Teacher, ‘Try Me’ No. 7: Complex Graphic Organisers

The Challenge:

Getting students to think in a more critical and conceptualised way (especially in English Literature GCSE/ A level study).

What sort of issues have you identified?

In English, students seemed very comfortable with the knowledge that they had gained in a particular unit (they have their own views on characters/ ideas/ themes present within texts) and were comfortable in talking at length about these. Students can recall quotations and describe their significance with some confidence.

However, students do not often ‘step away’ from the text and from their learning enough to consider the ‘bigger picture’ and relationships between concepts and ideas presented by the text. In other words, their knowledge appeared to exist sometimes in isolation which meant they never really displayed a personal or critical view/ connected thought about the text.

The ideal…

“At the extended abstract level, new understanding is re-thought at another conceptual level, looked at in a new way, and used as the basis for prediction, generalisation, reflection, or creation of new understanding” (Hook and Mills 2011).

How might it be achieved?

Having read the brilliant VESPA Mindset texts (The GCSE Mindset, The A Level Mindset and having bought a copy of the The Student Mindset: A 30-item toolkit for anybody learning anything , I decided to experiment with the complex graphic organisers suggested by the book.

In short, students need to be given opportunities to rethink the knowledge they have through placing that knowledge in a different or unusual context. This gives an ideal opportunity to recall prior learning, notice new patterns and forge links with information that was previously separate.

One of the ways suggested by the Ron von Oech’s book on creativity (quoted in the Student Mindset book) is to use complex graphic organisers and “ process metaphors”. Students should summarise everything they know about a topic using a metaphor (cooking something/ creating a colony on an empty island/ sailing through a storm/ planting a garden). You could give these as ideal starting points and once you’ve modelled it, the students are ready to create their own. As you’ll see below, there are some interesting variations on a theme!

Can we see some examples?

This piece was in its early stages of development, but some really interesting ideas were drawn out by the student (the power struggle between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth being the driving force behind the ‘recipe for disaster’). This student thought Macbeth needed a splash of the ‘milk of human kindness’, too, which was a nice touch.
When asked to compare Lady Macbeth and Macbeth’s relationship to something, this student chose to liken their relationship to a woman getting a puppy, which soon turns ferocious. This student named hers ‘A Walk to Remember’ and considered when LM lets go of the lead and what sort events and interactions cause this to be the case. Later, the student added further quotations and key moments in the play to support this.
This is an example from a Year 13 student who was considering the role of chaos and folly in The Importance of Being Earnest. She chose to liken it to a watering can/ the act of cultivating seedlings. We had an interesting discussion of what the roots could be and what sort of environment needs to be created in order for comedy to flourish. She decided to place some ideas outside of the ‘pot’, including some contextual information that she felt reduced the comedy.

What have been the benefits?

The most value in this activity comes through the prompting and questioning of students whilst they’re working. Questions like, ‘ Ah, I see, so what made you think that…? So, if that’s the roots, what’s in the soil? What about the weather? So, where would ambition be on this diagram? What sort of role does it play? Where does ______________ sit in relation to this, then?’

This forces students to consider the relationships between characters, ideas, themes and students are able to witness their thinking being collected on the page. Their ‘lightbulb’ moments are a treat to witness!

When could I use these?

  • As a quick recap/ recall at the start of a lesson
  • As a revision exercise mid or end of unit
  • As a form-time exercise (‘ Take something you’ve learnt in English and…’ )
  • As a consolidation after a series of lessons on a theme/ relationship

Follow it with…

It may be quite a nice idea to give students the opportunity to share these with their classmates and their peers could prompt/ suggest anything that is missing. Could lead to some quite interesting discussion.

Enjoy the challenge!

Here are some more examples, this time from a Year 9 Othello lockdown activity.

The students were asked to choose a question/ statement from this list and to complete a complex graphic organiser based on their thoughts and ideas in response to the statement. Here are the instructions, giving the students some ideas on what to do.

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