Academic journal article Science and Children

If the Shoe Fits, Sort It! Modifying a "Well-Worn" Activity to Explore Matter Classification

Academic journal article Science and Children

If the Shoe Fits, Sort It! Modifying a "Well-Worn" Activity to Explore Matter Classification

Article excerpt


Classroom implementation of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS Lead States 2013) does not necessarily require complete curricular overhaul. In many cases, teachers can review previously used lessons with respect to the NGSS, evaluate alignment, and make subsequent modifications. One science activity I have used in numerous settings is the familiar "shoe sorting" challenge. An early example of this lesson appears in the Treasure Boxes GEMS teacher's guide (Activity 3, Session 1), published by the Lawrence Hall of Science (Kopp and Hosoume 1997). A common "big idea" of this experience is classification, whether the content focus is living things, rocks and minerals, or something else.

This lesson often takes place at the start of a unit to introduce students to the idea of classification, including the degree of complexity and specificity needed for accurate and clear categorization. When considering the NGSS, however, teachers can expand this initial experience into a more robust exploration and examination of concepts, practices, and core ideas.


I recently revamped this activity to fit an upper level elementary unit about matter. Below are specific components added to the standard sorting lesson, along with general strategies and resources I use to increase NGSS alignment and elevate content for older elementary students (i.e., grades 3-5), including extensions. Although this article describes this introductory lesson in context of an upper level physical science unit, teachers are encouraged to apply these strategies where and when they best fit in their own classrooms.

Feet First

I dive feet first into this activity--literally--by having each student take off one shoe and put it in a plastic bin or tub. An 18-gallon/68-liter storage container (available at department stores) is an inexpensive way to store an entire class's shoes. It helps to have two bins, both opaque so students cannot see the inside contents. The reason for this becomes apparent during the lesson's second half. During the initial collection of shoes, the teacher or student volunteer(s) can walk around the room with a bin so students can deposit shoes. This procedure reduces foot traffic and time spent having students walk up to the front of the room, drop off a shoe, then hobble back to their seats. Another consideration is dirt and mud, so teachers may want to have extra floor rugs handy for students to clear off loose debris before donating a shoe.

Once students have all donated a shoe for science, I make a grand gesture to empty the class collection onto a front table, creating a massive pile of footwear. I also add my own shoe into the mix. To garner a few laughs, I pull out an air freshener bottle and spray a few fragrant bursts, while plugging my nose. On a more serious safety note, the teacher and students will wash hands at the end of this entire activity.

Then I present the primary challenge: How can we sort all of these shoes in order to return each to its original owner? What are some ways we could separate and group them?

Notice that I intentionally bypass using terms such as "classification" or "categorization" to avoid bogging down students in vocabulary they may or may not fully understand. However, students often use such words as they share ideas with the whole class and their small groups. When the appropriate terms arise, I write them someplace where the entire class can see--on the whiteboard, interactive whiteboard, a bulletin board word wall, or a vocabulary list. If need be, I ask the student what he or she means by the word, so others hear the elaboration and so I can assess current comprehension. Using the learning cycle approach, we will get to formal definitions and examples after students have time to experience and explore the concepts and ideas (Lawson, Abraham, and Renner 1989). Although many variations exist, the learning cycle essentially divides instruction into phases for initial student exploration (often hands-on), consolidation of ideas and experiences toward more abstract science concepts, and application of this content in new settings (Colburn and Clough 1997). …

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