Brain-based research supports the use of graphic organizers in providing an overview of instructional units. I have found that these road maps, as I have referred to them with students, assist kids in understanding the hows, whys, and whens of specific units. For example, I have used graphic organizers in writing instruction to give kids an overview of a final product (such as a letter, research paper, or how-to story), including a list of skills they will need to acquire in the process. These maps also indicate the steps we will follow. The following is an example of a student version of a map for letter-writing.
With teacher support, students can see what skills they will learn and the steps they’ll follow in writing a letter. To make this a more powerful tool, kids make a personal connection from the start by indicating the recipient of their letter and what form of “art” they will include (both brain-based strategies). Since I have typically worked with kids who are easily distracted and function at widely varying levels, I am not likely to post this type of map on the wall. Instead, students have access to their own copy, which can be easily adjusted for reading and developmental levels.
In my teaching experience, the most commonly used class-wide graphic organizers are K-W-L charts (what I KNOW, what I WANT to know, what I have LEARNED). I never found these charts very useful for a number of reasons, although group or individual discussions of any of these points could be helpful. Why not? First, my groups have been diverse and not everyone could meaningfully contribute to the first two categories. For the same reason, I have preferred individual maps (or graphic organizers) so each student will have a variation of the map which best suits their needs. I do want students to identify what they have learned, but with special needs students, I have often had to guide that understanding as well.
This raises the question of how best to use concept maps for teaching. To what extent should students have a road map for what they need to learn? Mariale Hardiman’s Brain-Targeted Teaching Model provides numerous examples of effective graphics that prepare students for their learning adventure by providing an overview of where they are going and what they’ll do along the way. I almost always use some sort of graphic for guiding our way, but prefer to use maps with “shorter” steps. For a student who is well behind in reading, math or social skills, for example, it would be overwhelming to see the long road that lies ahead. Instead, my graphics zoom in on the next few steps of the way. The examples in Hardiman’s book were designed primarily for units in content areas such as social studies, where the big picture can help activate prior knowledge and create excitement and anticipation. For students struggling to read, identifying “vowel teams” can be just as significant.
I think the use of graphic organizers can help students understand why they are working on specific skills, which is a crucial understanding. Kids learn best if they grasp the usefulness of a skill, or some evidence that they will be happier on the “other side” of what appears to be a chasm. Here’s a sample map for an anxious student who has no idea why he must learn anything about decimals (and who fears it will be impossible). However, he is very interested in using money and wants to buy some pets. This chart can be easily turned into a checklist for him to track his progress in learning the needed skills.He already has some understanding of many of the skills listed above, but he thinks that these skills are useless. His map includes a skill he has solidly acquired, identifying place value of whole numbers, to generate some hopefulness about his ability to reach the goal. The relative size of the “Why” section is to help keep his eye on the prize.
Honestly, I will never use maps or organizers for everything I teach, primarily due to time constraints (such as blogging instead of lesson planning!). When I run into difficulties, as with the student described above, you can be sure I will start creating graphics. Besides supporting student learning, these step-wise maps force me to examine my own teaching. Am I following an appropriate sequence of skills for this student? Am I helping him make meaningful connections between these skills? Am I giving him a reason to learn? Graphic organizers encourage both teachers and students to reflect on the learning process.