Thinking Maps

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Hyerle and Alper (2011) state that, ‘Thinking Maps serve as a device for mediating thinking, listening, speaking, reading, writing, problem solving, and acquiring new knowledge’ and for our Trust schools these visual representations provide a method to communicate the thinking that is taking place in the heads of our students. The infusion of Hyerle’s Thinking Maps across the whole curriculum has provided our students with a method to sort and present information, providing a rich vocabulary to express and discuss their ideas in relation to the content they are studying and their underlying thinking. The shared common language across all subjects and key stages helps to improve our students’ confidence and competence in their learning.

Despite the differing contextual demands of our different schools, for both staff and students the Maps have provided a strategy to explore curriculum content in a way that enables students to form meaningful links to previous learning and structure their work in a digestible format. In our secondary schools we have found especially for younger secondary students, the levels of confidence relating to learning new content has increased, as has the quality of students’ metacognition when talking about their learning. By the end of Year 7, students are already more articulate when discussing their thinking.

The shared language also allows more opportunities for cross-curricular sharing, breaking down barriers between subjects and increasing awareness of the similar types of thinking needed in each subject, e.g. a Flow Map might be used in Maths to solve an equation, while this ‘thinking process’ is also useful in PE to illustrate the stages of throwing a javelin.

The application of a Map to a task is not arbitrary – each Map links to a specific thinking process which is informed by the nature of a specific task. For example, in English, comparing and contrasting two characters using specific terminology could be supported by the use of a double bubble map. All learners within the class might use a ‘double bubble’ to share their ideas but the task might be differentiated through the application of a relevant ‘Frame of Reference’. These frames add a level of teacher and student flexibility to the highly structured Maps, which otherwise might be too rigid.

Our students have described, through self-report questionnaires and informal focus group interviews, that the use of a Map is more useful than other methods; they feel encouraged to provide more relevant points because of the nature of the Map. In the case of a Double Bubble it is not as restrictive as a Venn diagram and encourages students to try to look for additional information to add to their Map. Older students have also commented that the Maps encourage them to think deeply about the points they make through the reflective or higher order questioning within the frame. Students now think more critically about the information they present; some developing deeper understandings and investing more time in their interrogations, which can often lead to better recall of the information at a later date. Our most recent secondary school data from the Trust (November, 2017), produced through anonymous self-report questionnaires with Year 12 students, suggests that most students use the Maps independently and unprompted as part of their revision, as 70% had used the Maps as part of their independent revision for their GCSEs.

Other findings from these surveys, observations of student groups and teacher feedback suggests that this increased awareness of the type of thinking needed encourages students to reflect more on their ideas and organise their thoughts more carefully, whilst also reducing self-reported levels of learner ‘anxiety’ and ‘confusion’ because students will use the same Maps within all of their subject areas. Staff have also commented that individual thinking time is more carefully directed through the Maps and relies on less teacher input, whilst also reducing the number of impulsive responses. One student from a primary school commented that ‘before we started using the Maps I didn’t like writing my ideas down because I didn’t really know how to show them, I used to look around to see what everyone else was doing and my teacher always thought I was cheating but I wasn’t – I just didn’t know how to put my ideas down’. In this way, the Maps provide a starting point for all students during independent learning. In this way the Maps have made significant changes to how students note taking and revision looks, with students also commenting that the Maps allow them to more clearly see ‘where each bit fits in to make the bigger picture’ – they are more confident with accurately connecting their prior knowledge to content they are currently learning, which also enables them to more proactively identify their own gaps in knowledge and understanding.

One of our intentions by using the Maps is to attempt to reduce the heavy demands on cognitive load by providing structures that make automatic those things you don’t really want students to focus on – giving more time and space to for content.  We found particularly when observing younger learners that when it came to sharing ideas or discussing learning with a peer, students were spending lots of the allocated discussion time talking through the methods they had used to display their learning but little time on what they actually knew or thought. Now there are significant differences in how students are using that time – more of it is now spent talking through ideas and building the actual knowledge and understanding. For example, students discussing the causes and effects of World War Two in History can share their ideas by using a Multi-Flow Map, a structure with which they are both familiar, allowing more time to be spent meaningfully considering and questioning different viewpoints.

Thinking Map Thinking Process
Bubble Map Describing
Double Bubble Map Comparing and contrasting
Tree Map Classifying
Brace Map Identifying whole/part relationships
Flow Map Sequencing
Multi-Flow Map Causes and effects
Circle Map Defining in context
Bridge Map Seeing analogies

Research basis

  • Hyerle, D. & Alper, L. (2011) Student successes with Thinking Maps. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
  • Siew, N & Mapeala, R. (2016) The effects of problem based learning with Thinking Maps on fifth grader’s science critical thinking. The Journal of Baltic Science Education, 15 (5), p602-616.
  • Lott, K & Read, S. (2015) Map it then write it. Science and Children, 53 (3), p46-52.
  • Long, D & Carlson, D. (2011) Mind the Map: How Thinking Maps affect student achievement. Networks: An Online Journal for Teacher Research ,13 (2), p1-7.
  • Gallagher, M. (2011)Using Thinking Maps to Facilitate Research Writing in Upper Level Undergraduate Classes. Journal of Family & Consumer Sciences Education, 29 (2), p53-56.

Further reading

David Hyerle’s Thinking Maps –