Educator Practice

The Amazing Power of Juxtaposition in the Classroom

May 6, 2022
Student Engagement
Data Informed Instruction
Zach Blattner
Relay faculty

In one 6th grade classroom, teacher A is telling students yet again about run-on sentences and why we need commas and periods. She tells students to take notes this time so they remember it. In a classroom just next door, teacher B has two examples of the same paragraph on the board - one with correct punctuation and the other with run-on sentences. She then asks students to explain which sounds better read aloud and why. Then she pushes them to name what is different about each example. Which approach is more engaging and effective?

As a school leader and a teacher educator, one of the main instructional challenges I’ve seen teachers grapple with is how to clearly deliver the key points or concepts in a lesson in a sticky way. This is true across subject levels, experience levels and grade levels.

With the best intentions, we often tell learners the steps to a process or what pitfalls to avoid. Unfortunately, this approach can feel stale and often relegates students to a passive role of head nodding and ineffectual note taking. It’s not that teachers necessarily believe direct lecturing is a highly effective practice. Instead, this is often how they’ve learned to begin instruction and maximize learning time. 

When I coach teachers and provide feedback on their planning, my favorite instructional strategy to offer - one that is no frills, easily adaptable to any teaching or learning context (including adults or kindergartners) and can be used every single day productively with kids - is what my friend (and expert teacher) Laura Killips and I co-named “Side-by-Side”. 

How does juxtaposition help students learn?

I’m sure some reading this have used it before with another name. Or maybe no name at all. The Side-by-Side relies on a powerful but very simple idea: juxtaposition. The concept of juxtaposing to highlight differences has a long history - in fact, it’s present in everything from classical literature (Iago and Othello!) to art (convenience and war) to kids movies (old and young) to Star Wars. Maybe because it is so ubiquitous we don’t think about its power to enhance learning and create a more engaging and interesting classroom experience.

Providing two examples, alike in most ways with a few key differences, and then asking students to reflect on them, turns “direct” instruction on its head. Suddenly, we can ask students a range of questions that invite them to take charge of the learning process while still subtly guiding them towards the ideas or steps we have in mind.

The beauty of a Side-by-Side is flexibility - juxtaposition is easy to do once you embrace it as a tool. Writing teachers can show two thesis statements about the impact of global warming, and then prompt students to identify which is stronger based on evidence and structure. In math, we might highlight two different approaches to isolating a variable or share two drawings of a labeled angle. In PE, we can demonstrate two different jump shot forms or a kindergarten teacher can model two ways to hold a pencil. In history class, we could provide two videos juxtaposing effective group work before a major class project.  We can contrast two customer service interactions with an upset customer. I promise - in any learning experience a Side-by-Side can be used. 

How does the Side-by-Side strategy work?

Let’s take a look at the process in action: First, let's say we provide students with two sample answers to an open-ended math problem, both meant to show the math thinking process. We might start with basic questions like “Which response is stronger?” to build student confidence in identifying effective responses, even if kids can’t immediately articulate why.  We can encourage students to share first with partners and then discuss as a whole class to come to a consensus. Now, we push deeper, asking the students to identify what differences they notice, or what makes one response stronger than the other. What possible issues or problems do they see in sample 1 that is not present in the better response? What’s the impact of that issue?

After a brief but rich discussion around all of these ideas, learners are now primed to either name the steps/qualities themselves or, at the very least, grasp the provided concept in a far more concrete way when we share it with them. Often, they are more invested as well, eager to see if what they discovered on their own matches the class or teacher response.

From a lesson structure standpoint, Side-by-Side is useful for introducing new material because we can tap into prior knowledge. For instance, students may not yet know how to effectively use transition words, but if they read two identical paragraphs in which they are the only distinguishing factor, it’s likely they’ll be able to identify which one is stronger and then, upon further investigation, name why. Alternatively, in the mini-lesson workshop that’s part of our Data Deep Dive series, we highlight Side-by-Side as an effective responsive tool as it allows us to easily home in on a specific misunderstanding.  

Putting Side-by-Side into action in your classroom

To summarize, effective Side-by-Side relies on the following:

  1. Two artifacts to juxtapose, as similar as possible except for the 1-2 differences you want to highlight 
  2. Planned time for learners to independently asses as well as confer in peer discussion 
  3. Scaffolded questions that often start quite basic (Which one is stronger? Why is A stronger than B?). Often kids can identify the stronger example even before they can name why - especially if we’ve set up the juxtaposition effectively so that the key 1-2 differences (and only those differences) stand out. After this initial prompting, increase the rigor (For example, “What’s the impact of X and Y in A?” “What misconception might the person who completed B have had?”) 
  4. A clear reinforcement of key takeaways at the end, either by the instructional leader themselves or guided by the leader as the group of learners shares.

Let’s return to the 6th grade ELA classrooms that I asked you to imagine at the opening. Consider which one is leading to deeper learning? Which one likely promotes more joy and investment? Which one encourages student dialogue and reduces teacher talk time?

Side-by-Side (see a few tips more tips and examples here) is one of the techniques we feature in our new Data Deep Dive series. Learn more about that virtual workshop series and more Relay teacher professional education offerings.

Zach Blattner

Zach Blattner is a Senior Director of Teacher Professional Education, where he helps lead sessions, work with partners and train facilitators. Prior to Relay, Zach served as an Assistant Principal in Southwest Philadelphia, helping lead his school to increased achievement results each year. Zach’s interests are in adult facilitation, secondary ELA, and virtual learning.