Card Sort

A simple exercise to spark a deeper conversation about what the people you are designing for value, prioritize, and why.

Photo of Lisa Parish
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Create a deck of cards, with words or pictures, based on your interview/research objective. My focus was to determine what mattered most to my students. I chose to use simple pictures on the cards. 

Next, I asked the student to rank the cards according to what is most important to them. I used the Card Sort as the hook to spark deeper conversations about what the student valued, and why.  I began with broad questions, focusing on the who, what, when, where, why and how starters that fostered a more natural conversation and led to more personal stories.

I found the Card Sort to be an effective way to interview my students who I just met. Sometimes, students like to tell their teachers what they think we want to hear, and this was especially true for me since I did it right at the start of the year (4th day of school). Whether it's the start of the year, or smack in the middle, the Card Sort is a great option to give your students a tactile, visual exercise that may feel less daunting than "Can we sit down and talk I would like to interview you?"  

As their stories were going deeper, every student kept looking back at the way they sorted their cards. Whether it was for a sense of security, a reminder of their own mental models, or just because most kids are highly visual; using the Cards was highly effective for me to conduct my interviews.

Note: It is helpful to also mix in some more abstract ideas as it can provide additional information on how our students' prioritize what matters the most to them.


[Optional] Synthesize a little! In one sentence, describe something you learned from your empathy exercises or research.

Students value relationships with family, friends, and their relationship with Earth more than cell phones, cars, and many of the hobbies they love. The disconnect: "Community" was prioritized low; many students question the authenticity of relationships at school .

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Photo of Jennifer Bartell

It's so refreshing to hear that students value family, friends, and their relationship with Earth more than material things! I wonder too if they could do the card sort with one another to get to know their classmates. :-)

Photo of Gaynor Brown

This is great - the other thing that comes to mind is also the relationship you are building with each student when you conduct the interview. I feel certain that this relationship is also key and will make a huge difference in your interactions throughout the rest of the year.

Photo of John Faig

These discussions about what is important could scope down to what is important in school. Ultimately, it could lead to students creating classroom policies and procedures.

Photo of Alysha English

Lisa Parish  This is SO awesome! Relationships are so core in our classrooms and shape/motivate our students' values and behaviors. I noticed you mentioned that theses students valued their relationship with the Earth more than cell phones, cars, etc. Could you share a little more about your students and the community where you work? It's so cool that your students were able to identify this as a value for them and I wonder how we might motivate other students in different contexts to also value their relationship with the Earth/environment. Thanks so much for sharing this post!

Photo of Lisa Parish

Hi Alysha! The students and I live in Waterloo, New York,, which is a rural upstate community . Just so happens our school is less than a mile from NYS largest landfill, with 90% of waste coming from downstate and Other neighboring states. The landfill accepts 6,000 tons a day, and is owned by a private business but actually sits on our neighboring towns property. This means the neighboring town gets the revenue but our Students, schools, and village have more of the environmental impact. . I am not originally from this area and I always wondered how did something like this come to be? Why do my students think there is nothing they can do and their voices shouldn't be heard because of their zip code ? From my perspective, personalized learning is most effective when we have our kids tackle real challenges , empower them to look at some tough problems facing their community and then inspire them to come up with innovative solutions. I am inspired that their love for Earth ranked so high; they get it. The kids have said to me no mega landfill should be near any schools and I agree. They don't think it is fair for one town to put such an operation on the edge of their property , and I agree. Since these students are in my environmental science class I thought , how better to teach my curriculum of soil, water, air, and landuse , then by tying it in to what matters the most to my students and thereby let them drive their own learning. I am looking forward to see where we travel to this year .

Photo of Theresa Shadrix

I love this activity with your students, Lisa. My students have expressed a disconnect with community and some are working on challenges to help solve that too. I may have to make my own set of cards and try this. Thank you!

Photo of Molly McMahon

This is so cool! Thanks Lisa! I'd love to hear more about any insights you discovered about personalizing learning from students in this activity. Any cool stories that you heard? This is such a great tool to help get past the surface issues, so I'm curious to dig even deeper!

Photo of Lisa Parish

Almost every single conversation with the students led to them conveying their dissatisfaction with being taught in the status quo fashion. One student said "we are all different yet we are taught with the one-size fits all method and it is frustrating." I asked them if they had a better suggestion and they all said "I don't know". In my opinion, most of them expressed a desire for personalized learning although no student called it by that terminology nor could express a vision as to what that looked like.

Another insight is the apparent disconnect between the generations. The "they don't get me and I don't get them" point of view. I think it would be interesting to delve deeper into this on both sides of the fence. How do we personalize learning without acknowledging, understanding, and ultimately bridging the generational gap between teachers and students? Times have changed at warp speeds, I think we can all agree on this. Relationships have always been and always will be the most important part of effective teaching. How might we personalize learning for each student while still focusing on the personal relationships between teachers and students?

My science background drives me to collect and look at data. I actually had the kids do two parallel sorts. The Card Sort and then I had them rank a list of items that mattered most to them. I took it off an infographic made by Movehub, which polled 180 countries to discover what matters most to people around the world. (https://matadornetwork.com/life/heres-matters-people-around-world/ ) I was looking for similarities and discrepancies but what I found was even more profound. Overall, students said their family's happiness was a top priority. However, "Life Satisfaction" was rated as a low priority. I asked them if they knew what it meant and most students said "yes it means being happy". I asked them why they valued their family's happiness over their own? More than one said they will go without to make sure the people they love are taken care of. I asked them "but can your family ever be happy if you aren't happy?"

My big A-Ha moments so far. Relationships, relationships, relationships. We need to teach the whole child, we need to deal with this lack of self-love, we need to make sure they do not sacrifice self-love because they think this is what it means to take care of others. My students value relationships above all else. Their cell phones, their material possessions are not what this generation values. They value what most adults value; but they don't feel like they are being "heard" in a traditional school setting, and therefore, do not feel valued as individuals. These students have empathy, they care, they care a whole lot. Let's empower them by giving them some real, challenging issues to tackle. Let's teach the whole child; heart, mind, and spirit. Make sure personalized learning stays just that: Personal.