Sorting the sheep from the coats

dsc01442.jpgFor reasons I am too tired and too crotchety to go into, I have to devise an exercise to kick-off a workshop at work.

The workshop is to define categories of data and the exercise is to intended to make the peeps really feel that there are many different ways to label and sort information. For example, the father of the one who turns up here occasionally organises his books in order of the date first published. I’ve already told you that my former friend Catriona used to arrange hers by colour. Reed tells us that the British Museum rules for sorting anonymous books are “stark staring bonkers“. I group mine by subject so Heinlein sits next to books about the moon-landings. Diff’rent strokes for diff’rent folks.

So I have put together two large tupperware boxes of stuff from various drawers, cupboards and shelves, not to mention the garden, for the group to sort. I don’t even know what all of it is, so it should be fun for the peeps to categorise. I wouldn’t like to sort it myself, so I am glad that the whole thing was my idea.

Here is a selection:

Oil paints, fridge magnets, a stone apple, a bit of plastic that broke off my TV, indoor sparklers, an empty tin of peppermints, a full tin of air gun pellets (I’ll probably remove that one because it may upset people), turbine blades, a rusted nut and bolt (that came out of the garden), padlocks, peacock feathers, some pieces of haematite, a hair scrunchy in the yellow and green BP colours, a length of silver coloured cord, a jar of tarragon from Sweden enticingly labelled “dragon”, a thermometer, a compass, a broken mobile phone, ach… you get the idea.

It will be interesting to see whether or not getting the folks to sort them into categories works as a warm-up exercise. I haven’t yet decided whether to give, say, 20 items to each person and get them sorting individually and let the others work out what categories they’ve used, or whether to give the whole lot to the whole group and see what happens. The first will be more controllable but the second might be more instructive.

I still remain slightly startled by just how eclectic my miscellanea are though.


12 responses to “Sorting the sheep from the coats

  1. Get them into groups of 3-6 (depending how many people in total). If you get them to do it individually, a deathly hush will ensue and anyhow the feedback will take forever.

    Here is the only warm-up exercise I ever had to do which I thought was any good. It is absolutely nothing to do with sorting things, so no use to you on this occasion. It is called Big Foot and is about Teamwork.

    Get everyone into pairs. The more people the better. Tell them that from each pair, the person with the larger shoe size is Big Foot. Big Foot has to make a fist (ie clench their fist). The task of the other person is to get them to open their fist, starting……NOW!

    Give them a few minutes of shrieking, tickling, physical assault, dubious bribery, much merriment. Stop them when you see a couple of pairs standing looking bored and smug. They will be the only ones where not-Big-Foot said “Big Foot, please will you open your fist”, and Big Foot realised that there was absolutely nothing in the instructions that said it was a competition or that he was to resist having his fist opened.

  2. I’m not afraid of deathly hushes, but I do take your point about the feedback taking forever.

    I don’t think I’ve ever had to do a warm-up exercise before, but I will, without a doubt, use Big Foot the next time I do. I like that one.

    Thanks for reading and thanks for commenting. 🙂


  3. I think the sorting exercise will be great fun (in small groups). People have such different ways of looking at the world. Let us know what happens.

  4. “Shrieking, tickling, physical assault”? Good God, you’ll have Elf ‘n Safety after you!

  5. Terrible flash-backs on seeing your box of odds-and-ends. We spent our first classification practical with a box of kitchen-drawer detritus, working out a classification system for it all. My table earned smug git points for managing to jam the loose change in with the screws, tacks, nails and paper-clips by declaring the lot ‘fasteners’ and inventing a category of ‘philosophical fasteners – economic’.

    S did the Big Foot exercise at some work do or other, and reported, somewhat self-rightously, I might add, that out of over 50 people, his group was the only one that thought to ask nicely. And then got sent to the tea table for first dibs at the biscuits.

  6. I used to organize my books by color, until my husband came around and disorganized it. I would sort the items by alphabet, for the sake of ease, but that would create another problem of me forgetting their names and calling everything a thingemajig.
    I think I am a librarian by birth and a organizer by calling. I like groups and sub groups. I like colors and sub colors. I like order. I’m a real Dutch housewife!

  7. Classifying things is a fascinating exercise, and the same ‘things’ could be categorised in any number of ways depending on the reasons for classifying them. If it is for personal use, then they could be grouped by “stuff I’m likely to need first thing in the morning when I’m half awake”, “stuff I might need when I have guests”, “stuff I never use, but like to have anyway” and so on.

    There are philosophical bases for classifying, practical ones (things that will fit on this thin shelf!), academic ones, personal ones, ones that could make sense to anyone, scientific ones (you could group the items by which element makes up the majority of the item, which would be odd, but possible)…

    However, whatever scheme one comes up with for classifying things, there’s always that odd item which refuses to fit in anywhere else. You either have to squeeze them in to some other category (I love Reed’s example!) or invent a new one just for them. Neither option tends to satisfy.

    I’ll shut up now…

  8. The Big Foot exercise reminds me of the story of the barometer. Pick three professions of your choice – usual ones are, say, a scientist, an engineer, and a politician.

    The king/emperor/big cheese has had an impressive tower built. He calls in his team of three wise men, and tells them he will set them a test. They must determine the exact height of the tower, using only a barometer.

    The engineer uses the barometer to measure the pressure at the base of the tower, and at the top. His answer is good, but not very accurate.

    The scientist drops the barometer off the top of the tower and times how long it takes to fall. Knowing Newton’s laws, he can calculate a more accurate height.

    The politician, however, reports the height accurate to a millimetre. “How did you do it?”, ask the scientist and the engineer. The politician replies “I went to the home of the architect, and said ‘If you will tell me exactly how tall the tower is, I shall give you this handsome barometer.'”

  9. Maybe we should get Dubya and Ahmydinnerjacket to play Big Foot. But they’d never get started – they’d still be having a ‘mine are bigger than yours’ argument when time was up….

    Your jumble box reminds me of surrealist poem from long ago that has always stuck in my mind:

    “On the pale yellow sands
    There’s a pair of clasped hands
    And an eyeball entangled in string
    And a plate of raw meat
    And a bicycle seat
    And a THING that is scarcely a THING.”

    Rather haunting, don’t you think?

    Have fun.

  10. Thanks all for reading and commenting.

    The Sorting Game has evolved over the three workshops we’ve run it in, to a four round exercise lasting about 80 minutes.

    Boy, is it interesting.

    It’s also remarkably powerful, introducing the concept of category errors ( ) and demonstrating just how powerful good categorisation can be.

    I run it over four rounds with slightly different activities each time because they provide direct analogues for the four stages we go through when analysing the actual data.

    I’m really pleased with it.


  11. Would it be inordinately rude to ask what the four stages are and to enquire about the analogues? It sounds fascinating.

  12. Pingback: You are what you read - I « Aphra Behn - danger of eclectic shock

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