Creating and Discerning Distinctions


gathering materials for the activity

You may want to plan ahead for this activity, unless you happen to have suitable supplies on hand. 

First, you will need a set of 30-35 similar, but not identical objects.  One possibility is modifying your grocery shopping; you could get something that will work for your activity before it becomes your dinner.   I find peanuts in the shell, or asparagus stalks, little nugget potatoes, strawberries, green beans, etc. work very well.  Alternatively, if you live with access to something line pine cones or fallen leaves, or even similar small stones, those will also do.

Second, you will also need a set of 30-35 different objects.   They could be broadly related, e.g. as in the following photos; office bits or kitchen bits; but that is not really necessary.  They could be any group of odds and ends.


  1. At a table or any other surface suitable for arranging
    and re-arranging your objects.


  1. 1)You and your partner will take turns “arranging” or “sorting” both of the collections.  You can pretend that the observer is an anthropologist who is observing things happening in a culture where they cannot understand the language.  The person doing the sorting is the “native”.

  2. 2)Whether you role play as anthropologist and representative of a different culture, or not, you are to sort (distinguish regularities among differences) and observe silently, i.e. not explaining, not questioning.  No talking!

  3. 3)The rules for each “sort” are the same.  Objects are to be arranged into at least 5 and no more than 8 categories (groups).  The person sorting them can use whatever criteria they wish.  These are secret until later. 

  4. 4)The person observing the sort may take notes, as sometimes the logic or thinking of the sorter is revealed during the process of doing it.

As you will realize during our discussion, the comparisons between what happened for different people are at least as enlightening as what happened in your particular instance.

This exercise is interesting both in how well we sometimes discern what the other is thinking, and how at other times we attribute a totally different logic than the one used. 

As you reflect about this, consider what each set of sort criteria reveals and conceals about the regularities and differences among the objects. You may also wish to think about how the distinctions made in one culture may be totally different from the ones assumed as a matter of course in another.

  1. 5)Once all four sorts (2 people times 2 groups of objects) are completed, you can talk to each other about what you observed. The observer goes first.

    The person who was doing the sorting is not to interrupt until the observer has finished explaining.  Only THEN should the person who was doing the sorting explain what he or she was thinking, why the groups were created as they were.  You may wish to discuss the criteria or rationale used.

    This part of the activity is usually full of laughs!

categorizing dissimilar objects

objects with one obvious dimension of difference but ambiguous boundaries

sorting similar objects