Working with Graphic Organizers

Working with Graphic Organizers

While working at a school recently I had a couple of teachers ask me about weaning students off of graphic organizers.  Wow, did I get excited at their questions! In the ensuing conversation, I liked how they were thinking about their inquiries. They wanted to wean students away from a reliance graphic organizers in order to help them further their thinking and to shift more responsibility over to the students. Yes! 

But before anyone jumps to conclusions, I want to say that there is nothing wrong with a graphic organizer as a tool. Being against them would be like being against shovels or rakes. There are very good reasons why people developed charts, diagrams, taxonomies, hierarchies, spreadsheets, and other tools. There is a crazy amount of data in the world and organizing disparate pieces of information allows us to do things like:

  • identify gaps
  • make connections
  • retain information
  • draw conclusions
  • identify patterns
  • learn new things
  • make predictions

The periodic table of the elements is a great example. Once it was organized, scientists realized there were gaps, which allowed them to make predictions, search for evidence, and create experiments.

The Problem with Graphic Organizers

As I see it, there are three main issues with using graphic organizers:

  1. They can feel like or be busy work.
  2. The thinking involved is often done by the teacher.
  3. They can produce overly formulaic products.

The first is that the way graphic organizers are used often seems like busy work to students. I don’t know anyone who enjoys doing paperwork. It’s the boring part, the tedious part of doing anything. What could destroy the joy of reading or the excitement of discovery faster than what feels like filling out forms at the DMV? 

What seems to cause this problem is the second issue: that teachers are the ones doing the thinking. It’s the teacher who reads ahead in the text, the teacher who reads the story ahead of time, and it’s almost always the teacher who decides that a specific graphic organizer will be useful. If it’s not the teacher specifically, then it’s often the curriculum that makes the recommendation or provides the specific graphic organizer. Very rarely do students get involved in the decision-making process. 

That’s the problem, of course. Graphic organizers are to help organize thinking. But when a teacher forces students to use a specific organizer, then they are encroaching on the thinking process. In the worst scenarios, the teacher is doing most or all of the thinking for the students. 

As an example, a teacher might choose to read a specific short story because it is a good example of descriptive writing using the five senses. So the teacher makes a graphic organizer to help students find examples in the text of each of the senses. The teacher has done the “heavy lifting” of the cognitive load. Now all that’s left for the students to do is search and find the examples to plug into the pre-made chart. That’s mostly busy work now. Here’s a smell; that goes in the smell box. Here’s a taste; that goes in the taste box.

The third reason is that they can be overly formulaic. In an attempt to help students, teachers often derail the creative process by insisting on graphic organizers for creative enterprises. Just do this, this and this, and viola! you have yourself a poem! Just fill out these five boxes and you’re essay will practically write itself! Although some students might benefit from the scaffolding, many students find such pieces of writing to be boring and inauthentic.

Some Solutions

In my observations, graphic organizers are not always utilized well. Teachers often use them because they know they are supposed to, but they don’t often take the thorough steps needed to really work with them. For example, a teacher might assign a Venn Diagram without explaining how to compare and contrast and why the students need to do the task in the first place. Or a teacher might have students use a sequence organizer without teaching the students how to look for language clues that indicate a sequence or explaining to students why they even need to understand the sequence in the text.  

You only need eight! Although you can buy entire books full of various organizers with all kinds of shapes and boxes and arrows, there are really only eight cognitive processes that need to be taught. That’s it. Just eight graphic organizers. One of my favorite Professional Development sessions of all time was from Thinking Maps, a company that specializes in working with visual learning.

One of the missing pieces I have seen in classrooms is the What Next? aspect of using a graphic organizer. A graphic organizer is meant to organize a thinking process, not become the thinking process. There should always be a useful purpose behind using them for something next. Questions like these can help: Why did we just organize that information? What will it teach me? How can I use this to help my thinking?

In the writing world there are two basic types of writers: the planners and the pantsers (as in seat-of-the-pants). The planners use storyboards and tools like graphic organizers and the pantsers make things up as they go. Both are successful in their own ways. But forcing a pantser to try to organize their process essentially just prevents them from writing more.

In the above example with the short story, the teacher did most of the thinking work by scouting ahead in the material and deciding what was important and then what organizer should be used. In many ways, that was the difficult part! In that lesson, the students could have read the story and then decided for themselves what salient features they wanted to extract from it. Different groups of students might then use various organizers toward differentiated purposes.

Also, using that same example, the students could have simply annotated the story and used margin notes to track the five senses. There was not a strong need to transfer the sentences just to organize them into a chart.

In addition:

  • There are some great ideas here from Sunday Cummins.
  • Don't miss this article on facilitating learning with graphic organizers.
  • As mentioned, there are only eight organizers you need to teach your students!
  • Try using the organizers yourself before assigning them.
  • Remember that a graphic organizer should serve a further purpose.
  • Get students to make choices about what organizers they need to use to organize themselves.
  • Create a NEED and then use a graphic organizer.


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