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Connie Scoles West

Connie Scoles West, BSEd, MEd, spent her career in K–12 education as a classroom teacher and administrator in Cincinnati, Ohio, before joining Learning Sciences International as an independent staff developer in 2012. Connie brings expertise to her work from years of experience in a broad spectrum of leadership roles, including gifted education, mentoring, instructional coaching, school improvement, curriculum, professional development, and teacher evaluation. She has presented at numerous conferences on topics in literacy, mathematics, coaching, and curriculum and instruction. Connie earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

Resources by Connie Scoles West

Interviews by Connie Scoles West

Q&A with Connie West on
Examining Similarities & Differences

Connie West has four decades of experience in education, from teaching gifted children to working on school improvement. Now, as an education coach, she travels the US and Australia helping schools put theory into practice. West’s first book, Examining Similarities & Differences, explores what she says is “so basic to human learning.” Because teaching content by using metaphors, analogies, and classifications can be challenging—even for the best teachers—West provides solid and relatable strategies and tools to make it easier. Here she discusses highlights from her book.

Your book instructs teachers on how to help students with comparing and classifying information and how to understand metaphors and analogies. Many students dislike analogies because they find it difficult to understand the relationship between the objects or ideas. Can the techniques in your book help teachers instruct students on how to think differently in order to find the similarities and differences?

Yes. There’s a good chart in the book that lists many of the common relationships. We talk about teaching students how to think by explicitly teaching them the analogies’ relationships, such as antonyms, synonyms, part-to-whole, and cause and effect, but this is more than using analogies with vocabulary. It’s really about helping students understand the content better by making an analogy. For example, when we talk about pioneers, we could say, “Lewis and Clark were to the Great American West as X was to space.” The kids have to determine what the relationship is between Lewis and Clark and the Great American West. When they learn that Lewis and Clark were early explorers, they’ll understand that they have to find out who were the early explorers of space. Another way to teach students is to have them think of one thing as something else. For example, think of your body as a house being built, so your bones are the framework, your nervous system is the electrical system, and so on.

It seems that comparing and classifying is the first level, and understanding metaphors and analogies is a step above. Is that correct?

You could think of it that way. Analogies are a more complex way of thinking about similarities and differences. You can certainly create classification activities that are complex, but generally comparing and classifying is easier than creating a metaphor or an analogy. In either case, the first thing a student has to be able to do is to understand the attributes of a topic. If you say, “A paragraph is like a hamburger,” you’ve got to know something about paragraphs and something about hamburgers to list the attributes.

You wrote that sometimes a teacher fails to take into account students’ background knowledge and working memory capacities by asking them to compare too many things using too many comparison criteria. How do you assess a student’s working memory capabilities? Is it based on age?

You have to know your students. A teacher has to be an expert at building content matter as well as pedagogy. Expertise in pedagogy is when a teacher knows that a second-grade student cannot hold in their memory more than two different criteria for two different things, whereas an eighth-grade student could perhaps hold three or four items to compare on three or four criteria. It’s basically experience with the age level and the individual student.

What are a few ways that teachers can monitor if a student is genuinely understanding how to compare and contrast content?

Many techniques and activities in this book involve a written end-product—either a graphic organizer, diagram, paragraph, or drawing. It takes close examination of the actual written work through a lens of predetermined goals students are expected to meet. Teachers need to listen to students’ train of thought during discussions and prompt them to have focused discourse. Students need to work in pairs or in groups so the teacher can go around and listen to their thoughts, guide the process, and encourage them to go deeper.

Another way to monitor is to ask the students at the end, “Why do we care?” They need to be able to say what they noticed and be able to generalize. You don’t want to spoon-feed them, but you don’t want them to flail about trying to find the answers.

Which of the six techniques are most useful with ESL students or those who struggle with reading at their grade level?

All of the techniques are good, but I think the sentence stems are particularly good for ESL students. Using sentence stems gives students a jump-start. For example, if you’re teaching about animals, you may say, “Reptiles are different from amphibians because …” instead of saying, “Compare reptiles and amphibians.” Give them the stem sentences to get them started on their thinking.

Classifying is also a good technique with ESL students because that can be done visually. You can do a lot of sorting with words and pictures.

These techniques sound great for group learning. One student may find completely different ways to compare two objects than another student, and then you have a broader discussion. Do you agree?

Yes, I do. The research clearly shows students learn better when they are interacting with at least one other student. There are a lot of things students see that are nuanced. It’s beneficial when they have to articulate and defend their own thinking and listen to someone else’s view. This gets especially interesting when you get into open-ended pieces. You could say, “Martin Luther King is to the Civil Rights Movement as X was to Y. When one student responds correctly, “as Susan B. Anthony was to the women’s movement,” or another responds incorrectly, as “Scientists are to climate change,” we prompt students to ask, “Is that a straight analogy or not? Is it accurate? Is it effective? Does it help us gain insight about the new relationship?” So the discussion becomes important as students learn to challenge and defend their analogies. This can work even with young students. You could do something like, “An elephant is to mammal as X is to Y.

What is an affinity diagram? And can it be used in all grade levels?

An affinity diagram is a way of organizing a large number of ideas into natural categories, which is useful when students are likely to have a lot of ideas or responses to a question. For instance, if students are studying economic wants and needs, the teacher can ask everybody to think of things they want or need. Students write as many answers as they can think of, one idea per sticky note. These ideas come from their own thinking or background knowledge, or even from their reading. Then the teacher starts posting the stickies on the wall, asking a couple of students to arrange them in like groups. It’s a great classification exercise because it’s organic and it picks the brains of the students. The end of the activity should focus on what the students notice about wants versus needs—comparing and contrasting them.

Have you been coaching teachers on this content already? What results are you seeing in their classrooms?

Yes, teachers seem to readily accept coaching on these techniques. These activities and ideas came from classrooms. That’s what so great about this strategy. It’s familiar. Teachers have always asked students make diagrams and charts, but this really gets them to look at the content in a deeper way. I tell teachers to look at the topic they’re teaching next month and identify some of the big concepts they want their students to understand. Then the teachers should choose a technique that helps students understand the content. Once you present it like that, it becomes easier for people to think up ideas.

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I am already thinking about how I can structure some of my lessons around the explanations and examples in Examining Similarities & Differences to deepen my students’ understanding of a concept.
Kristi Bundy, 2014 Nebraska Teacher of the Year
The graphic organizers in Examining Similarities & Differences were very helpful, and I like that the author visits potential roadblocks at the end of each chapter. As a reading specialist, I could easily see myself incorporating the presented ideas into content lessons.
Jane Dearani Calnan, 2014 New Hampshire Teacher of the Year finalist

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