Gosh, some people really dislike card sorts. This former staple of the classroom is now lumped in with learning styles and making posters, if some of what I see on Twitter is to be believed. But I think that, done well, the  humble card sort can be a time-saving, informative and incredibly malleable resource. It can also be almost the only resource you need. But first …

The criticisms.

  1. Card sorts take too long to create. Card sorts undoubtedly can take a while to create, if they’re worth creating at all. Do your handwrite them? If not, which software is best – Publisher? PowerPoint? Should you use coloured card, or even have each set of cards printed on different coloured card? Paper or card? Should they be numbered so it’s easy to work out which is missing? Should they be laminated? Is that too much effort? For some, undestandably, it’s easier to just not bother in the first place.
  2. Card sorts have only one purpose. A quick search of TES resources will show you that the vast majority of card sorts have just a few words on them, thus rendering them useless beyond that one activity. 
  3. Card sorts are an activity and don’t help to build knowledge. How many of us have used a card sort as an activity without really building on it? I certainly have. Card sorts have a reputation as an end in themselves, a chunk if you will, as part of a linear set of activities strung out on a planning washing line: and then they’ll do this, and next they’ll do that, and afterwards …
  4. Card sorts stop the teacher from having to explain. A common complaint I’ve seen is that a card sort is often used in place of teacher explanation. This is a real shame as we’re supposed to be the subject specialists.

My responses.

1. Card sorts take too long to create.

It’s true, card sorts can be time consuming, but I think that a good card sort should have multiple uses over a number of weeks: in fact, I create card sorts to last a whole topic. There’s no point re-inventing something that already exists and especially not if it’s with one activity in mind. Think: is there something as useful or better already around? If not then how much can I use this? If a teacher takes an hour to make a card sort that will only be used once and will probably have to be reprinted in a year then that teacher is wasting time. However, I have a few rules which I use to ensure that I wring every drop out of a long-term card sort.

  • If there’s something as good or better in a textbook, or if you can explain it without losing the students then don’t bother – you’re wasting mime and doing your teaching, and their understanding, a disservice.
  • Only spend time on a card sort that will last: I have a set of 16 that cover 1943-91 for a GCSE unit. If your card sort is only going to last one lesson then it is a waste of time. So, if it can’t be used time and time again then don’t bother. 
  • What are all the possibilities for analysing information in your subject? In history I could analyse chronologically, thematically, through applicable factors like SPECTRM, through various arguments, by significance, etc. Ensure the information has multiple applications.
  • Add numbers to the cards so it’s easy to work out which are missing. Make a template so that you don’t have to do this more than once.
  • Make sure they’re double-sided. If you can’t think of information that you could add to both sides then use images instead. Instantly you’ll have revision flash cards.
  • Keep them in envelopes.
  • Don’t cut them out yourself: get reprographics to do it – that’s what they’re there for. 
  • If it’s worth doing then it’s worth doing properly.

Does that seem like a lot? Maybe. But I’ve found that with a Y8 topic on medicine this year I created one card sort and a timeline that lasted six weeks. I made nothing else and instead had the time to read their ideas, which was a joy.

2. Card sorts have only one purpose.

If you’ve planned well then this shouldn’t be the case. Regarding the GCSE card sort I mentioned above I did write this for staffrm’s digimeet a few weeks ago:

I’ve created (and am in the process of creating) a series of flash cards for each topic in each year. Above you can see my Cold War 1943-61 cards. Each image has relevant information on the reverse. For GCSE there is obviously more information than Y7, but the principle is the same.

At the start of every lesson students use these cards to revise and test their knowledge of a variety of things. For example, I might ask them to:

  • Place the cards in chronological order
  • Categorise the cards into a certain theme or factor
  • Find cards which are the long-term causes of another
  • Find cards which are the immediate consequences of another
  • Order the cards in a diamond shape to show relative importance
  • Remove a card and ask their partners to work out what’s missing
  • Add an extra card to the mix
  • Test each other for events, actions or ideas
  • Test each other for dates

So how do I collect data? And is it worth it?

Well, I don’t. At least, I don’t collect data on these processes. I just get them to repeat, repeat, repeat, until they say, ‘But Sir, we get it now. Why do we have … Ohhhh, I see what you’ve done!’

But I do collect data through lots of quizzes:

  • Dates: when was …?
  • Actions
  • Events 
  • Ideas – I’ve found that it’s better to give the idea and then ask for the key word
  • Easy multiple-choice
  • Harder multiple-choice with similar sounding answers
  • Even harder multiple choice where I try to trick them!

My rules for collecting this data (I use iDoceo, but Excel’s even better, if clunkier):

  • Always have the same number of questions: this is important if you want to create averages
  • Ensure the answers are easy to mark – we’re not justifying essay grades here; we just want the students to mark efficiently
  • Vary the tests – too much of the same test and they’ll learn … you got it: the test!
  • Recognise that you’re building a knowledge base here, not a complete understanding of the topic

3. Card sorts are an activity and don’t help to build knowledge.

Since I’ve been teaching it seems that there have been two schools of thought on card sorts as activities. The first was something along the lines of and then I’ll get them to do a card sort without any thought about why the activity is being used: activity for activity’s sake. The subsequent thought was card sorts are a waste of the teacher’s time – just tell them. I obviously think these are both wrong, although the second has some truth in it – I often just tell them.

I have no problem with activities, and neither should you: steering clear of activities because you want to focus on knowledge is as immature an understanding of the benefits of a well-designed activity as it is an incoherent response to current pedagogical debate. I do, however, have a problem with activities for their own sake – as should you. An activity which happens because it’s something to do, or because they prefer to learn like this, or even because it breaks up the lesson from the teacher talking is planning based on a false premise; that your subject isn’t interesting enough on its own merit. Well, it is.

A well-designed card sort is a knowledge builder. It doesn’t prevent the teacher from explaining the topic more in depth and nor does it necessarily have to be a one-off activity. A well-designed card sort is both a knowledge builder and a knowledge organiser: it also tests recall in a variety of ways, allows students to organise their thoughts very clearly and, I’d argue, potentially helps to show a student’s current thinking or misunderstandings – if I can’t see the learning going on in a student’s head then this might just help as long as the teacher is cautious with the information.

4. Card sorts stop the teacher from having to explain.

No they don’t. As far as I’m concerned a card sort is not that far removed from a textbook. It’s just a more malleable resource. Any teacher worth their salt will use a resource as an aid – it’s the teacher’s ability to both explain and help students make sense of knowledge that makes any resource useful. I know that card sorts I create are going to promote discussion and questions because of the way I present that knowledge.

Card sorts aren’t a cop out for explanations, and if they are used that way then the subject will suffer.

So, with that in mind go forth and make card sorts which are knowledge-heavy, malleable and have long-term value. A card sort can be so much more. Just make sure that you’re doing it for the right reason.