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Maintaining Academic Rigor at Home

Schools across the country are facing one of the biggest educational challenges in the history of our nation: how do we transform our education system, with little or no preparation, from in-class delivery of instruction to at-home learning?

The past few weeks have been the ultimate "build the airplane while flying" challenge for U.S. educators. While most schools have worked out basic platforms and processes by now, many urgent problems remain to be solved. These include achieving academic equity for students without devices or internet access at home, addressing the needs of students on IEPs, and simply keeping students engaged with learning while they are separated from teachers and classroom routines.

At-home learning also creates special challenges when it comes to maintaining academic rigor. It is fairly simple to push out an instructional video and a multiple-choice online quiz for students working from home. It is much harder to engage students with meaningful assignments that build critical thinking skills and support deep comprehension. But if students are going to continue to make academic progress while learning remotely, these are exactly the kinds of assignments they need. It is not enough to simply make sure students are doing "something" that looks remotely educational. Students need assignments that provide the right balance of challenge and support so they can be successful with authentic learning from home.

Thinking Maps are uniquely suited to help students succeed with rigorous assignments at home. The Maps can be used to support independent learning, engage students with meaningful ideas, and demonstrate understanding. Because Maps can be completed either online (through Map Builder) or in pencil-and-paper, Thinking Maps can also support educational equity for students with limited access to online learning.

Supporting Independent Learning

One of the biggest challenges for many students working from home is pulling meaning from video or text-based content. We are asking our students to work much more independently than they are used to, without the benefit of a teacher who can answer questions on the spot or direct their attention to the right things. A majority of our students are not well prepared to make the shift.

Because so many students are struggling, it is tempting to simplify (or "dumb down") assignments that we are asking them to do by themselves at home. After all, it is better to get something back rather than nothing—even if that means all we are asking them to do is answer a few simple multiple-choice questions.

A better approach is to provide them with a structure for note taking that will help them pull meaning from content. Thinking Maps can provide this structure. Instead of simply asking students to read or watch a video and answer questions, teachers can provide a Thinking Maps exercise that acts as both a note-taking framework and a representation of true learning. Creating a Map requires students to analyze content in ways that promote deep comprehension and retention of new information, while providing a structure that allows students to be successful with independent learning.

This Double Bubble Map helps students analyze the differences between dominant and recessive genes.

This Brace Map helps students understand how our government is structured and how the different parts fit together. Students could pair this Map with a Tree Map to further explore the characteristics of each branch of government.

Building Critical Thinking Skills and Engaging with Big Ideas

The Maps support deeper learning because they ask students to become active participants in the learning process rather than simply absorbing content. Map-based assignments build rigor into at-home learning and help students engage with content in meaningful ways.

When students create a Map, they are activating higher-order thinking skills to analyze content and build their understanding. Each of the eight Maps is related to one of the fundamental cognitive processes that underlie learning at all ages and in all content areas. These include defining, describing, comparing/contrasting, classifying, sequencing, cause and effect, part/whole relationships, and analogies.

Activating higher-order thinking is especially important while students are learning from home. Remote learners are missing all of the in-class discussions and collaborative learning opportunities that help students develop critical thinking skills. Students learning remotely can use the Maps to share ideas and collaborate with peers in ways that simulate the in-class learning environment. Students can share Maps in Map Builder and work on them collaboratively or upload pictures of hand-drawn Maps to the class LMS. Maps make natural discussion starters to support meaningful collaboration and idea sharing, even when students can't work together in the classroom.

Demonstrating Understanding Through the Maps

One challenge for teachers attempting to teach remotely is finding ways to evaluate learning, both formally and informally. Thinking Maps provides a window into student thinking that gives teachers a much clearer picture of what students do and don't understand and where they have gaps or errors in their thinking.

A Thinking Map is an authentic representation of learning. Many students learn to "game the system" when taking online quizzes and tests—and some may cheat, by sharing answers with peers or looking them up online. But it is impossible to create a Map without doing the learning that goes into it.

Students create Maps themselves from scratch, either online in Maps Builder or offline using paper and pencils (or markers, or crayons...). Unlike graphic organizers, which provide students with an already-created visual structure with defined blanks to fill in, the Maps require students to start from the very beginning. They must determine which type of Map is appropriate for the task and then decide what the Map should look like (e.g., how many bubbles in the Double Bubble Map or how many branches in the Tree Map). Then they must fill in the Map with actual content. If they are able to do this successfully, it is safe to believe that they have actually learned the content in the process. In this way, the Maps act both as a learning tool for students and an evaluation tool for teachers.

The student creating this Map has demonstrated an understanding of the attributes of intersecting, parallel, and coinciding lines.

Supporting At-Home Equity with Thinking Maps

Educational equity is one of the biggest challenges of at-home learning. While some districts have moved towards ready-made online learning programs, these only work for students with access to devices and reliable internet service at home. Even a one-to-one device program which allows students to take school devices home will not be effective if students cannot get online. With libraries and other public venues with free Wi-Fi closed for the duration of the pandemic—and many parents out of work—this is a particular concern for many students right now.

Part of the beauty of Thinking Maps is the Maps can be created either online or off. Students can draw the Maps with whatever supplies they have on hand—pens, pencils, markers, crayons, pictures cut from old magazines, or any combination of art and craft materials. Students with ready access to computers will enjoy creating and sharing Maps online through Map Builder. But students without computers can complete the exact same assignments at home using pencil and paper. Many schools are distributing and collecting offline assignments during free school lunch pickup. Thinking Maps can be easily adapted to this model for students who are already familiar with them.

Students do not require online access or any special materials to create a Thinking Map.

Maintaining Rigor, At Home or At School

Maintaining academic rigor for students at home is challenging—but it is not impossible. Thinking Maps can help students and teachers get the most out of at-home learning.

  • Not a Thinking Maps user? Contact us to find out how you can get started this summer with our new Virtual Trainings. We can get your school ready to add rigor and improve learning outcomes for next year, whether students are learning from home or at school.

Read more about the importance of academic rigor and how to help students be successful with rigorous assignments:

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