Thinking Maps vs. Graphic Organizers

When I was in college eons ago, we were told to use graphic organizers to help students understand what they are reading and/or learning.  These were embraced in many different forms.  There were books galore written about graphic organizers such as the Venn Diagram, Spider Web, T-Chart, and so on.  They can be found all over the Internet.  They got cutesy and fun, and could be adapted to anything.  We loved them!

A couple of years ago, our school district began a new initiative with Thinking Maps.  They provided us with some super informational training that we could take back to the classroom the next day without any prep.  Those are my favorites!  We were given the materials, some more training, more materials, and the go ahead to use them DAILY.  OK, we were told to use them as much as possible, but at least weekly.  The thought is that students learn them as early as kindergarten (or preschool if they are in our schools) and use them all the way through 12th grade. 

The premise behind Thinking Maps is that the students use 8 different maps to classify and analyze their thinking.  In the beginning, the teachers hand out the copied maps, work together to create them as a shared experience, or just show good examples of them.  As students are more fluent with them, they begin to draw the maps on their own and fill in the information.  As students become even more comfortable with them, they begin to use pictures instead of boxes or circles to make it their own creation.  The whole point of Thinking Maps is that they belong to the students' thinking, not what the teacher thinks they should think.  It uses so many of the domains on Bloom's Taxonomy that students don't even know that they are using them all.
Picture from
When students use a Thinking Map, they have to understand and analyze what they remember to figure out which map to use.  They then apply that knowledge to create their own map with the information.  After creating their map, they have to evaluate what they have learned by telling where their thoughts came from in the Frame of Reference. 

In a graphic organizer, the teacher has decided what the students need to think about what they are learning.  The students remember the information that we hope they understand.  They have to do a little of the others for some tasks, but the creating is not there.  Yes, students can create a graphic organizer, but we, as teachers, usually tell them which one to use, which takes out the analysis and evaluation.

One practice I have is to ask students which Thinking Map they think we should use to tell about the story or the book.  There have been times they have told me something totally different that I never would have thought of using to show their thinking.  Sometimes I want something specific, so I ask them which map we would use to classify information.  Without looking, the first graders even say "Tree Map"!  YES!  They then can easily create their own with a little help from me.  By third grade, they are making their own with cute pictures.  And, wow for the upper grades!  They are phenomenal! 

Here is a third grade Flow Map with some fun pictures pictures for the "boxes".  He is quite artistic and couldn't bear to draw those boxes again.
See the paint cans and the cat face that went along with the story?
If I had given him a graphic organizer like the one below, he would not have been able to show his creativity, his way of thinking.  He probably could not have gotten his ideas onto paper. 
In second grade the students made Double Bubbles to show differences between two stories.  I took their information from those Double Bubbles and made them into cards.  Today we made a BIG Double Bubble to show all of their thoughts. 
Since the students also have to read graphic organizers, I then showed them what a Venn diagram would look like with the information in two hula hoops.
{Stay tuned on Monday as I talk more about these.  You never know what the freebie might that is included!}

So, here is where I may step on some toes.  As I have been shopping on TPT for information about penguins, I have noticed so many premade "thinking maps".  Most of them are "can, have, are" charts, which are called Tree Maps by the sellers.  When I use a tree map, I want students to think beyond those simple concepts.  I want them to think about what they think is important.  One may want to focus on swimming, eating, types, and coverings.  Another student may focus on movement, body parts, and adaptations.  Another student may choose eating, types, and body parts. Do you see THEIR thinking, not mine?  That is what Thinking Maps are.  "Can, Have, Are" Charts are graphic organizers.

I also see Double Bubble Maps or Bubble Maps with a limited number of circles to use.  If you look back at our Double Bubble Map (and Venn Diagram), there are endless possibilities.  We did not even include everything from the two stories!  The Double Bubble Maps and Bubble Maps with limited circles are graphic organizers, but the students' thoughts on paper in a Double Bubble Map or Bubble Map are Thinking Maps.

Not only are those premade Thinking Maps really graphic organizers, they are also a copyright violation.  Thinking Maps is a full few days of training that must be purchased.  Sure, you can use the ideas, but selling them as Thinking Maps violates that copyright.  Just something to think about.

My goal is for everyone to see the difference between Thinking Maps and graphic organizers, not upset anyone.  I would love for everyone to be able to get the Thinking Maps training and use them because I see a difference in students' comprehension that is amazing.  I also use it for so much more, but that is my main use for them.

So, what do you think about the two?  If you use them in your school, have you seen a difference in your students' thinking?  Comment below and let me know!  Get the conversation started!

Until next time!


  1. My district uses thinking maps too and I love that each map is for something specific. The kids love learning new maps too!
    Sweet Times in First

  2. What an imformative post!!!

    Our school had a 2 day training on Thinking Maps (when I was out on maternity leave) about 4 yrs ago. We haven't really done anything past that except check out a binder at the beginning of the year. I did go online and watch videos but there were not a lot available. I would love to have more training on them! I think this is an excellent way to get kids thinking ON THEIR OWN - which my students have a very HARD time doing b/c so much is just handed to them.

    Since I haven't actually had the training (nor do I think anyone in my building is utilizing them correctly), I tend to do graphic organizers. My principal loves to see a graphic organizer, but I bet if she had training on Thinking Maps she'd love those even more!!!
    D. Frideley

    1. It was a wake-up call to our students when they first started using them, especially for the older grades, but they have really embraced them. Now when they read something or are in a unit of study, they begin using a Thinking Map without teacher direction. That is the purpose, to make them thinkers, not doers.

      The training is so worth it because you use the organizers as you go. All new teachers have to go through the training during their first year, so it continues to stay uniform.

    2. It is my opinion that the language "Thinking Maps" is only a branded moment in time for a subset of graphic organizers. 50 years from now, "Thinking Maps" will simply be an addition to graphic organizers. As a university teacher I share graphic organizers at a site I created for my students at All of my graphic organizer have thinking involved :-)

  3. Love this post. I need to do a training on thinking maps.

  4. Great post, Andrea! Your thinking goes along with a post that I have planned soon where the students chose how show their learning. Students can be so creative and show us so much of their learning if we just step out of the way. :)
    Conversations in Literacy


Leave a comment, tell me your thoughts!

Back to Top