Graphic organizers are a helpful learning tool for students of all ages to organize, clarify, or simplify complex information—they help students construct understanding through an exploration of the relationships between concepts.
Teacher-generated organizers are a useful scaffold to support student learning. They provide students with a means to categorize cumbersome amounts of information, introduce a more refined lens to analyze a complex text, and enable students to recognize patterns and compare perspectives. However, graphic organizers can have the unintended consequence of limiting students’ thinking to just filling in the boxes, and may allow students to avoid the messy but important work of surfacing key insights or conceptual understanding.
Careful design, creation, and use of graphic organizers can provide important intellectual guardrails to guide students toward deeper understanding and learning.
Let Learning Goals Drive Design
Well-designed graphic organizers should guide students to categorize key concepts, surface the interconnection of ideas, or help students construct knowledge.
For example, if your desired learning objective is to have students explain the paradox that both an overly weak and an overly strong government can threaten individual liberty, the graphic organizer must be constructed to generate that level of thinking. The organizer should ensure that students move beyond the traditional listing of the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation. Instead, the design should lead students to thoughtfully analyze how liberty was impacted under the British monarchy and the Articles of Confederation.
Similarly, if the goal is to determine whether an author followed or broke from traditional storytelling conventions, a graphic organizer that outlines the plot elements of a novel would be insufficient. The organizer should require students to compare plot elements from the novel to the typical rising/falling action, climax, and resolution storyline; determine where and why the author made similar or different choices; and offer a judgment regarding the deliberate craft moves.
If the goal is to have students form well-reasoned opinions, the ubiquitous Venn diagram, although a viable means to make comparisons, doesn’t automatically require students to weigh the relative strengths of the elements depicted, isolate the most significant similarities or differences, or rate or discriminate between elements that would inform a thoughtful point of view.
Unless they’re designed with the end in mind, organizers may unintentionally lead students on an intellectual scavenger hunt that generates surface understanding and thinking. The design of the graphic organizer must align with the learning goal and require that students apply the information they deconstructed in order to make meaning or develop unique insights.
Understand the Why
Imagine asking your students while they’re working on a graphic organizer, “What are you doing?” and “Why are you doing it?” It’s likely that students would be able to articulate the former (e.g., “I’m filling in this chart/table/diagram.”) but not necessarily the latter.
Students tend to view the completion of the graphic organizer as an end in itself rather than a means toward developing a more sophisticated insight. As such, be mindful to design the organizer with the end in mind: Communicate this goal to your learners, and ensure that the structure of the organizer requires students to make connections between content, achieve broader understandings, and perhaps even ask further questions.
A graphic organizer from the National Archives, for example, provides multiple prompts to help students analyze and close read historical documents, consider the author and historical context, and generate additional questions for continued research and reflection.
Make the Student the Designer
Over-scaffolding a graphic organizer means the higher-ordered skills of evaluation, determination, and judgment are used in the design stage by the teacher rather than in the instructional stage by the student.
Shift the intellectual responsibility by asking students to construct their own visual representation. In an example from an AP Biology course (see the pdf “Student Concept Maps”), the teacher provided guidelines and a blank sheet of paper for students to create their own concept maps, which offered flexibility in how they displayed their thinking. Upon reflection, students reported that the act of creating their own organizer enhanced their grasp of the concepts because they had to sift through the information in a more critical way. It also provided a visual that identified gaps in their understanding.
Concept mapping not only allows students to consolidate their thinking but also provides a formative assessment the teacher can use to check for understanding and surface misconceptions.
Design for Transfer
Graphic organizers should ultimately build a student’s capacity to draw upon what they learned in order to become independent readers, active citizens, and solvers of complex problems. If this is our goal, students need the opportunity to construct the processes to achieve those ends.
In and out of school, scaffolds are meant to be removed; educators have to be willing to remove the training wheels or temporary platforms and let students become independent learners. Students will continue to encounter text and other content outside of school without the assistance of graphic organizers. Deliberate design and implementation of graphic organizers helps students develop autonomy and complex thinking capacity.