Friday, March 28, 2014


Students throughout elementary school need to learn and understand how to sort and classify. In order to learn about spelling patterns, students sort words during word study (as suggested in texts like Words Their Way). In Physical Science, students as young as kindergarten are asked to sort objects in terms of color, size, shape, and texture. In English Language Arts, students must sort texts into literature and nonfiction and then further classify the texts into specific genres.

Classifying and communicating their methods of classification is something that students continually need to practice and refine. The Visible Thinking Routine “Generate-Sort-Connect-Elaborate: Concept Maps” serves as a great tool for “uncovering and organizing prior knowledge to identify connections,” (p. 51 of Making Thinking Visible, by Ritchhart, Church, and Morrison, 2011). Using this Thinking Routine, students are able to organize and see their thinking as they classify.

In first grade, students study how observing the environment leads to discoveries. They inquire into making observations, classifying, and drawing conclusions. In order to learn these abstract concepts, first graders work with rocks and other earth materials. Working with rocks fulfills Minnesota State Standards in Earth and Space Science (,, but it also allows first graders to work with concrete examples so that they can develop conceptual understandings of observation, classification, and drawing conclusions.

To give her students an opportunity to construct a understanding of these abstract concepts, one first grade teacher decided to use the Visible Thinking Routine “Generate-Sort-Connect-Elaborate” with her students. First, students generated descriptive words they would use to describe their rocks. Students had previously completed a learning engagement on observations and descriptions where they learned the value of a complete description, so had some background knowledge on this process.



Then, students came together to sort all their groups’ work onto a large concept map. The teacher recorded words on the SMARTboard, placing checkmarks beside words that students had already contributed. As students shared their words with the group, they told the teacher how they wanted their words sorted on the class’s concept map.

After the words were sorted into categories 
that the students had created (color-coded by blue, orange, purple, and pink), she prompted the students to label the categories. Students were able to label three of the four categories they had created: color, size, and texture. One word - shiny - didn’t fit with any other group and the students were unsure what to label that group. The teacher helped the students understand that the descriptor shiny describes a rock’s luster, and she added it to the concept map. Crystals also ended up fitting under the category luster.

Once students had created their own categories for describing rocks and some example descriptors for each category, they were to describe their own individual rocks, 
elaborating on the categories they helped create (students used a recording sheet found on p. 166 of More Picture Perfect Science Lessons, which builds off the children's book If I Found a Rock by Peggy Christian).



By working through the Thinking Routine "Generate-Sort-Connect-Elaborate" students were able to construct their own understanding of writing descriptions and classifying. Although working through this Visible Thinking Routine undoubtedly took more time, students not only learned factual knowledge and conceptual understandings, but they were able to hone their thinking skills. With so much to learn about our world, teachers have little hope of teaching it all. However, when educators give students the opportunity to learn how to think, they needn't worry about not having time to teach everything. If teachers give students the gift of being able to think, students will eventually be able to independently acquire knowledge, comprehend, apply, analyze, synthesize, evaluate, think about different points of view (dialectical thought), and think about their thinking (metacognition).

After reading about how first graders used the Visible Thinking Routine "Generate-Sort-Connect-Elaborate" to construct conceptual understanding, how could you use or have you used "Generate-Sort-Connect-Elaborate" in your instructional practice?

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