Now looking at the value of enquiry tools when organizing and making sense of information, Anne de A’Echevarria continues to explore the process of developing ‘independent enquirers’ in Learning and Thinking Skills

The model of enquiry shared previously – the Enquiry Wheel – shows the main stages of a generic enquiry process as well as linking them to related ‘thinking tools’ to support each stage. These thinking tools can be used as practical, structured activities that help make the skills of enquiry ‘visible’ and explicit to students. As students grow in confidence, however, and become ready to take more responsibility for mapping out the process they will follow – choosing relevant tools and resources – the Enquiry Wheel can also serve as a useful toolkit that students can learn to use independently. (See enquiry progression model.)

In our last issue, we looked at strategies relating to the first prerequisite of any successful enquiry – creating a ‘need to know’, including tools to help students devise their own enquiry questions. In this issue, we will look at three thinking tools specifically designed to help students make sense of the information they uncover. All three tools help students to process new information more effectively – ordering and organizing it so that it becomes both more manageable and more memorable. These tools are:

  • Relevance Checker
  • Knowledge Mapping
  • Concept Mapping

Taken together, they involve students in collecting then sifting through information for its relevant to the area or domain of enquiry (Relevance Checker); constructing categories that provide conceptual control over territories of information (Knowledge Mapping); and exploring relationships within that domain (Concept Mapping).

Thinking tool no. 1: Relevance Checker

This thinking tool is designed to help students filter the information they have gathered for its relevance in relation to their enquiry question. Many students find it difficult to discern relevant from irrelevant information, particularly when browsing the internet. The nature of the question chosen – open, closed, broad or narrow in scope – will affect the criteria they will use for making judgments about relevance. As with all three tools, it is crucial, therefore, that students have first identified the enquiry question that will guide their research. The Relevance Checker also encourages students to look at degrees of relevance; prioritizing ideas and information on the question, and discussing justifications for their choices.

Relevance Checker: Instructions

1. Students can work individually, in pairs or groups, at a board or wall space on a large sheet. Alternatively, groups can work around a table using A3 or A4 sized sheets.

2. Each student brings along one or more sources of information that they have discovered during their research, which they think might help them/their group to answer an enquiry question. Depending upon the teaching focus, ability level or stage of the enquiry, the information shared could be:

  • A book, article or website
  • A single piece of data or data set
  • A key idea, argument or interpretation or
  • A picture or diagram

The information can be written on separate cards or post-its. Pictures and longer pieces can be labelled, numbered or coded. Longer pieces can also be ‘tagged’; in other words, the key ideas within the source are extracted and written on separate cards in preparation for the Relevance Checker activity.

3. Students are given a Relevance Checker Template and should write their key question in the center. Alternatively, students can draw their own template.

4. Students work through the information they have uncovered, deciding which items are relevant or irrelevant to the key question. If they decide that an item is relevant, they must consider the degree of relevance in relation to the question and place it at an appropriate place within the template.

5. Students then give feedback on their decisions, justifying their choices and decisions.

Relevance Checker: Teaching tips

For students who would benefit from more ‘structured’ enquiry – the first stage of the progression model – each group could instead be given a pre-prepared set of cards with words, pictures, short phrases or longer extracts, each representing both relevant or irrelevant information for a given enquiry question. Students then work through the cards, deciding whether each one is relevant or irrelevant to the key question and placing relevant cards in an appropriate place within the template. If all groups are working with the same data set, they can then give feedback on their decisions, justifying their choices if they happen to contrast with the decisions of another group.

The Relevance Checker is also a useful revision tool for exams, as it encourages students to think about the most effective and relevant responses to questions.

Relevance Checker: Talking about thinking

Students may find the following words useful to help them talk about their thinking:

relevant               irrelevant               useful                reliable                 important
significant            criteria                  judgement          decision                evaluate

Other talking points might include:

How did you decide whether an item was relevant? How did you decide upon the ‘most relevant’ items? Can an unreliable source be relevant?

When might ‘deciding what’s relevant’ be a useful skill to have in everyday life?

Thinking tool no. 2: Knowledge Mapping

Once students have collected information and sifted through it for relevance to their enquiry question, they are ready to examine the data more closely. Knowledge Mapping is one tool that can be used to support this process – it encourages students to closely analyze and then organize information into groups according to common characteristics that they draw up themselves. Forming these groups or categories helps students clarify concepts as they put items together that share common characteristics or attributes.

Here are two example Knowledge Maps. The first example was produced by a Y13 History A-Level student: the enquiry question in this case was: How did King Henry VII secure the throne?

The second example was inspired by an enquiry into the life of William Shakespeare.

As demonstrated, students were challenged to classify information hierarchically, moving from a central ‘organizing’ question via connectors to sub-sets.

(Further examples of Knowledge Maps and their uses.)

Knowledge Mapping: instructions

1. Use the landscape format (turn your paper sideways so the longer edge is at the bottom).
2. Write the organizing enquiry question in the center of the paper – you could also invent a symbol or picture to represent this area of enquiry.
3. Chunk your information into 4 or 5 major categories choosing key words to label each category. Use nouns for keywords.
4. These key words radiate from the center.
5. Each category can then be sub-divided as many times as necessary. Make this memorable by using:

  • thick lines to thin lines
  • big letters to little letters
  • colors for different sub-sections
  • colorful supporting images or symbols

Knowledge Mapping: teaching tips

Help students to see the value of mind mapping by modelling the process yourself with an ‘everyday’ area of enquiry and by making explicit how it will help their learning.

Ask students to read back and explain their mind maps to a partner – as well as embedding new learning and aiding recall, this also helps students to reinterpret the information in linear form once more as a precursor to any extended writing.

Knowledge Mapping: other uses

Use at the beginning of an enquiry to uncover what students already know, or at the end to help them reflect on what they have learned and develop their own overview or ‘big picture’ of the topic.

As a further revision technique, students can traffic light what they are confident about (highlight in green), what needs more work (amber), and what they still need support with (red) prior to a test or exam.

Knowledge Mapping: talking about thinking
Provide students with the language to reflect upon and talk about what they have learned and how they went about constructing their Knowledge Maps:

similar              category             connection              memorize               big picture
different           classify              organize                  remember

Could they have organized their Knowledge Map differently?
Were some facts or ideas harder to classify than others?

Tell stories and use analogies to encourage students to make connections, generalize and see a bigger picture with regard to the value of being able to process information and use the Knowledge Mapping technique:

Where else in school would knowledge mapping be useful?
Is learning to manage information effectively useful for everyday life?

Thinking tool no. 3: Concept Mapping

When used as part of an enquiry process, Concept Mapping will help students make sense of the information they have discovered by exploring how different concepts, or key ideas, connect. Depending upon the area of enquiry chosen, these ‘key ideas’ could be:

  • technical terms
  • specific things, people or events
  • causes of a key event
  • emotions
  • motives
  • actions                       …or a combination of these.

Concept mapping will help reinforce understanding of these key ideas and, in particular, will help students analyze and gain a deeper understanding the overall structure of a particular domain of enquiry.

Concept Mapping: instructions for teachers

1. In a collaborative enquiry, organize your students into groups of three or four:

  • For students who would benefit from more ‘structured’ enquiry, each group can be given a pre-prepared set of cards showing the key terms to be mapped. (When students are thinking about their concept map, it is important for them to be able to manipulate physically the concept labels.)
  • Students who are able to take more responsibility for the enquiry process, can be challenged to draw up their own set of ‘Concept Cards’. These will be the key ideas that they have extracted from the various sources they have used – as in the tagging exercise mentioned above in the Relevance Checker activity.
  • Provide each group with a sheet of paper on which to arrange the cards – large enough to permit plenty of space between the cards – and some glue.

2. Decide upon the key question that will be the focus of the Concept Map eg. ‘What caused the Second World War?’ or ‘What makes a good holiday?’

Concept Mapping: instructions for students

1. Sort through the cards and put to one side any that have a term you don’t know or which you think is not related to any other term.
2. Put the remaining cards on the sheet of paper and arrange them in a way that makes sense to you. Terms you see as related should be kept fairly close together, but leave space between even the closest cards.
3. When you are satisfied with your arrangement of the cards, stick them to the sheet.
4. Draw lines between the terms you see to be related.
5. Write on each line why you think they are related.
6. If you put any cards to one side at the start, go back to these and see if you now want to add any to the map.

Concept Mapping: teaching tips

Introduce by doing one in front of the class – using a simple topic, familiar to students – allowing them to hear you working aloud.

Help students realize that there is no single, correct answer to the task and that there is often more than one appropriate link between a pair of concepts.

Concept Mapping: other uses

You can change the basic procedure to suit the enquiry focus, your purpose and the age and experience of your students. The examples below demonstrate how versatile the strategy can be – both for developing students’ understanding and as a means of formative/ summative assessment for the teacher:

  • Use to help students understand the reasons for a lesson.
  • Can the students see how one topic relates to another?
  • Do the students understand which concepts are the key ones?
  • Use to identify changes in relations that students perceive between concepts
  • Use to help students link a new concept into their ideas

Concept Mapping: talking about thinking

In the course of the lesson and in the plenary, your students may find the following words useful:

big picture/detail        understanding        explanation         reason          understanding

You could ask your class to create a concept map using some of the words above in order to help them explore the value of the Concept Mapping strategy.

‘Can all words be connected by a linking idea? Challenge your students to try and come up with any two words that cannot be connected – no student has ever managed in my experience, but they enjoy trying to outwit each other!

In the next issue we will look at tools and resources that students can use to critically evaluate the sources of information that they are using, and reach reasoned judgements and decisions.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in October 2008

About the author: Anne de A’Echevarria is the author of the award winning ‘Thinking Through School’. Previously a teacher, PGCE tutor and head of ‘Thinking for Learning’, a research and development team partnered with Newcastle University, she now works as a freelance education consultant and writer.