Visual thinking tools in the classroom.
What do teachers need to know?

Visual thinking tools help students structure their thinking and provide a visual aid that can help depict the correlation between ideas, facts, or concepts. These tools can also support students as they visually organize and outline ideas to structure writing, and can improve communication and expression.

The most common visual learning strategy is concept mapping. Concept maps help students visualize various connections between words or phrases and a main idea. While there are several types of concept maps, most are comprised of words or phrases that are connected by lines back to a main idea. These lines help students make meaning connections between the main idea and other information.

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Benefits to support student learning

The use of visual thinking tools can allow students to:

  • focus attention on key elements
  • integrate prior knowledge with new knowledge
  • integrate new knowledge
  • enhance concept development
  • visually represent their thinking process
  • visually build conceptual understanding of new concepts and see how ideas are connected
  • clarify thoughts
  • prioritize, sequence, organize, analyze, and synthesize information and ideas
  • enhance note-taking through the recording of information using symbols or pictures
  • create memory prompts by reducing cognitive load through the use of visual images
  • support their personal learning preferences (e.g., visual, auditory, text, video).

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Types of learning tasks supported

Visual thinking tools can be used to:

  • plan and revise writing
  • brainstorm and plan for writing, presentations, research projects, or multimedia projects
  • create an outline or hierarchical representation of information
  • demonstrate knowledge prior to and/or after a learning task
  • facilitate self-reflection and metacognition
  • review a unit of study
  • present learning in a visual manner
  • express ideas and experiences
  • compare and contrast ideas, and show relationships or connections between ideas and/or information
  • synthesize information into categories
  • record and categorize information from multiple sources
  • create an advanced organizer for note-taking in class and for research projects
  • assess students’ understanding of text, concepts, or experiences by asking them to create a concept map of the information.

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Learning contexts

Visual thinking tools can be used:

  • individually to support one student
  • with partners or in a small group
  • with a large group to provide instruction (including whole group work using an interactive whiteboard)
  • for collaboration.

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Students who would particularly benefit

All students can benefit from the use of visual thinking tools. However, visual thinking tools can provide targeted support for students who:

  • have challenges with written output
  • are learning English as another language
  • have limited ability or experience using written text
  • have limited background knowledge of concepts
  • are emergent readers and writers
  • struggle with the organization of material they read or write
  • would benefit from scaffolding the writing process
  • have a visual learning preference.

Factors for consideration

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Benefits of making visual thinking tools available to all students

Having visual thinking tools available to all students:

  • provides a framework for thinking, planning, and organizing
  • maps out thinking and makes connections between information and ideas
  • creates a cognitive link between visuals and written text to strengthen long-term memory
  • supports and enhances collaboration
  • develops vocabulary, word recognition, reading for comprehension, writing, and critical thinking skills across all subject areas
  • provides for revision or refinement of ideas and thinking
  • provides built-in scaffolding (e.g., ability to convert information from a visual map into outline form for writing (in some programs).

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Personalizing for individual student needs

Personalizing options vary from program to program but typically there are options for:

  • customizing the display of information (e.g., size of text, colour, images) to meet individual learning needs and preferences
  • adjusting the level of visual stimulation by collapsing or expanding details
  • audio support (e.g., read-aloud feature, including built-in text-to-speech)
  • recording of thoughts and ideas linked with visuals
  • word prediction and/or speech recognition
  • using spell check
  • importing custom image libraries
  • adding student-created symbols and pictures
  • choosing concept maps, diagram types and/or outline formats to help organize writing
  • creating templates for whole group or individual use or choosing from template library
  • choosing different media (e.g., text only, images, multimedia) and formats.

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Choosing the right tool

Choosing an appropriate technology solution involves gathering information about your students, identifying needs and potential technologies, and investigating the effectiveness of different technologies with different students.

There are many free versions of visual thinking tools available on the web. It is important to determine what the needs of the students are and then consider whether the features offered in the free version provide that support.

Other factors to consider when looking at free programs or apps might include:

  • Is the use of text-to-speech, word prediction, or speech recognition supported?
  • What kind of scaffolding is provided to support the writing process?
  • Are templates available? Can templates be created and shared with students?
  • Is the use of multimedia supported?
  • Can students create their own graphics or can images be imported from external sources?

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Conditions for success

Conditions for success include:

  • direct instruction on how to create a concept map or web for a specific purpose
  • modelling how to effectively use a specific software or program
  • easy access to devices, the Internet and other digital resources (e.g., teacher-created templates, images)
  • LCD projector or interactive whiteboard to model use of tool to whole group
  • basic computer skills for both students and teacher.

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Instructional planning considerations

The use of visual thinking tools is most successful and effective when paired with teacher modelling, student–teacher discussions, and practice with feedback. Model the use of concept maps by including them in learning materials across subject areas.

Instructional planning considerations for all learners include:

  • direct instruction on how to create a concept or mind map
  • ensuring students have background knowledge and understanding of the concept needed to complete the task
  • aligning the best map structure to the particular learning task.

Instructional planning considerations for emergent readers and writers might include:

  • selecting or creating templates that provide the right amount of scaffolding and allow students to focus on content
  • preparing partially completed webs or maps for student use
  • selecting a bank of appropriate images, symbols or pictures for student access
  • working with students to search for and save a bank of images for specific learning tasks.

Instructional planning considerations for students at the middle/junior and high school level might include:

  • building student understanding that different kinds of maps support different kinds of thinking
  • providing exemplars for students to use as guides for their work.

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Introducing to emergent readers and writers

When first introducing mapping and a visual thinking tool to emergent readers and writers, show an example of a completed map and describe its purpose and form.

To introduce how to use a visual thinking tool to create a basic map or web, model the use of the tool and work through a process with students.

For example:

1. Select a main idea, topic, or issue to focus on

  • Identify a topic or focus question that will be motivating but familiar to students.
  • The focus question should clearly specify the idea, problem, or issue the concept map should help to resolve.
  • Think of a visual that goes with the topic and place both the word and the visual in the centre of the map.

2. Identify key concepts 

  • Brainstorm a list of key ideas or concepts associated with the topic (10 to 20 is a good start).
  • Encourage all students to give ideas.
  • Accept each and every idea.
  • Record all ideas as fast as you can.
  • Wait through silence and ensure each student has an opportunity to contribute.

3. Reorganize results 

  • With students, organize generated ideas together into common categories. Name or label each category.
  • Solicit ideas for symbols or images that could be used to represent each of the categories.
  • Choose one symbol or image for each category and attach them to the category name.
  • Connect each category with a line to the main idea or visual in the centre of the map.
  • Connect each supporting idea or word to the category it belongs to.

4. Explore and expand the concepts

  • At this point, students might identify other ideas that fit within the categories.
  • Very young students may not be ready to label branches, but older students can identify transitional phrases to apply to branches.
  • Have students choose a different colour for each category and its examples to help clarify thinking and understanding of the organization of ideas.
  • Summarize the information on the map or invite student volunteers to do this.
  • Review and make changes.

Guided practice

To provide emergent readers and writers with guided practice using visual thinking tools, consider modelling their use through whole group activities or by scaffolding the process for them. Consider the following two examples.

Before writing

A concept map can help students brainstorm an idea before writing. The completed concept map can serve as an outline for the writing. Working with a small group or the whole class:

    1. Identify a main character from a recently read book or novel.
    2. Using an interactive whiteboard, present a template that includes the character’s name inside a circle in the centre of the map with links leading out to actions and traits.
    3. Explain to students that together, you will use pictures and words to describe a character’s actions. An action can be a character’s thinking, conversation with another character or something the character did.
    4. What can you infer from the character’s action? What character traits does the action show? Ensure that students understand what is meant by ‘trait.’
    5. The information gathered can be used to construct a short paragraph about the character.

  1. Once students understand the process above, provide them with the same template. With a partner, ask them to choose another character from the story and put that name inside the circle in the centre of the map.
  2. Working through the same process as the first activity, have students complete the map for their identified character.

Working with related words

Provide students with lists of related words (10 to 20 would be ideal) and have them construct their own concept maps. Use vocabulary words from a recent unit of study. Consider providing students with the option of choosing which list of words they want to work with.

Sample indicators of success for all students might include:

  • increased student engagement in learning activities
  • improved organization of ideas and final products
  • increased vocabulary development and use
  • visible connections between prior knowledge and new knowledge
  • visual representation of ideas and information that demonstrate understanding
  • revised or amended maps or webs that reflect changes in thinking.

Sample indicators of success for emergent readers and writers might include:

  • visualizing and verbalizing new ideas and information
  • connecting related ideas and information grouping of ideas and information into categories independently or determined by the teacher
  • recording stories, information, and personal experiences using images, graphics, or text
  • recording ideas and information in ways that make sense
  • organizing thinking according to main idea and supporting details
  • using visuals to retell important information learned from topics of study or from text read, heard, or viewed.

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Introducing to middle and high school students

Consider the following process when first introducing mapping and visual thinking tools to students at the middle/junior and high school level:

  1. To introduce concept mapping to students, have them complete a practice activity on a topic that they are familiar with.
  2. Provide a completed concept map on a motivating topic as an exemplar.
  3. Ask students to create their own individual maps or work with a partner to complete one. This independent reflection step will help elicit personal understanding and knowledge for each student.
  4. When individual maps are complete, have students review them with a partner or in small groups. Encourage discussion around similarities and differences in their maps.
  5. Have a whole class discussion of the maps, highlighting important ideas and connections. Brainstorm practical uses for visual tools across subject areas and in everyday life.

Guided practice

To provide students at the middle/junior and high school level with guided practice in using visual thinking tools, consider the following types of activities:

Pre-reading strategy

Concept maps can be used as a pre-reading strategy by inviting students to share what they already know about a particular concept before doing any reading.

  1. Select an article or piece of text for students to read.
  2. Introduce the topic or concept that will be the focus of the learning.
  3. With a partner, invite students to share what they already know about the concept before doing any reading by recording on a map.
  4. As students begin reading, encourage them to add their new learning to their map. By doing this, they will be able to connect and merge their prior knowledge with new information they gather from their reading.
  5. Encourage students to add symbols or graphics that enhance the meaning of their map.
  6. After students have finished, encourage them to share their concept maps with one another in pairs or small groups. This will allow students to share and reflect on how they each interpreted the connections between concepts and words.
  7. Encourage students to use the concept map to summarize what they have read, organize their writing on the concept, or create a study guide for their own studying.

*Note: Ensure that all students can read the text or provide the text in a format that students who are unable to decode the text themselves can use text-to-speech software.

Note-taking from text

Concept mapping of information from text allows students to record, reorganize, and reconstruct information in a way that is visually meaningful for them.

  1. Provide students with an overview of the chapter or article you want to cover.
  2. Working with a partner, have students create a skeletal map of the text (e.g., chapter or article title, headings, subheadings).
  3. As students read through the text, have them expand and modify the map by adding details and vocabulary from the text. Remind students that their organization may change as they continue to read and add more information.
  4. Encourage students to include symbols and details that have special meaning to them.
  5. When finished, encourage students to share key findings from the text as well as symbols they chose to use.
  6. Concept maps of text can be saved and used as study guides.

*Note: Ensure that all students can read the text or provide the text in a format that students who are unable to decode the text themselves can use text-to-speech software.

Advanced organizers

Advanced organizers provide students with an outline of the lesson and with a framework they can use for note-taking during class.

To introduce advanced organizers to students, work through a process such as the following:

  1. Provide students with a general outline of the lesson (main concept).
  2. Working with a partner, have students develop the map by adding the details as they learn them.
  3. When the lesson is complete, encourage students to revisit their maps and add graphic representations for key concepts.
  4. Concept maps can be saved and used as study guides.

Concept development

Concept development through the creation of concept maps offers the teacher an opportunity to track what and how students are learning. It also encourages students to develop ideas and elaborate on their understanding as an ongoing process. By observing the evolving concept maps, the teacher can see what needs to be taught and how students are understanding concepts.

To introduce this activity to students, work through a process such as the following:

  1. Have students create a map of their understanding of a topic or concept before instruction.
  2. After the instructional activity, provide learning opportunities and time for students to add to or revise their maps to reflect their new learning.
  3. Have students save each version of their map with a new name (e.g., change the date) as they revise or add new information. Comparing earlier versions of maps with newer versions can reinforce learning and provide evidence of growth for both the student and teacher.
  4. Encourage discussion and sharing of maps to expand concept formation.

Sample indicators of success for all students might include:

  • increased student engagement in learning activities
  • improved organization of ideas and final products
  • increased vocabulary development and use
  • visible connections between prior knowledge and new knowledge
  • visual representation of ideas and information that demonstrate understanding
  • revised or amended maps or webs that reflect changes in thinking.

Sample indicators of success for students at the middle/junior and high school level might include:

  • recording and categorizing information from multiple sources
  • creating concise, accurate, and organized notes
  • prioritizing, sequencing, organizing, and synthesizing information and ideas
  • demonstrating understanding of text-based material.

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Monitoring and assessing effectiveness

Due to the highly individual nature of cognition, the monitoring and assessment of visual thinking tools can be challenging. Simply looking at the physical product (e.g., concept map, web, etc.) will not always effectively illustrate how or why the student used the map or the thinking behind it. Conversations with students and/or having students engage in self-reflection on the use of the tool may provide helpful assessment information.

Graphics created by students do not have to be artful to be meaningful. If students can verbalize the concept their graphic represents, then you don’t need to understand their symbols.

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Differentiated instruction

The strategic use of technology can engage learners at varying levels of readiness and in multiple ways, supporting the differentiation of instruction to help meet the diverse learning needs of students.

Using visual thinking tools, teachers can differentiate content, process, products, and environment according to students’ readiness or interests, through a variety of instructional strategies.

Content is what students need to learn or how students will get access to the information. Visual thinking tools allow for visual presentation of ideas.

Process includes the activities in which students engage in order to make sense of or master the content. Visual thinking tools:

  • allow students to create webs or maps that scaffold the understandings and skills, and are flexible enough to provide varying levels of support, challenge, and complexity
  • provide opportunities for students to develop subsets of a topic that is of particular interest to them
  • support the recognition of similarities and differences
  • support summarizing and taking notes.

Products are the learning tasks or projects that create opportunities for students to rehearse, apply, and extend what they have learned. Visual thinking tools provide options for students in how they express their learning.

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Universal Design for Learning

A Universal Design for Learning (UDL) approach recognizes that barriers to learning can exist within the environment and aims to maximize learning for all students by reducing or eliminating potential barriers.

UDL is based on three main principles that can be used to guide the selection and development of learning environments, resources, and activities that support individual learning differences. The principles include:

Multiple means of representation

(to provide learners with options for acquiring information and knowledge)

Depending upon the program, visual thinking tools can offer:

  • multiple ways to represent information
  • multiple examples of a concept
  • the ability to scaffold learning and content presented
  • building of background knowledge by connecting new learning to existing knowledge
  • the ability to clarify relationships using links between main ideas and subtopics
  • highlighting of critical features, patterns, big ideas, and relationships
  • options for customization of the display of information (e.g., size of text, colour, images)
  • integration of text including definitions, footnotes, explanations
  • integration of links to websites and videos
  • use of multimedia to enhance the teaching of vocabulary and concepts
  • use of auditory supports
  • removal of distractions by collapsing of details.

Multiple means of action and expression

(to provide learners options for demonstrating what they know)

Depending upon the program, visual thinking tools can offer:

  • flexible options for demonstrating understanding and knowledge
  • use of text, video, images, or recording of sounds or voice to express understanding
  • the option for students to create their own symbols
  • integration of word prediction or speech recognition
  • multiple entry points to a task
  • scaffolding of supports.

Multiple means of engagement

(to tap into learners’ interests, offer appropriate challenges, and increase motivation)

Depending upon the program, visual thinking tools can offer:

  • personalization of webs, maps, diagrams by images, voice recordings, videos, colours, shapes, and fonts to support individual learning preferences
  • personalization of information for better understanding
  • choice of different media (text only, images, multimedia) and formats
  • adjustable level of challenge during a task (e.g., scaffolding or using pre-made templates)
  • utilization of peer feedback and revision
  • differing levels of visual stimulation by collapsing or expanding details.

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Response to Intervention (RtI)

Typically, Response to Intervention is the practice of providing evidence-based instruction and intervention matched to student need. The Rtl model offers tiered interventions for students who are not benefiting from universal instructional strategies and therefore require additional or more intensive interventions.

Visual thinking tools could be considered as a universal support or as an intervention for students who require support in:

  • clarifying thoughts
  • seeing how ideas are connected
  • organizing and analyzing information
  • integrating new knowledge
  • thinking critically
  • expressing and sharing thoughts
  • building conceptual understanding.

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