Model mapping (or ‘mind mapping’) is a learning tool for pupils of all ages and abilities, as Oliver Caviglioli, co-author of MapWise and former PE teacher, explains


As a trainee PE teacher I learned techniques that are now called ‘Assessment for Learning’. I demonstrated what I wanted students to learn, then they had a go, then I gave them feedback on how to improve. Model mapping is a way of doing exactly the same thing with thinking: not only does it make thinking explicit, but it shows the thinking processes and makes visual thought connections. I call the technique ‘model mapping’ because it models what the brain is doing when children are engaged in thinking.

Semantics and syntax

  • Semantics (meaning and the meaning of symbols) is the aim of education. It makes learning engaging and purposeful.
  • Syntax is the dominant form in which education takes place – as opposed to more visual methodologies.
  • To communicate relationships in linear arrangements of words requires complex syntax – some children find difficulty in always thinking in a linear format.
  • Visual tools can challenge (and support) G&T pupils to identify or construct meaning, rather than concentrate on verbal panache.

Using model mapping

My son is a very keen reader and always has been. At the age of eight, he read the Guardian, books, encyclopaedias – anything he could get his hands on. Pascal also has Down’s syndrome. The teachers at his local primary school said that he was reading without understanding because he couldn’t explain in words the content of what he was reading. Almost by chance, I started using model mapping with him and he was able to demonstrate his thought processes to them. After that, they no longer said he didn’t understand. In fact, it was they who had not understood how Pascal’s brain worked.

‘Gifted’ children are often identified by the speed of their answers and reactions. But, to use Guy Claxton’s phrase, how do they ‘know what to do when they don’t know what to do’? Model mapping equips them with the visual tools to see how they are responding to questions, thus equipping them to deal with the unexpected or ‘difficult’ as and when it happens. By slowing children down, it stimulates examination of easy assumptions and allows them to be self-questioning. They then have a more mature notion of what being ‘gifted’ means. Visual tools are semantic organisers. The relationships between the objects depicted are obvious and directly accessible.

Teachers often use model mapping purely for gathering ideas – but mapping goes beyond this; it is so much more than demonstrating links by association – it allows pupils to organise the process visually.

A methodology for model mapping

Four types of thinking

In its KS3 Strategy for teacher explanation the DfES outlines four types of thinking: conceptualising; comparing and contrasting; sequencing; and identifying cause and effect. G&T pupils engage in interesting thinking, but often have no ‘road map’ with which to identify their thinking. Many have an immediate, easy, and automatic facility with thinking. This is thought to be an asset; it was how their G&Tness was discovered.

Space and ‘thought objects’

The spatial arrangements of objects (usually words) in visual tools create ‘thought objects’, shaping abstract thoughts into something external, visible and concrete. This ‘external cognition’ makes self-awareness (metacognition) a real possibility, based on practical observation. It makes clear communication between peers or teacher/pupil far more likely to be productive intellectually. The externalisation of thinking provides an important third point between two people conversing. This takes the personal pressure off the G&T pupil being ‘questioned’ by a teacher. It also makes the organisation of information, and its connections to prior learning, more obvious and essential.

Visual tools

Visual tools are…

  • adaptable: they can be used across different subjects and with different levels of subject complexity
  • a bridge between content and process
  • lifelong tools: these same tools will prove useful for pupils at university and in the work place
  • sociable: constructing visual tools together and presenting with them are a useful social intellectual ‘glue’ between G&T pupils who sometimes are less collaborative or expressive than they could be.

Mastery in thinking

There is a known sequence to thinking for which visual tools offer expert support and guidance:

  • Gather – get together all you think you know about a subject.
  • Expand – now stimulated, do some research.
  • Select – cut out the irrelevant stuff (however complex or interesting – often difficult for G&T students).
  • Organise – model maps only work when they are rigorously organised into categories and hierarchies (ie, themes, connections, patterns, genres) – it’s not just word association.
  • Schedule – put the finalised work into a rational, effective order for presentation, identifying the order of argument and logic.

Learning conditions

Visual tools are not individual tools. They are best used in collaboration with others. While visual tools are ‘external cognition’, their real power is in the framework they offer to structure a shared conversation of meaning making. G&T pupils process information rapidly. Yet the most powerful learning happens through dialogue. More mature learning situations require team learning. This requires both communication skills and a belief in the value of shared learning. Experiences with visual tools give pupils this. Visual tools give G&T pupils an interest in their thinking processes that can transcend the initial interest of the subject matter. In other words, visual tools use can make dull subject matter interesting!

Caviglioli, O, and Harris, I, MapWise (2000), Network Educational Press, Stafford