Back to Basics: Thinking Maps

August 9, 2016




   Before school started last year at my middle school, at one of our workshop/meetings, our principal was ecstatic to introduce the new and shiny thing they wanted us to implement this year. What was it this time? Thinking Maps. We got very expensive, very informative books, hands on training, even an expert to come talk to us about this new fabulous thing! By now, I’m sure you’ve all seen them: the brace map, the double bubble map, the multi-flow map. I was reluctant at first, of course. I grew up with outlines and Venn diagrams. These just seemed cheesy.

   But they won me over. I really appreciated the posters I got with the book to put in my classroom; I could point them out as a useful tool whenever the opportunity arose.  They’re better than ready-made graphic organizers because it pushes kids to be independent critical thinkers, it’s more open to individual creativity, and we all know that the brain loves pictures.


   My assistant principal at the time was also coming to watch me teach often to see how I was doing and to give any constructive criticism that might be helpful. After one lesson she observed, she came to me, a little crestfallen, asking why I didn’t use the thinking maps for that lesson. Didn’t I like them? Didn’t I find them simply wonderful and brilliant? It was here that I had to admit that I wasn’t exactly sure how to use them all the time. There are some that fit for Language Arts classrooms quite well, but there are some I never touched because I didn’t know how to make use of it in my lessons.


   At the next grade level meeting, I found that I wasn’t the only one. How do you use a multi-flow map for math? How do you use a brace map for science? After some brainstorming, and some Googling, we came up with some ideas and some governing questions to help us that will hopefully help you too!


{ To download all PDF templates for free, click here!}


Circle Map – Used for Defining in Context

Questions to Ask - How are you defining this thing or idea? What is the context?


  • Parts of Speech - Use it to break up parts of speech. In the center have consonants, vowels, verbs, nouns, etc, and have the students fill out the surrounding bubble with what they know.

  • Short writing – for short writing planning have them write the topic in the center and then the details around it. A small moment and the details that make it up, All about them and what they feel makes them up.

  • Pre-Assessment – When starting a new topic (dystopian literature, Shakespeare, plant biology, different cultures), have students put the topic in the center and have them fill out what they know, or think they know, in the surrounding circle.

  • Math – Use it to show equivalent fractions or different ways to create a whole number.

  • About Me (or characters) – Have students place their name (or character’s) in the center with the surrounding circle showing what they feel makes them, them. Add a frame of reference to show people or events that have had an effect on them.

  • Add a Frame of Reference – help them study or learn how to back up a claim by asking them how they know this and have it outside of the circle as their frame of reference. Have them point to anything they’ve used to find this info.


Bubble Map – Used for Describing

Questions to Ask – How are you describing this thing? Which adjectives would best describe this thing?

  • This one is infinitely versatile! Have students show what defines different elements, characters, a true friend, acceptable behavior, moments in history; the list goes on and on.


Double Bubble Map – Used for Comparing and Contrasting

Questions to Ask – What are the similar and different qualities of these things?

  • Life cycles - Compare and contrast different life cycles.

  • Characters - Compare and contrast characters. This helped shed some light on Valentine’s true personality in Ender’s Game.

  • Ice Breaker – Pair students to share about themselves and have them map out their differences and their similarities.

  • Countries – have students chart out what similarities countries they are studying share and how they differ. Have them go further and ask why.

  • Government – Have students better understand how different countries are governed by having them compare and contrast.


Bridge Map – Used for Seeing Analogies

Questions to Ask – What is the analogy being used? What is the guiding metaphor?


  • Historical documents – have students highlight historical documents and their purpose. For example, in the constitution, the preamble has the purpose of establishing the goals of the constitution whereas the 7 articles has the purpose of creating a balance of power.

  • Scientific concepts – give students a better picture, i.e. the chromosome is the building plan for the body whereas blueprints are the building plans for buildings.

  • History and Social Studies – compare different historical events in different countries or even look at broader concepts, i.e. Mexico was once ruled by Spain whereas the USA was governed by Great Britain.

  • Measurements - Have students show different ways to measure and what they measure, i.e. triple beam balance measures mass as graduated cylinder measures volume, etc.


Tree Map – Used for Classifying

Questions to Ask – What are the main ideas and details in this information?


  • Word endings – have the title be a kind of word ending, such as ‘long o’. Under that would be long ‘o’ endings such as ‘-one’, ‘ope’, and ‘oke’. Have students put words underneath that fit with each word.

  • Money values -  Have the top say ‘Money’. Underneath have ‘penny’, ‘nickel’, ‘dime’,  etc. Under each show different ways its value is shown or how much it’s worth.

  • Place Value – Have the top titled ‘Place Value’ and have the subsequent headings say ‘ones, tens hundreds, etc’, and underneath have students show it in several different ways.

  • Rules – Use it to showcase your rules. My main rule is respect. Underneath that I have ‘Respect the teacher’, ‘Respect your classmates’, and ‘Respect yourself’. Under that are more concrete things, such as i