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‘Thinking’ – Doesn’t everyone do that anyway?

Written by: Hanna Miller
6 min read

When embarking on a new stage of schooling, each student brings with them a different experience of what learning looks like and feels like, often reinforced by their experiences – good or bad. Hyerle and Alper (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 ‘portal’ into the thinking that is taking place in the heads of our students and a language to communicate it. 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.

Table 1: The Thinking Maps as designed by Dr David Hyerle

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

Visual structures are nothing new – long have Venn diagrams, spider diagrams and other graphic organisers been in use in education but within our Trust this has been developed into a shared common language across all subjects and key stages that is improving our students’ confidence and competence in their learning. The Trust is composed of fourteen schools, ranging between single-sex grammar schools, mixed high schools, and infant schools, across two geographical ‘hubs’ in Medway and Portsmouth. Our secondary schools have seen real improvements in attainment since joining the Trust; on average our estimated Progress 8 score for 2017 is +0.55 and throughout this time we have been keen to attempt to assess the potential impact of the Thinking Maps as a possible contributor to the improvements in learning outcomes. Despite the differing contextual demands, for both staff and students, the Maps have provided a strategy to handle the 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.

In order to reap these benefits, all students and staff have been explicitly taught the ‘conventions’ of each Map with some theoretical underpinning, provided with examples of application and then guided to design their own examples to specific content, through a formal induction programme. Cross-Trust training for staff enables a richer professional dialogue, enabling staff to discuss applications into their own varying contexts. 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, for example, 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 being able to compare and contrast 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 interpreted as too limited.

Our students have described through self-report questionnaires and informal focus group interviews the use of a Map as 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 they want 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, 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% 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.

By Key Stage 4 and 5, many students are confidently using the Maps automatically as part of their revision. 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 but 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 ‘through’ a Multi-Flow Map, a structure they are both familiar with allowing more time to be spent meaningfully considering and questioning different viewpoints – as one student commented ‘I can see how their ideas link and then compare them to see if that’s how I thought about it, then we can chat about why or why not’.

Every curriculum area within each year group shares similar concerns – lots to learn, lots to remember and little time to do it.  Regardless of level of attainment, we know that students in all types of schools can sometimes become overwhelmed by the academic demands placed on them: but the structure provided through these Maps can provide one method to make understanding content clearer and most importantly acknowledge and understand the role that your own ‘thinking’ has in this process. We have found that the explicit teaching of the Maps benefits all students through providing a structure to direct, stimulate and support their thinking and we believe that it is through this provided structure that students are actually truly empowered – they can lead their learning because they have understood and developed ways to navigate their learning with the use of the Thinking Maps. Although each school has its differing contextual demands and curriculum changes have increased uncertainty we feel that the Maps, as one part of our teaching and learning drive, has provided a consistency to support learning. As our knowledge of cognitive education develops, we continue to search for ways to validly and reliably explore the value of the Maps to our students and refine our practice to support our learners’ progress.



Hyerle D and Alper L (2011) Student successes with Thinking Maps. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
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