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Back to Basics: Thinking Maps

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 interrupting, distractions, etc. This could also work for outlining expectations for think-pair-share, Socratic Seminars, etc.

  • Writing – Use it to outline the main idea, supporting ideas, and then details.

  • Said is Dead – Use it to pronounce certain words as dead and give them alternatives. For example, you could have ‘said’, then break it down to positive and negative emotions. Break those down further into specific emotions, then go into detail about what words can be used to replace it.

  • Concepts – have students break concepts into what makes them up and then have them explain in their own words and illustrate it.

Brace Map – Used for Whole-Part Relationships

Questions to Ask – What are the component parts and subparts of this whole object or concept?

  • This is another versatile one! Anything that can be broken down into smaller parts is a given for this map. Try breaking down the anatomy of objects, people, and animals, Countries, parts of a story, the scientific method, parts of a number; it is open for a lot of possibilities.

Flow Map – Used for Sequencing

Questions to Ask – What happened? What is the sequence of events? What are the substages?

  • Directions – for younger kids or students that need a little extra help, have them chart out the directions for the day, schedules, or specific routines.

  • Thought Process – This is one of my favorites since our school is also very involved in the Habits of Mind. Use it to show them how they think! Have them start with the question on the left, and in the subcategories have them write their initial thoughts to the answer. In the next category over, have them write new information that they found about the question and show the new ideas for the answer in the subcategories until the answer is reached.

Multi-Flow Map – Used for Cause and Effect

Questions to Ask – What are the causes and effects of this event? What might happen next? What caused it?

  • Cause and Effect – Have students think of a turning point in their novel. Have them fill out what caused it and what they feel it will lead to.

  • Earth Effects – Have students focus on an Earth issue such as polar caps melting or air pollution. What’s causing it and what will its effects be?

  • Behavior Management – Have students write about the event in question. What do they feel led to the poor decision? What are the consequences of the poor decision?

  • Historic Analysis – Take any event in history and have students hash out what the cause and effects were.

  • Goal Setting – Have the goal be the center with the left being things they can do to make it happen and the right being the benefits of achieving the goal.

This is a just a scratch in the surface of the ways thinking maps can be used. Did anything strike a chord with you? What are some of the ways you like to implement thinking maps in your classroom?

About Minnie: Minnie is a writer and English teacher with a degree in Secondary English Education and Vocal Music Performance from Colorado Mesa University. She has taught 6th grade English and Classes for those with severe special needs. While teaching 6th grade she created a weekly program to help students in need of help and their parents better understand Tolmann writing and co-taught a technology intensive research project.

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