Thinking Maps for Deeper Learning

Paul Main

Thinking maps for developing student understanding: a teacher's guide to adopting visual tools in the classroom.

What are thinking maps?

Thinking maps are visual representations of knowledge. They enable students to think their way through new information and process ideas. They use enables students to engage in the complex thinking required for academic tasks. Creative and critical thinking can be scaffolded by utilising these learning tools. Often called graphic organisers, they promote student achievement by guiding thinking processes in different ways. Their adoption enables students to tackle the abstract ideas they encounter in the curriculum. Thinking Maps can be used across each grade and content area to construct the problem-solving, comprehension, critical thinking, and communication skills needed for success in every academic domain. This article provides an overview of thinking maps, including how they work, what they look like, and why they should be adopted into your teaching practice. It also outlines some examples of how you could use them in your classroom.

How do graphic organisers help students build background knowledge?

Thinking Maps are described and illustrated by maps and taught as a common visual language for learning and thinking across entire learning communities. Their adoption is associated with promoting critical thinking skills among students. When used systematically, they promote the cognitive thinking processes needed for unpicking abstract ideas.  By correctly using and identifying Thinking Maps, educators can construct consistent, concise, and clear higher-order- thinking patterns for their classrooms. Thinking Maps are used as a visual tools language that demonstrates equity in terms of accessibility to higher-order thinking tools for each learner in their journey of lifelong learning.

Thinking Maps are visual representations of ideas. They're used to understand complex concepts and relationships between ideas.They're great at helping us learn because they allow us to explore our thoughts and feelings through pictures instead of words. Think of them as a map that shows where we've been and where we're going.

When we use Thinking Maps, we become aware of our own assumptions and biases. We notice patterns and connections that may not be obvious otherwise. We're able to identify blind spots and areas in need of improvement. And most importantly, when we use Thinking Maps, it helps us better understand ourselves and others.

And the best part is, there's no right or wrong answer. Think of it this way -- if you were asked to draw a picture of yourself, would you show everything about you, or just some things? The same goes for Thinking Maps.

If you're interested in learning more about the different types of thinking processes and how these can be scaffolded into every day classroom practice then the resources outlined below will help your students turn abstract concepts into concrete ideas.

choosing the right sort of thinking map is essential
choosing the right sort of thinking map is essential


Types of Thinking Processes

Thinking maps are classified into eight different types. Each type of thinking map relates a fundamental cognitive skill with the visual representation.

  1. Circle map: A circle map is always used for students brainstorming. This type of Thinking Map is a tremendous strategy for a rapid student assessment. The best part is that the students can create a circle map by themselves to brainstorm. The structure of a circle map includes a smaller circle inside a bigger circle enclosed in a square. The smaller circle includes the name of the concept to be defined. Words or expressions used for defining this name are written in the exterior circle. The outermost square is used for writing the source of information or the "references." A frame of reference is used with each type of map. Overall, a circle map provides a great way to understand a particular idea in individual and group activities and is an effective approach to unfold and retain more knowledge at the beginning of a topic.
  1. Flow map: A flow map is used to help students with organizing a series of events. A flow map shows how things are linked with one another. By using sub-stages, a flow map can show even more information about those links. The sub-stages may contain “actions” that took place within each part of the event being defined. Flow maps are used to illustrate the stages of a system or cycle. They could also help people step by step to get access to some destinations or entrances. They are not always constructed in a straight line. The life cycle of a plant or water cycle is often illustrated in a circular “flow map.” Overall, a flow map provides a great way to help users to illustrate a sequence of instructions.

A flow map is used for organising chronological information
A flow map is used for organising chronological information


  1. Bubble Maps: A Bubble Map is used for defining qualities of a particular object, person, event or idea. A Bubble Map is useful for developing students' proficiency to use descriptive words and identify qualities. A bubble map can be created by drawing a circle in the middle, with the name of the thing described; whereas, the outside circles would contain the adjectival phrases or adjectives. Bubble maps could help students think more deeply about a specific topic so that the students might point out and summarize the related adjectives for the topic, such as space. It is also useful for the learners to explain a character or situation from a fictional storybook in the classroom.
  1. Double Bubble Map: Double Bubble Maps are used to specify similarities and differences between two things or concepts. A double bubble map can be built by drawing two large circles in the middle with the two names or concepts being compared. The exterior bubbles would demonstrate the characteristics of the two names or concepts. A double bubble map is more organized and visualized than a Venn diagram because the bullet points are separately listed. School students mostly use these maps for literature analysis, such as describing what events or characteristics lead to the success of one character or a group over the other.

A Venn Diagram allow students to make systematic comparisons
A Venn Diagram allow students to make systematic comparisons


  1. Tree Maps: Tree Maps are used to classify objects, ideas, persons or events. A tree map can be built by drawing a top line with the topic or category name. Underneath would be the sub-categories, with the specific members of each group. Some aspects may belong to multiple groups. The concepts grouped utilizing a tree map are more abstract or conceptual. The main objective of creating a tree map is to identify the details to help organize one's ideas. For example, students might learn different types of verbs and find the links between them. Overall, a tree map is helpful to order the details and sum them up. To create a tree diagram, simply draw lines between nodes representing different concepts. The lines should be thick at the beginning and thin toward the end. When drawing a tree diagram, keep in mind that the root node represents the most general concept, and the leaves represent the least specific concepts.



 a different kind of tree map
 different kind of tree map


  1. Multi-Flow Maps: Multi-Flow Maps are used to describe causes and effects. These maps help students with the analysis of a concept by considering its outcomes. A multi-flow map can be created by drawing a rectangle in the middle with the name of the event that took place. The rectangles towards the left would have the list of the causes of the event. In contrast, the rectangles towards the right of the middle rectangle would contain the event's outcomes. For example, air pollution causes damage to human respiratory organs like the lungs. Air pollution occurs due to smoke released from the vehicles and factories and the over-use of mine resources.
  1. Brace Maps: Brace Maps enable learners to analyze the structure of an object by demonstrating the relationship of a physical object with its parts. A brace map can be created by drawing a line on the left corner with the name of the physical object. Then the lines towards the right side would contain the names of the most important parts of the object. There would be more lines towards the right corner of the brace map describing the sub-parts of each important part. In schools, science teachers can use brace maps to teach about the parts of a plant. The plant is divided into different parts, and each part contains more things. A brace map helps children to understand the parts of a plant in a systematic and precise manner. 
  1. Bridge Maps: A bridge map is used to demonstrate metaphors and analogies. It mainly helps to show the link between the concrete and the abstract. A bridge map is most commonly used for scientific concepts, mathematical relationships and historic events. While using a bridge map, one must specify the “relating factors” between the items being compared. The item at the top of each pair relates with the item at the underside. The things with the same relationship will be mentioned on the right side of the bridge with 'As.' The bridge can have more relating factors. For example, teachers can use a bridge map to teach children the connections between nutrition terms and daily food. An apple is a source of iron and fibre 'as' an orange is a source of vitamin C can be delivered effectively using a bridge map. They're especially useful when explaining topics that are hard to grasp, such as the concept of "the Internet." Bridge maps show how different aspects of the Internet relate to each other. To create a bridge map, start with a simple diagram showing the relationship between two concepts. Then add additional diagrams to show how those concepts connect to other concepts. Finally, use arrows to show the direction of influence.

Utilising thinking maps in your curriculum

Our school members have been successfully implementing  the language of thinking over the last 12 months. Our growing repository of common thinking models enables classroom teachers to scaffold all types of thinking processes. We believe that many students' successes are down to how well a particular individual has organised their thoughts. Developing a concrete idea requires a lot of focus, and thinking maps enable students to zero in on important ideas and connections. Abstract concepts can sometimes act as a barrier to developing background knowledge. Using a visual depiction of a body of knowledge can help develop the conceptual understanding needed for deeper learning. The thinking map acts as a common language for learning which means students don't need to be too dependent on oral skills. Our repository of visual tools provides classrooms with a spectrum of resources that can be used to tackle the most complex ideas. Taking the thinking process outside the child's head and into a cooperative learning dynamic enables the educator to get the inside picture of the student's mind. When working in pairs, we bring the social learning theory into action as well. The concept map can now act as a prompt for discussion. The central ideas can be talked through and expanded upon through rich classroom discussions.

Fishbone diagram
fishbone diagrams help students analyse causes and effects

Using the right visual tool

Choosing an appropriate graphic organiser has now become even easier. Within our library of visual tools, educators need to decide what type of knowledge they are trying to build. The search functionality is built around key questions, for example, 'what happened?'. A 'what happened' question corresponds to building a visual representation of a chronological event(s). If a question starts with 'why did...?', this corresponds to causal analysis, i.e. what was the effect and the overall cause. Adopting a consistent language about using thinking maps enables children to make decisions about their learning. Over time, pupils can begin to choose the right tool for the job. This enables school communities to build understanding systematically and independently. Creating graphic organisers can be a time-consuming task, and we hope that our pre-built visual tools can increase teacher capacity in the classroom by enabling them to focus on instruction.

design your own learning experiences with the universal thinking framework
design your own learning experiences with the universal thinking framework


Student success and visual tools in your school

If this article has got you thinking about utilising visual tools and higher-order thinking skills across your school, please get in touch. We run a course that enables teachers to utilise thinking maps in a range of different situations. This professional development can also be expanded upon with a guided action research project. These have become very popular for teachers as they allow school communities to assess the impact of their interventions. Your curriculum content can be brought to life with a straightforward visual tool. We have various different scales and observation frameworks to enable your colleagues to measure the efficacy of these strategies.

Would you please get in touch if you are interested in running a professional learning enquiry project

After the above discussion, it can be said that Thinking Maps provide a great tool to demonstrate relationships between individual ideas, to show hierarchy, and to see the “big picture” in a flash. These aspects also make thinking maps ideal for presenting information to others, creating knowledge pools and solving complex problems.

Using a thinking map to analyse information
Using a thinking map to analyse information


Further reading about Visual Tools

There are many books dedicated to this subject, but we feel the one that does this topic the most justice are the original texts by David Hyerle. In his book 'Visual tools for constructing knowledge', David Hyerle outlines a visual language that has held the test of time. As well as providing a compelling justification for their use, he also expands upon the different types of graphics and how they can be used to enhance conceptual understanding. My version of the book, which dates back to 1996, is starting to look a little dated, and the colouring has started to fade. However, the content and principles are as sharp as ever. Think maps are particularly helpful when you're trying to understand a complex issue or process. For example, when your class are working on an essay plan, you may use a thinking map to help you organize your thoughts and plan your steps.