Mapping out their thinking

This post was written by David Fawcett @davidfawcett27.

There are frequent times within a teachers week when no matter how hard we try, some students simply find the topic we teach them difficult. In these instances we may adapt our explanations, the way we introduce the concept, the tasks we get students to do or even the way we question them. Occasionally we may even begin to design additional resources to supplement or support learning.
Now resources can create a bit of discussion in a number of quarters. Some hand-outs or worksheets really clarify what it is the teacher is trying to get across and help thinking. They can become a great tool to have up your sleeve. On the other hand is the issue of time. Some resources take hours to design and create and eat into time we could be using elsewhere. One piece of advice I was given mid-way through my career was ‘If a resource takes longer to make than it will be used by a student, is it worth it?’ Now this sentiment has also been shared on Twitter and is one that actually made me sit up and think. In my early career I have been guilty of creating various students resources that have simply taken hours to make. Then when they are used in lessons they become a 5 minute task and usually get scuffed up in the bottom of a bag or underused in students books. Is that a great example of effective use of time? I’m not so sure.

Coming back to the original problem, does the design of some of these resources actually support students’ thinking better than a great explanation, tailored feedback or prompt question would? Do they help student piece together all of the information around a topic? Again I am not so sure.

A few years ago I was introduced by a transition teacher to a set of resources called ‘Graphic Organisers’. Many of you have probably used them before but have never associated the name. Graphic organisers are visual thinking resources such as spider diagrams, Venn diagrams, double bubble maps or compare/contrast maps. They are designed to help students make sense of information, concepts and instructions. They allow students the opportunity to visually arrange knowledge, ideas, relationships, similarities, differences and so on. The beauty of this type of resource is they allow students to place information on a page in a visual sense and manipulate it, rather than trying to do it in the working memory. For those students who struggle to grasp a topic a graphic organiser can really help.

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Spider diagrams

I prefer these to the copyrighted ‘Mind Maps’ that we see floating around in schools these days. Mind Maps become too regimented with ‘only use single words’ and ‘keep things branching off of a previous strand’. That latter point is the sticking point for me. When I want students to map out the various components of a topic I don’t want them to think of each segment in a linear fashion. I want students to be able to identify how various topics interlink and where the relationships come from. I want them to look to see how seemingly unconnected bits of information might just be linked. Spider diagrams can go on and on and that is a real beauty in the design.



Simply share the stimulus, task or question with the students. They use words to demonstrate the knowledge that they have/know. They usually branch off of main headings. Encourage students to use single words or short terms to ensure space isn’t wasted. This rule could also be used to encourage students to develop literacy through removing redundant words and using better or more academic language. Then get students to map out the links between these pieces of information. As with all of these resources ask students write up a number of these strands in continuous prose to show understanding in more depth.

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Double bubble maps

There are times when teachers introduce two perspectives, two opposing systems or two closely linked topics. Double bubble maps allow students’ the opportunity to explore similarities and differences very easily.


Pick two topics such as the aerobic and anaerobic energy systems. Based on what the students have been taught, ask them to place ‘how these systems are different’ in the outer rings. Where the two systems are linked and work together or in similar ways, they place these pieces of information inside the linked spaces. They work very well when topics can be easily confused (like the energy systems) as they isolate them as separate entities before showing how they connect.

Relational - IDEA Map

Thinking squares

Initially an idea borrowed and adapted from Lisa Jane Ashes, this organiser is great for helping students plan/map out thoughts before turning them into structured answers. The squares here are linked to a writing framework called I.D.E.A (Identify, define, explain and apply) but any other such as PEED can be used.


Students have a question or stimulus image which they must base the resource around. They pick out key points and identify them in the inner box. They then expand on that by providing the definition in the next box layer. In the third layer they then explain it in their own words before applying it to a real word context in the last. This can then be transferred into an answer with only a few structure adaptations needed.

Multi-structural cause and effect

Cause and effect organiser

There are times when students need to explain the consequence or an action. They may even need to investigate the cause of an event and the effect it has had on it. A cause and effect map is excellent for unpicking this.


Label the event or stimulus in the centre rectangle. In the left column or boxes, students identify causes of an event. In the right column of boxes, students describe the effect that those cause had on the various ‘causes’ they have talked about. The boxes can also be labelled. For instance, if looking at the Olympics, the teacher could label one set of boxes political, another one social and another cultural. This forces students to think about specific areas to consider when completing the organiser.

Kiplings Map

Kipling’s Map

There are times when students need to know the who, where, what, when, why and how regarding a piece of information. Kipling’s Maps makes that process much simpler and easy to unpick.


As simple as the map demonstrates. Students simply place the topic in the middle and then input the corresponding information into the various boxes. It allows students the opportunity to build up a bigger picture and include all of the relevant information.




A great way to help students see the ordering of a process or historical event.


When students have received all of the relevant information regarding a process or event, they can begin to piece together a sequence using the map. For instance, when explaining the journey that oxygen takes through the body during exercise, the sequence graphic organiser can help students see how it enters the body, which respiratory organs it goes through, how it enters the blood stream and how it makes its way to the muscles. Makes what could be a very complicated explanation become a much simpler concept.

Article Analysis

Source/article analysis

When students are asked to read and unpick a variety of sources or articles, the graphic organiser helps students think about what they might need to look for/consider.


Ask students to read through the article/source to gain an understanding of it. Students then summarise the piece in the first box. They are asked to unpick any vocabulary or key terminology in the next section. Finally students look to link the article to the current learning by seeing what they can transfer. Again, the organiser allows students to chunk various pieces of information before using it in subsequent learning.

Graphic organisers are now a huge part of my classroom and really help students manipulate information, see links, pool together ideas and compare concepts. There are some key things to remember though:

• These are just the starting points – always get students to follow up the map by sharing exam questions or extended writing tasks. It’s great to fill in sheets but students need to do something with it.

• Include the question or stimulus on the graphic organiser – This simply focuses the learning and helps students organise their information more efficiently.

• Make them huge – All of the organisers I use are A3. However, especially at revision time, I ask students to stick additional sheets to them to make their exploration of topics even more vast and in depth.

• Allow time – You will be surprised, especially when completing a well-constructed spider diagram, just how much time students can spend completing these properly. Especially at revision time these can last a lesson or series of lessons.

So returning to the original two points of this post, graphic organisers are incredibly simply to design and easy to transfer between subjects and topics. One design can be used in a variety of ways without the need to generate a whole new resource. This surely makes teachers time more efficient and a more efficient way of working. In terms of whether a resource helps students think, well these do. The sheer nature of them forces students to have to collate their thoughts, ideas and information, and then manipulate them. They are ideal for use after you have taught a topic. They can be used to help scaffold extended pieces of writing rather than simply jumping in. They can be used to help plan discussions and consider various perspectives before initiating debates. They can help piece together larger topics which helps recall and retention. And at their most basic, they help make the words that teachers say become more clarified. Graphic organisers are a great tool and far from being a gimmick. They could actually be a resource which gets used again and again.

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