The role of graphics in education has changed – it has become more important than ever before.
We at InnerDrive loved Organise Ideas: Thinking by Hand, Extending the Mind, and you can read why in our full review. The book explains in great detail how choosing and designing the right word diagrams can affect how much information students understand and remember, but we still had a few questions.
We were lucky to have the opportunity to ask them to authors Oliver Caviglioli and David Goodwin. In this Q&A, we learn about what motivated them to write this book, concepts and ideas that they refer to, and advice for teachers about using word diagrams...
InnerDrive: Could you summarise what your book, Organise Ideas, is about, and what inspired you to write it? Why do you think it’s important?
David: The book is about what people traditionally know as being graphic organisers. We’re using the term "word diagrams" because we want to distance ourselves from the idea that graphic organisers are pictorial representations. It’s their spatial arrangements that unlock meaning. We were keen to address the many different issues around the terminology that’s used with them, and the contradictions in a lot of the research as to why word diagrams work, or in some cases don’t work. I personally really wanted to change the narrative around how they are used. We would see lots of fantastic examples of these graphic organisers, but what I wasn’t seeing, frustratingly, was how people use them and what do they do with them. In this book, we talk about the purpose of these organisers. They are tools that serve the learning process. It’s how we unlock the full potential of them and how we teach students to organise their knowledge in service of extended writing and conversations between students. Before this book, there was no framework, theory or order to graphic organisers. The ironic thing was that the graphic organisers hadn’t been organised.
InnerDrive: I hadn’t heard the phrase "word diagram" before. Did you coin that term yourselves?
Oliver: Yes. There are so many other terms for them like visual tools, semantic organisers, semantic network, they’re endless. Traditionally, they’ve all been accounted for by dual coding theory; which is that we have two channels, one for words and one for non-words. But what makes graphic organiser effective? The answer is words, not visuals. When you examine what people say, sometimes there’s no order to it. They speak in extensive vocabulary and metaphors. With word diagrams, you’re not using any syntax, grammar, rich vocabulary, or any other linguistic feature that usually impresses people. Word diagrams answer the question "what are they really saying?"
InnerDrive: What questions should teachers be contemplating when deciding which graphic organiser would best fit the purpose of the content? And how should they go about using them?
Oliver: What you should be doing first of all is understanding the perspective with which you are interrogating the text. Fundamentally, you are looking for 4 things, separately, together or as a hybrid. Ask yourself if you’re defining something, comparing something, sequencing something temporally or showing cause and effect. As a teacher, you will be far more effective if you know the structure of the information you’re about to explain.
InnerDrive: If there are only 4 types of graphic organisers, why do regular people and most educators not know about them? What have been the barriers?
Oliver: Education has been filled with too many clever people who are really great with syntax and vocabulary. They tell a good story, but they don’t get down to the basics. It’s as if people hate that type of thinking. People are also quick to say that graphic organisers are reductionist, because they like the story telling. No one is looking at what the knowledge actually is and how it’s structured. Instead, we congratulate each other over how philosophical and grandiose we’ve been in our statements.
InnerDrive: In the book, you talk a lot about spatial arrangement. Why is this so important when deciding how to use a graphic organiser?
David: I think that the diagram that best illustrates the idea of spatial arrangement is the double-spray organiser. In a double-spray, the ideas in the centre have the most in common. The ideas on the outside of the diagram are what we consider to be most different. When we think about things that are closer together, we think that they’re similar in some way. That really encapsulates spatial arrangement. We talk in the book about spatial metaphors, metaphors that use space as their domain, and how we use them to communicate abstract ideas and thoughts. For example, "hand over what you know", "I can’t grasp this concept", "put your ideas in order". Word diagrams turn ideas from metaphorical objects into physical ones.
Oliver: Neuroscientists are saying that we organise ourselves in space in a similar way to how we organise ideas in our heads. Graphic organisers allow us to externalise our thinking. Without them, you can only really think of a few things at a time before getting overwhelmed, or exhausting your cognitive load. So when you put what’s in your head out there, you can think of more things, and you can physically arrange them. In the arrangement they have meaning. When things are close together, they tend to belong, which is no surprise. If you walk into your kitchen, you tend to find that there’s no cutlery in the fridge. There’s actually a drawer for cutlery. And we’re even so nerdy that we put the spoons together and the knives together. Not only that, but we even separate the small spoons and the big spoons and the serving spoons. Organising ideas into word diagrams is in essence the same as organising objects in the world.
InnerDrive: How are word diagrams similar and different to dual coding? If words are metaphorical objects, does that mean we don’t need pictorial representations of those objects for word diagrams to be successful?
David: In Geography, there are certain concepts that need some sort of visual diagram to capture them. For example, the greenhouse effect, or how volcanic eruptions occur. I have started using visual diagrams together with a word diagram. The word diagram is a way of capturing information, and as it starts to evolve from its really early points, it builds up in complexity.
InnerDrive: So in your perspective, you don’t see them as either or, you think that they can complement each other?
David: I think that there’s a time and a place. We make it very clear that images aren’t needed. I use word diagram on a daily basis, but I don’t use visuals all the time, I use them as and when I need to.
InnerDrive: The Production Effect is a theory where if people generate or manipulate content themselves, they are more likely to remember it. What are your thoughts around presenting a word diagram to students versus getting students to produce their own, either by designing one themselves or copying one down?
Oliver: Students can’t organise new information. Students are novices, so if unfamiliar material is presented to them, it’s impossible for them to organise it. It’s true that when you create a graphic organiser and exert cognitive effort, you remember it better. Teachers should continuously check their students’ understanding, and at a certain point teachers could get them to complete part of a diagram. It also depends on the level of complexity of the content and the diagram. Showing students the language that dictates which of the 4 organiser types to use allows them to select the right graphic organiser for the content. Tracing over the branches of the word diagrams using their index fingers may also allow students to recall more.
InnerDrive: What are some tips and mistakes to avoid when using mind maps?
David: Begin by selecting the information relevant to the task, and then grouping it according to the common features of each individual item. The first process is to select all of the relevant information, and then begin to define the groups. Within those groups you may find smaller groups, then you can begin the mapping process. I would also say explain it back to yourself, explain it to a peer, gesture, get all of the use out of it. Use it as a writing framework. It’s a time investment to create it, so you should make the most of it.
Oliver: Teachers should be asking themselves if they actually need the mind map. Why would you use a mind map if you’re studying history and the information is in a temporal sequence? It would be like saying hammers are your favourite tool and then using a hammer as your tool no matter what the task is. The biggest tip is not to use specific graphic organisers blindly. Look at the nature of the content first.
A massive thank you to Oliver and David for their time. This interview compliments our book review and gives such a valuable insight into the use and design of graphic organisers, their role in education, and the significant role that Organise Ideas plays in how educators teach their students. Get your copy of the book...