Visible Thinking - Generate-Sort-Connect-Elaborate: Concept Maps

Another really great day with a VT strategy.  Despite having the worst possible name for a classroom routine (who is going to remember that?) it provided for some real critical thinking opportunities, and dovetailed nicely into our topic of the day.

Context: we are starting a new Unit of Inquiry into healthy living and the choices we make

What is a concept map? - This was their first introduction to the specific term concept map.  We came to a basic understanding that it was like a mind-map, but a bit more organized.  One of my key focuses of this unit is developing scientific models, so I am comfortable with a little fuzzy thinking around the idea of a concept map.  It will come.

Generate - This step is easy, list words, phrases or ideas that relate to the main topic (in our case the main topic was simply the words Healthy Living).  Still, it is amazing how off topic they can get in just a few steps.  One child says healthy foods, another says bananas, and then another says palm trees (I have no idea, don't ask) and suddenly they are discussing aspects of living on a tropical island, not the more broad topic of healthy living.  A good point of orientation for the teacher is pointing out when something like that happens, and for the students to eventually notice themselves and self correct when they have gotten off topic (I use the term loosely, because often these off topic moments have a way of producing some magical moments if they are allowed to blossom).

Sort - In this step, you can sort the ideas generated into a number of different variations.  I chose to go with a cluster effect around the middle topic, where the cards nearest the middle are the most relevant, and the ones farther out are less relevant.  I could have easily chosen a list, or a ranking, or any number of ways to visualize information.  This is what I love about Making Visible Thinking, it is not prescriptive, it is easily adapted to new situations and changed and made better.  This lead to some great discussions about the details; is diet more important than exercise?  Are they the same?  Big questions with no answers, but tons of learning potential.  Lots of talking and thinking.

Connect - This step is making connections between the different ideas.  Making connections was a great way for them to expand their discussions in the Sort stage.  They had trouble deciding on which was more relevant, so in this stage they got to further visualize those difficulties by seeing what is similar among the parts.  If the sort step was the zooming in, this was certainly zooming back out.  Reminds me of one of the elements of sustainability from Fritjof Capra, from parts to whole.  Understanding how the parts work within the whole is central to a complexivist approach to education.

PS - Writing on desks is a great way to build a collective spirit.  Also, engagement is not an issue!  It takes the idea of a concept map and makes it more collective and collaborative.

Elaborate - Here we took one aspect that we were most interested in and further expanded it to see what else we could come up with.  This is such a great step because it makes this messy diagram even messier, and I hope the kids realize that this messiness is inherent in all things in life.  The world is messy.  It is non-linear.  It is complex.  Sometimes, simplifying that messiness is the worst thing we can do to children.  Sometimes, they need to swim in the swamp and feel it themselves.  It leads to more ideas, and more possibilities.  By only elaborating one card, they get the sense that the map would go on forever and the connections would be endless.  One of these days, I want to make the biggest, messiest, most non-linear concept map ever.  On the table, with markers, everybody together, branching off until the whole table is filled. Hmmmmm.....

By the time we finished this step, we had a nice little start to our unit underway.  I Concept Maps and put them up our learning wall.  Next job, take the key concepts we decided as a group and turn them into a scientific model.  This routine set the stage perfectly for that task, which should occupy our time for the next couple of days.  Wonderful set up.  Now, we have to do something with it....


  1. This is great. My son was asked to create one for school, and he had no idea how. Thank you!!


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