John Catt Educational
10 Sep 2021
When it comes to graphic organisers, I’m about as nerdy as it gets. I used them extensively in my teaching, carried out action research into concept maps, and later, as an educational apps developer, explored a range of ideas to help students organise their knowledge and navigate their learning journeys. So to say I was excited about reading this book would be something of an understatement. Fortunately, I wasn’t disappointed.
Of course, teachers in general have been using graphic organisers (or ‘word diagrams’ as the book prefers to call them) in one form or another for generations. But with Organise Ideas, ‘graphics guru’ Oliver Caviglioli and his geography teacher ‘apprentice’ David Goodwin have brought much-needed clarity and coherence to the field. They have also made a strong case for the power of word diagrams as a teaching and learning tool. As they rightly argue, “Without organisation, knowledge content is a mere list of discrete facts. But organising them through forging connections creates meaning.”
Drawing on philosophy, anthropology and cognitive science, the book begins logically by mapping out the extensive theoretical terrain in which it sits and explaining the underlying principles that govern the effective use of word diagrams. Central to its approach is the very interesting idea of an ‘external memory field’. Within this, the book claims, word diagrams can significantly augment the limited capacity (cognitive load) of our brain to capture ‘transient’ information in its working memory, and to visualise developing schemas.
The book then argues persuasively (dismissing Descartes’ ‘mind-body dualism’ in the process) that traditional conceptions of learning have been too brain-bound. Instead, the authors argue, we need to recognise the importance of ‘embodied cognition’. Hence the book’s subtitle.
The book proceeds by explaining how word diagrams fall into two main categories – ‘container’ and ‘path’ – before differentiating an impressively wide variety of both. Wisely though, it cautions that all are best used as a complementary strategy, and selection (whether teacher or student) inevitably depends on context.
The above sets Organise Ideas up for its penultimate chapter, which involves a fascinating analysis of how teachers use word diagrams in practice, effectively projecting and distributing their schemas via their students’ external memory fields. The sheer range of examples here from across the curriculum is remarkable, as is the ingenuity of the contributing teachers.
In the final chapter, I found the section on using diagrams to test learning particularly interesting, and the digital tips very useful. I was also pleased to see the limitations of knowledge organisers exposed.
But I do have some reservations about the book. First, despite a rigorous discussion of evidence and meticulous explanatory approach, it overlooks the fundamental difficulty some students appear to have with this kind of learning strategy.
Second, I was surprised it didn’t engage with the ‘meaning making’ ideas of constructivist theory to strengthen its teacher-directed case.
Third, I would have liked some guidance on the use of ‘dual coding’ icons, and more on how to prevent larger diagrams from evolving into what can end up looking like a complex circuit board.
Other than that, my quibbles are merely format-related: I found the lack of an index frustrating, and the thin typography of the body text a little difficult to read.
However, these issues do not detract significantly from the overall quality of the book. It is exceptionally well written, illustrated and organised, and it is undeniably an excellent practical resource. I thought my knowledge of this area was well developed before reading it, but my mind was stretched by the breadth of its thinking and my schema has sprouted a whole new set of branches. This is what learning at any level is all about.
Without hesitation then, I would agree with Doug Lemov that it will be ‘‘immensely useful to any teacher”, and I don’t think Mary Myatt is overselling it by saying it is a ‘‘gift to the profession”.