), shoelaces & not-shoelaces, and type (gym shoes, boots, clog (mine!), and dressy shoes).

    We’ll keep coming back to this topic, and we will certainly keep addressing the whole “same and different” issue, because that comes up with letters, as well.

  4. It sounds like all your efforts have paid off and your students have crossed over a bit into better understanding! Good job – I am glad to see you never gave up!

    By the way, it is interesting how each group of students from one year to the next can be in such a different place emotionally, socially, congnitively, and physically!

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