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It’s All In How You Frame It

Posted on by Kevin Dougherty

By Viteunic (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (httpcreativecommons.orglicensesby-sa3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

As a former principal, I spent a lot of time observing teachers and evaluating their instructional effectiveness.  Through the years, I saw some amazing lessons.  Students were highly engaged.  Demonstrations of student understanding of information and concepts taught were evident. Time just seemed to quickly pass.  I remember one instance in particular where this was not the case.   During this particular lesson, students were disengaged, involved in off-task behaviors, and minimal learning was taking place.  You might think that in an instance such as this the teacher was ill-prepared and/or lacked the content knowledge and instructional methodology to be an effective teacher.  That was not the case.  It was a bit of a head scratcher for me.

The lesson plans were impeccable.  Color coded.  Objective clearly stated.  State standard referenced.  Every stage of the lesson cycle clearly noted.   This was not a shoot-from-the-hip lesson.  So why were the students not engaged and learning?  I sensed a disconnect between the teacher and students.  Still, my training up to that point had not equipped me to be able to put my finger on a clear cause for what I was observing, let alone a solution.  Intuitively, I realized the teacher was not relating to the students, nor they to the teacher.  I also realized the absence of this relationship between the teacher and students made it difficult, if not impossible, for the teacher to make the learning relevant.  Still, I was unaware of tools or strategies to share that would adequately address this concern.

For years I had heard the adage, “Students don’t care what you know unless they know you care.”   Teachers who understood the importance of building the relationships with students that allowed them to readily make the learning relevant seemed to do so naturally.  I began to wonder if such a skill could be taught or if some individuals were just innately gifted to do so.  However, my optimistic outlook and persevering spirit would not allow me to fully accept that as a given.  I was convinced there had to be a way to help teachers, regardless of how different their own background experiences were from their students, to connect.  After several years of seeking such a solution, I was introduced to the Frame of Reference.  In the words of one of my most respected colleagues, “It was a Halleluiah moment!”

The Frame of Reference provides a tool for all teachers to SEE the unique background experience and perspective each student brings to the learning.  As someone who majored in Multicultural Education, I was struck by the power of this tool to enable educators to respectfully connect with the students they serve, especially in our increasingly diverse educational environments.   Having students use a Frame of Reference allows them the chance to indicate not only the unique background information/experiences and perspective they bring to the learning, it also provides them with opportunity to identify WHY the learning is important to them.  The Frame of Reference offers a way for teachers to better understand each student’s thinking and greatly assists them with their efforts to make the learning more relevant and meaningful.

I am convinced that had I known of, and been able to share the Frame of Reference with the teacher about whom I wrote at the beginning of this blog entry, it would have had a transformational impact on that teacher’s instructional effectiveness.  Now I know.  Moving forward, it is part of my mission to support the sharing of the power of the Frame of Reference with as many individuals as possible.

Stick Pick

Posted on by Hortencia Piña

Lolly sticks By lolly_sticks (httpcreativecommons.orglicensesby2.0), via Wikimedia Commons

As a teacher I used a “stick strategy” in the classroom because I wanted to make sure each and every student was actively engaged daily.  I kept popsicle sticks in a zippered baggy and labeled each with a student’s name.  I would reach into the bag, pull out a stick with a student’s name on it, and then ask that student a question so I could assess his or her level of understanding.  The strategy worked, as it not only allowed me to evaluate a student’s understanding, but also kept students engaged and ensured equal opportunities for them to respond in the classroom.

Later, a participant in one of my trainings shared the Stick Pick app with me (I purchased it for $2.99) and I thought it was fabulous.  It has taken the “stick strategy” to a whole new level and I believe it will be extremely useful.  Here is the description I found with the app:

Pick a student at random just by giving your device a shake or tapping the screen—but that is just the beginning.  Stick Pick suggests question starters for learners at different levels and also records how well students respond during classroom discussions. If a student is consistently scoring near the top or bottom, simply change the level so students aren’t bored or frustrated. Depending on students’ levels of English proficiency, the might be asked simple yes-or-no questions or to elaborated in longer sentences.

Let me show you what it can do (click on the image to enlarge):

Stick Pick Flow Map


This app will help teachers differentiate for all their students and keep an accurate record of student responses.  This information can be used during student staffings, Admission, Review and Dismissal Process (ARDs), Language Proficiency Assessment Committee meetings and parent conferences.

I am interested in knowing how it is working for you and any other ideas for the use of this app. If you have any other fabulous apps, please share!

Thinking Maps Help Students Find Order in Their Thinking

Posted on by James Dean
 Filosofias filosoficas (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-3.0 (httpcreativecommons.orglicensesby3.0)])


Ben Johnnson’s blog post via Edutopia caught my eye recently in a Twitter feed:  6 Steps to Help Students Find Order in Their Thinking.  Mr. Johnson draws comparisons between M.C.Escher’s famous work with tessellations and creating order for student’s thinking.  Clear connections were evident between his 6 step approach and our Thinking Maps® professional learning.

Step 1: Routines and Predictable Patterns :  “Just like Escher’s tessellations repeat common forms in interesting ways, good educators also help students to tessellate what they do in the classroom by repeating interesting thoughts and behaviors.”  Brain research supports the notion that our brain thrives  on and seeks patterns.  Thinking Maps provide that visible structure for each of the 8 critical thinking processes thus bringing clarity to complex thinking.  When students are taught these 8 models and the Frame of Reference from grades PreK-12, chaos becomes predictable patterns and routines for understanding what they are learning.

Step 2:  Create Habits of Mind:  Citing Daniel Willingham’s work in Why Students Don’t Like School,  Willingham states, “Our brains are constantly seeking to make sense (order) out of disorder, and they are pretty good at it as long as they are given adequate information.”  Making something routine and predictable as outlined in Step 1, has to become a habit. Habits don’t occur overnight but rather from explicit practice and purposeful use.  Thinking Maps implementation at the district/school level requires this initial crucial step.

Step 3: Rotate Perspectives:  In Thinking Maps professional learning we utilize the Frame of Reference as a tool around each of the Maps or multiple Maps to add a layer of metacognition.  Inside the Frame a question can be addressed regarding from whose perspective you are analyzing this new information or learning.  A classic case to illustrate this is describing the Big Bad Wolf from the story of The Three Little Pigs.  The Frame would identify from whose perspective you are analyzing things: The Pigs? The Big Bad Wolf?  The Point of View will/can change one’s perspective on anything.

Johnson further points out that, “Just as the mathematical definition of tessellations of an object require it to be rotated so that it forms a complete 360-degree image around a point, mental tessellations (should) require students to look at a concept from multiple perspectives . . . to get the full picture.” Thinking Maps utilizing the Frame of Reference provides that full picture.

Step 4:  Don’t Accept Chaos:  In our texting generation the idea of complete thoughts/sentences is a menace for many educators.  If our students are going to be able to communicate effectively and thoroughly, they must be able to speak effectively and thoughtfully. This requires them to initially THINK in complete thoughts as well.  Thinking Maps are the tools to help students make order out of chaos but the next step is to then have students read, write, and communicate from the Maps in complete thoughts.  In our Path to Proficiency for English Language Learners trainings there is explicit instruction on how to accomplish this with both early language users to advanced language users.

Step 5: Fill in the Gaps:  “Educators can help students to not only assess what they do know, but to analyze what they do not know yet, or what they need to know in order to solve a problem.”  How do we as educators make that happen?  Thinking Maps makes what students know and do not know quite apparent.  Often, I walk schools with administrators who indicate that they do not have to ask the students a question about what they’ve learned because the Maps make that visible.  Educators can quickly gather valuable information about student learning by reviewing their student-created Maps.  Helping both educators and students analyze their THINKING to plug in learning gaps is easier because it is visible.

Step 6: Repeat:  THINKING is not easy!  Teaching students how to critically think takes explicit instruction, consistent practice and a dedication to the work by an entire learning community.  Workbooks and worksheets can’t make that happen!  In Step 6, Johnson states “Once the student has done one tessellated thought, then rotate and do another.”  Repetition is key to building routines, predictable patterns, habits of mind, understanding perspectives, removing chaos, and filling in the gaps!  Unfortunately, too often in education we don’t give repetition ample time to take hold.

Are you up to the challenge to help students find order in their thinking?  How have Thinking Maps helped you or your students to make VISIBLE a complex task?  We would love to hear from you.

Beware of Some Parental “Involvement”

Posted on by Misook Kimura

By Rennett Stowe from USA (Tapping a Pencil  Uploaded by Atmoz) [CC-BY-2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

An article titled “Don’t Help Your Kids With Their Homework” explained how researchers examined nearly 30 years worth of longitudinal surveys of American parents and tracked 63 different measures of parental participation in kids’ academic lives.

What surprised me was that most measurable forms of parental involvement seem to yield few academic results regardless of a parent’s race, class, or level of education.  For instance, once kids enter middle school, parental help with homework can actually bring test scores down because some parents may have forgotten, or never truly understood the content their children learn in school.

These are some other examples of what the researchers called “other essentially useless parenting interventions”:

(1)  Observing a kid’s class

(2)  Helping a teenager choose high-school courses

(3)  Disciplinary measures such as punishing kids for getting bad grades or instituting strict rules about when and how homework gets done.

What? Isn’t that called good parenting? But researchers call this “meddling” and could leave children more anxious than enthusiastic about school.  Instead, researchers recommend parents ask their children if they would like to see them volunteer or help them with their homework, rather than excluding them out of the conversation completely.  In other words, we need to be the sails of their boats while our kids learn to independently steer their own course.

Some of the results do leave many parents asking questions, but generally these findings should relieve many stressed parents (like myself) who struggle to find time to volunteer in the classroom.  Parents are often effective, especially in public schools, at securing all the “extras” that make an educational community come to life, like art, music, theater, and after-school clubs. This kind of parental engagement may not directly affect test scores, but it can make school a more positive and safe place for all kids.

Some things parents can do like reading aloud to young kids (fewer than half of the students in the study are read to daily) and having conversations about learning and how to ask critical questions have been found to be extremely beneficial to their academic success.

But these examples don’t take place at school—they take place at home.

Mapping Aprons

Posted on by Thinking Maps

Map Apron pic 3

The Florida DOE just contracted with the non-profit organization American Institutes for Research, to design evaluations that will assess our students in thinking analytically.  So… how do we get students to think critically and deeper? Some primary educators at Sawgrass Bay Elementary in Lake County Public Schools, Florida, came up with an idea!

Thinking Maps provide conceptual nets for students to gather information and then do something with this information. These photos display aprons that can be worn by teachers as a model or by students who earn this opportunity by being “maptastic!” By displaying these maps in such a visual, fun way, students can easily make connections from how they are thinking to the visual tool.

The teachers have said that these are extremely helpful with multiple mapping.  What a terrific way to make the connection between thinking and the maps in order to create meaning!

A special thanks to Miss Rogers, Mrs. Ferrell, and Mrs. Motyl for sharing this fantastic idea with us!

Map Apron pic 1Map Apron pic 2

The Important Distinction Between Mid-range Tools and Programs

Posted on by James Dean


You have heard the expression, “You wouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater”, yet so often this is true in education.  Recently I was speaking with a principal that indicated how much he loved the Thinking Maps PROGRAM.  It had been close to 10 years since he was first introduced to the Maps at another school.  A couple of his educators had just attended a Train the Trainer session and returned “pumped” and ready to kick-off the training with their fellow educators.  Mind you, even though the principal thought highly of Thinking Maps, it was me that reached out to him to schedule a meeting and to share our updated professional learning and materials rather than him reaching out to me to inquire about bringing the Maps to his new school.

This got me thinking about programs and initiatives versus tools.  In our Thinking Maps world we teach that the Maps are mid-range tools.  The 8 visual models along with the Frame of Reference are used to get us to someplace else, to make our work more effective and efficient and to provide a school/district with a common visual language for teaching critical thinking and communication.  Programs and initiatives are usually directed at solving problems or offering solutions to an identified/perceived problem.  They come and go in education, therefore educators are wired to view them as temporal.  Case in point, schools/districts are compelled to periodically purchase new Reading, Math, Science and Social Studies series.  If you have been in education for any length of time you have been a part of this process and know the drill.  Yet, with every new series purchased do we throw away the pencils, pens, markers, crayons, notebook paper, post-it notes, scissors, 3×5 cards or tape?  We would laugh at the notion because these are the tools that we use to implement the new programs/initiatives.  They, too, serve as mid-range tools.  I think you know where I am heading.

Thinking Maps are not an initiative or program but rather a set of tools that all members of a learning community utilize (students, parents, educators, leaders).  We should not throw out our Thinking Tools with the new initiatives or programs that come into place but rather still use them to support and enhance the implementation.  The Maps, much like paper and pencil, become an integral part of the culture and the way we facilitate learning.

What do you think?  Have you ever felt compelled to throw out a successful tool or strategy because of a new program or initiative?  How has that made you feel as an educator?  We would love to hear your thoughts and reflections on this topic.

From the Mind of a Math-Phobic Educator

Posted on by Misook Kimura

Math equation

In this article titled Great English Teachers Improve Students’ Math Scores, the author explains how researchers found students of good English language arts teachers had higher than expected math scores in subsequent years. Their motivation for this study was to try to understand what kinds of teaching produce long-term learning benefits when a concern is that many school districts were focusing on rating teachers based on short-term test gains.

Many teachers are exploring the connections between Common Core Literacy Standards and the 8 Mathematical Practice Standards. The Common Core Standards outline math practices that are applicable in any content area classroom.

For example, math practice #1 states:

“Make sense of problems and persevere in solving them.”

On the Common Core website, a “retranslation” of this standard is explained:

“Mathematically proficient students start by explaining to themselves the meaning of a problem and looking for entry points to its solution.”

Just a thought but if you replace the word “mathematically” with another discipline, wouldn’t this standard measure any student’s ability to comprehend a problem, or question, in any subject area? Why not even go further and replace the word “mathematically” with “Argumentative”? Granted my view is very limited, but I think the more we show how interdisciplinary the subject areas are the better off our students will be.

These standards are not limited for just math, but should be looked upon more universally across all disciplines.

We’ve Got It Covered

Posted on by Kevin Dougherty


math chalkboard

Especially during a time when accountability is greater than ever, teachers may struggle with the challenge of “covering” all of the content the curriculum tells them they need to cover.  This may especially be true at the secondary level where there is so much content to “cover.”  Much of this challenge seems to be driven by periodic benchmark tests assessing objectives teachers have been directed to “cover” during specific segments of the school year.  Some teachers have also shared with me they feel a sense of obligation to use their increasingly diminishing instructional time to “cover” everything that ultimately may be assessed on the end-of-year high stakes assessment.

I cannot say that I don’t sympathize with this challenge, yet I feel compelled to work with these educators by providing them with ways to teach the more-rigorous-than-ever standards in a manner that will result in meaningful learning.  I have been driven by this compulsion for many years however it was kicked into high gear several years ago when my daughter, who is now a junior in college, was a freshman in high school.

Since her birthday is in early September, she has always been one of the oldest in her class.  She has also always demonstrated a strong conceptual understanding of mathematics.  Unfortunately, much to my disappointment, following fifth grade she was derailed from the accelerated track in math.  Therefore, while the accelerated students took Algebra I in eighth grade and Geometry in ninth, she did not take Algebra I until her freshman year.  Much to my even greater disappointment, she was struggling the first nine weeks of the year in that class.  As a result, I requested a conference with her teacher.

He graciously agreed to meet with me within a few days of my request.   Since we were meeting during his planning time, I knew our conversation would be relatively brief.  Therefore, I came prepared with three questions.  First I asked, “How do you relate what my daughter is learning in Algebra I to everyday life so she can make meaningful connections to things she already knows and understands?”  He responded, “Mr. Dougherty, that is a good idea, but I have a lot to cover during the year and I don’t really have time to make those connections.”

“OK.  Well, how do you connect what she is learning in Algebra I to other content areas such as showing how sequencing in math is like sequencing in history, science, and language arts?”  To this he replied, “I agree that would be a good thing to do.  However, like I said, I have a lot to cover during the year, so I don’t have the time to do that.”

“I understand you have a lot to cover.  Still, since Algebra is abstract, do you use any type of visual representation to make the abstract more concrete?”  I then drew some Thinking Maps to demonstrate what I meant.  He again acknowledged that this would be helpful and even asked to keep the Maps I drew.  Then, in a very direct teacher-voice he said, “Mr. Dougherty, you need to understand something.  Algebra I is the foundational math class for every other math course your daughter will take for the rest of high school and on through college.  If I don’t cover everything I have to cover, I will do her and every other student I teach a great disservice.”  I was momentarily speechless then I merely thanked him for his time.

I cannot simply dismiss the reality of the challenge many teachers face regarding the “covering” of content, nor can I dismiss the fear that often drives such a mindset.  However, encounters with such mindsets only serve to further fuel my passion to provide educators with ways to teach standards in a manner that fully engages every student and provides them with meaningful learning experiences.  After all, I rarely meet an educator who has entered the field of education for any other reason than to make a positive difference in the lives of the students they teach.  It is for this reason I am committed to helping them to be reminded of their noble purpose for entering the field in the first place.  It is also for this reason I feel so fortunate to work with a group of people who are committed to providing educators with the tools, strategies, and systems that will equip them to be the agents of transformation they desire and deserve to be.