Comparison – the underestimated building block of critical thinking

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Sytematic comparison is a highly underestimated component of critical thinking, considered one of the most important 21st Century skills.

A new PAT test for measuring critical thinking has just been released by ACER in October. The Progressive Achievement Test in Critical Reasoning assesses conceptual reasoning, basic logic and argument analysis. And knowing how to compare is a key pathway to implementing all those skills.

Comparison is composed of a battery of subskills

Comparison is not a single thinking skill but a compact battery of discrete skills worth unpacking with students of all ages. They might be asked to compare more than two things, but for the purposes of this article, let’s stick to two: a focus entity A and a target entity B. The job of comparison is to determine how, why and to what extent they are equivalent, similar or different. And students regularly find this an overwhelming task. How can we assist them? An answer is to provide a systematic approach.

Itemise the unique features of things to facilitate analysis

The first step of comparison is to understand the unique features of one thing before relating it to another. Work with students to master analysing things into their whole and parts. Once they understand how the whole relates to the parts and the parts relate to each other, they can identify specific features. In a square, the lines, corners and angles work together in a particular way. Right angles and straight lines are specific features of a square. Knowledge of features, or criteria for comparison, make it easier for students to extend that knowledge to another entity. Perhaps a hexagon.

They will have a clearer understanding of which features also apply to the target.

Besides shapes, we can use fruits. Compare a mandarin and a lemon. Both share the features of being citrus fruits with a thick, pithy skin. Their internal structure contains nested wedges and they are both juicy. Features that differ are colour, shape and flavour. Of course, it is harder to compare solar energy with green hydrogen! But learning the process during simple analyses will lead them to greater competence.

Knowing the features and internal relationships of entities facilitates the comparison task and children can do it from an early age. When comparing two friends, rather than offering a random statement, prime children to select specific criteria. They might compare height, hair colour, loyalty or personality. We call this ability comparing apples with apples. Targeted comparison is a very transferable skill and will help students as they struggle with literary character analyses, maths problems or cataloguing the common causes of revolutions!

Comparison is contextual

The objective of comparison is determined by context. In one situation a square shape will be more suitable than a round shape to solve a problem. It is often the disregard of contexts that results in imperfect decisions. Challenge students to analyse things contextually so they acquire perspectival thinking.

When is it better to cycle rather than travel by car? And why? How might a character in a story have reacted if they were smaller in stature? And why?

Comparison is hierarchical – moving from the concrete to the abstract

Comparison might simply be descriptive. But we usually want our students to gain more from their comparative efforts. Even young children can move beyond description to the evaluation of concepts

like relative speed, noise, friendship or emotions. We want them to use their analysis of features to understand and rate abstract criteria like value, validity, appropriateness, sequence or order of importance. Evaluative thinking is high on Bloom’s taxonomy, and it helps students to negotiate tasks from the simplest to the most complex.

Comparison facilitates solutions

Once the evaluations are done, comparison enables students to determine the best solutions. This usually requires a process of summation that highlights the most important information and excludes irrelevant elements. Comparison provides the relational framework to make the best choices.

Picture: Cat in Goldfish Bowl - Two systems of relationships that defy logic

Comparison in assessing absurdity

Comparison of individual entities is one thing. But students are regularly required to compare entire systems. Interpreting absurdity relies on understanding the juxtaposition of entire systems of relationships. In the photograph above, the absurdity arises out of two systems being out of kilter. The cat is in the wrong place and so is the goldfish. As children unravel this situation, they realise that you need to compare more than individual items. They need to focus on the relationships around them.

Comparison is the basis of analogical thinking

So much of what students encounter is based on implied meaning. Figurative language, in literature and life, compares things by dislocating meaning from an original location and applying it somewhere completely removed. ‘They had a whale of a time!’ ‘Her life was stitched with tears’. If students can’t unpack the qualities being compared and embedded, they may be left behind when it comes to text comprehension.

Comparison makes thinking more efficient

Because systematic comparison helps students to define, analyse, relate, evaluate and prioritise toward solutions it makes thinking more efficient. They become more critical in their processes and conclusions.

As Dr Dan Vine, a research fellow in ACER's assessment and reporting research program, states, developing students’ critical thinking skills will be essential in a “world characterised by an explosion of information and competing claims”.

Foreground systematic comparison across all ages and subjects to optimise your students’ critical thinking.

Lili-Ann Kriegler (B. A Hons, H. Dip. Ed, M.Ed.) is an education consultant and author of ‘Edu-Chameleon’. Lili-Ann’s primary specialisations are in early childhood education (birth-9 years), leadership and optimising human thinking and cognition. She is a trainer in Feuerstein Instrumental Enrichment registered with the Feuerstein Institute in Jerusalem.

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