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Teaching Strategies

Juxtaposing Ideas to Deepen Understanding—in ELA, Math, and Science

Juxtaposing similar things—and thinking critically about differences and similarities—is a powerful cognitive tool that can deepen learning and engagement. 

June 10, 2022

Ask students to describe a single piece of writing and you’ll likely get surface-level responses—“I liked it” or “it made me sad”—that don’t demonstrate knowledge of the mechanics of writing. But ask students to juxtapose two pieces of writing on the same topic, one that is stronger than the other, and you’ll find them coming up with the sorts of sharp insights that are reflective of deeper thinking. 

In a recent article for The Cult of Pedagogy, Sarah Levine, a professor of education at Stanford, writes that this important shift occurs because it is easier to understand the characteristics of something when you contrast it with something that is slightly different. “Cognitively speaking, contrasting similar things activates and helps add to your mind’s map (also called a schema) of those things, which helps you recall more details, make more connections, and develop more general rules about what something is or how it works.” 

The principle applies across subject areas and can lead to better student engagement, according to Zach Blattner, a former assistant principal of instruction in Philadelphia. When students are given opportunities in the classroom to juxtapose concepts, writing samples, or even math problems, Blattner writes, teachers are presented with an opportunity to ask questions that “invite [students] to take charge of the learning process” while still guiding them towards the ideas teachers have in mind.

Although written work or visual images are a natural choice to use in juxtaposition exercises, Levine writes the strategy works in any attempt to go “beyond surface traits” and consider deeper connecting principles. She advises teachers to focus on finding or creating examples for students that differ in one important way: “different solutions to the same math problem, different photographs of the same subject; different headlines about the same event.”

Here are six ideas on how to implement juxtaposition exercises across subject areas. 

Interrogate the bias in language: Students can interrogate the terms or phrases used to describe a contemporary topic as a way to build on their understanding of it. For example, Levine writes, students in a science class might juxtapose the language used to describe the warming of the earth—global warming, climate crisis, extreme weather, etc—and discuss how each phrase affects the public’s understanding of the issue (or is even meant to manipulate public sentiment). 

You can extend the lesson by asking students to develop a list of synonymous phrases for “climate change” and compare the results. Levine’s own search generated alternatives like “climate emergency, climate fluctuation, climate arson, extreme weather, increase in average temperature, and global heating.” 

In ELA and history classrooms students can compare news headlines and catch-phrases related to political or social issues. For example, Levine suggests, they might think through the ways liberal and conservative media outlets frame the discussion around a Florida bill dubbed by detractors as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. What is the difference between a headline framing the legislation as a “parental rights bill” versus one that claims the law “limits LGBTQ discussion”? How might each framing affect the public discourse?

Compare birds—or chemical compounds: Learners might compare and contrast the attributes of two different types of birds, and investigate what the attributes tell us about how each species evolved to meet the challenges of its environment.

For example, students can compare an eagle to a stork. By thinking through the differences between an eagle’s sharp beak and the stork’s longer beak—the first is meant for tearing, and the latter for probing in watery terrain—students engage in a productive exploration of how apparently minor differences are actually life saving modifications.

In chemistry, students can compare and contrast compounds that resemble each other and have many similar properties—such as water and hydrogen chloride—to tease out key differences and strengthen their understanding of compounds and chemical behavior. 

Use “levels of proficiency” to sharpen ELA concepts: Students studying personal narrative writing, for example, can analyze three to five passages from essays about a similar topic that differ in tone, writing fluency, and level of detail. They can then debate which narratives work best and which are the most convincing—and explain why—thereby sharpening their understanding of key concepts such as descriptive language, the characteristics of effective imagery, and the purposeful use of symbolism. A 2015 research study showed that having students compare pieces of writing at different levels of proficiency resulted in “better quality” writing, and a “deeper understanding” of the writing mechanics that students need to improve. 

Get lost in translation: ELL and foreign language classrooms can use juxtaposition to explore the ways that text in a foreign language, such as Spanish, can be translated into English—and how different choices can dramatically change meaning. For example, Levine writes, students can compare and contrast two different English translations of a poem in Spanish by Chilean author Pablo Neruda.   

Debating the subtle, poetic differences between two translations of the same words in Spanish, such as:

withered, impenetrable, like a swan of felt navigating a water of origins and ashes

and

faded, impenetrable, like a swan of felt swimming in spring water and ashes” 

can help students understand the power of word choice. The exercise can be flipped by having ELL or foreign language students take a crack at translating a text on their own before comparing and contrasting the different versions they come up with. 

Work backwards in math: Writing for the Relay Graduate School of Education’s blog, Blattner suggests providing students with two sample answers to an open-ended math problem for this activity. For example, students can examine two answers (one wrong, and one right) to a like-terms word problem, and identify mistakes that led to the wrong answer. 

According to Blattner, research shows the activity promotes better recall, and prompts students to name and remember the procedural steps to answer similar problems on their own. 

Write a “plain text” version of a great speech or passage: Students can remove literary devices from a text, such as the use of repetition in Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream'' speech. By removing the repeated phrase “one hundred years later” and then placing the original speech and the new, redacted version side by side, teachers can elicit deeper responses from kids, Levine says, allowing them to better understand the rhetorical technique and engage in productive debate over whether it’s effective, or merely redundant. 

Similarly, students can boil down a lengthy Shakespearean soliloquy into a “plain text” version. Comparing and contrasting the original to the simplified version is a great way for them to think through the function and importance of seemingly extraneous language.

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