Contrasting IS Comparing

It’s that time of year—standardized testing time—so it’s the perfect time to rant about one of the most pressing issues in education today. No, it’s not the validity of the tests themselves. It’s one particular question that some of these tests (and many teachers) insist on asking, even when students aren’t usually answering it correctly. That question comes in the form: “Compare and contrast…”

My daughters recently took the state mandated tests, and one of them was lamenting her answer to a question. Apparently, she only contrasted and didn’t compare whatever was asked of her. She thought she only answered half the question, when in reality, she had also compared. My fear is that the graders of this test will penalize my daughter for an incomplete answer, and thus those adults are helping to perpetuate the misconception of what it really means to compare.

To compare is to describe a relationship between the items. We learn how to compare two numbers when we’re in elementary school with three basic symbols: =, <, and >. Either the numbers are equal or they’re not, and if they’re not, one is greater than the other (and subsequently, the other is less than the first). Making a comparison is all about a state of equality or not, and then which is more of some quality than the other.

It’s all about which item has more, and English grammar has made this simple for us. There’s an entire subgroup of one part of speech devoted exclusively to comparing: the comparative adjectives! Adjectives describe nouns, so the comparative adjectives compare nouns. They’re the adjectives of which a majority end in –er. Bigger, stronger, faster, harder.

My introductory physics students do a lab activity where they connect a battery to a light bulb and observe the bulb light up. Then they add another battery and are asked to compare their new observation to their first. When I read the instructions to the class, a student will inevitably ask if I’m asking how the second observation is similar to the first. NO! I’m really asking how the second observation is different than the first. The bulb will be brighter. Then when they connect two bulbs in series to one battery, the bulbs will be dimmer. These are comparisons.

Next, I get a little silly and ask them to compare themselves to me. They’ll tell me that I’m older. True. They’ll tell me that I’m balder. Sadly, also true. Some will tell me I’m taller, some will tell me I’m shorter. They’ll claim that I’m smarter—maybe in physics and grammar knowledge, but the verdict is still out overall because I’ll claim they’re smarter in cell phone and social media usage. It’s a silly exercise, and it can get sillier as we compare other arbitrary items (a fish to a bicycle!) until I feel that they understand.

But unfortunately, when I ask them on a test to compare two things, I still get the answer: “They don’t compare.” The first time I ever got that response, I was confused, so I asked a student what the answer meant. I’d receive the reply “because they’re not the same; they’re different.”

Of course they’re not the same, but I wasn’t asking just for what made them the same. I was also asking what made them different. One verb—one mighty verb to compare—actually means both, but somewhere along the way, students have internalized the misconception that to compare means to state the similarities, and to contrast means to state the differences.

If I had wanted an answer to that question, I would have asked, “State the similarities and differences between…” I’d even have accepted the answer presented in a Venn Diagram. But I didn’t ask that question.

To teachers and test-makers out there, please stop asking students to compare and contrast. I understand what you’re doing; you’re trying to ask two discrete questions: what’s the same and what’s different. If that’s what you want, please ask it as such so the misconception can fade away. Either that or please help me teach what it really means to compare.

It’ll make everything clearer and easier.

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