Using Thinking Maps to Support High Quality Questions and Deepen Accountable Talk

By Kati Pearson (Director of Teaching and Learning) and Hana Insanally, Julie Staton, & Bianca Williams (School Improvement Program Specialists),Lake County Schools, Florida

Over the last five years, Lake County Schools has been engaged in a district-wide rollout of Thinking Maps. We began the project in order to help our students, especially English Language Learners (ELLs) and struggling learners, engage more fully with academic content and improve their critical thinking, speaking and writing skills. One way that we have used the Maps in our district is to support Accountable Talk.
Accountable Talk is a teaching method that uses classroom dialogue to promote higher levels of learning. The concept of Accountable Talk calls for all students to be engaged and ready to hold dialogue which is accountable to one of three areas: Content, Community, or Rigor. It involves the use of structures to organize student conversations and empower them to have better discussions. Accountable Talk allows students to practice using words and phrases that are more advanced than typical “kid language” and requires all students to be engaged. Using Accountable Talk structures in conjunction with higher-order thinking questions and rigorous tasks helps the teacher ensure that all students have an opportunity to engage in student discourse with a focus on the content at hand.

Thinking Maps are amazing tools that freely lend themselves to deeper thinking and learning. Thinking associated with each Map is deepened through the act of having students speak their thinking “off the Map,” allowing deeper connections to be made to new and existing knowledge. The Maps also provide a visual reminder that students can use to recall that learning and further develop thinking through additional discourse and writing.
Teachers must intentionally plan for the incorporation of purposeful questions that stimulate thinking and lend themselves to Accountable Talk and student discourse. This discourse should occur student-to-student, student-to-teacher, and teacher-to-students, creating a learning cycle that facilitates, develops, and supports ongoing learning.
Questions Teachers Should Consider When Planning for Accountable Talk:

  • What are the key concepts I want my students to learn in this lesson?
  • What are the big ideas I want them to grapple with?
  • How do these ideas relate to what we’ve just done?
  • What instructional task will support the accomplishment of the purpose?
  • Will this question or problem work best as a whole group discussion, as small group work, or as partner work?
  • Should I set this topic up with a whole group discussion and then stop at a certain point and have the students turn and talk with partners? If so, precisely when should I tell them to do partner talk? What question should I have them think about with their partner? What classroom management issues do I consider?
  • How will I keep the group or partner talk meaningful and relevant?
  • What response stems are appropriate for the context and content of the lesson?
  • What expected student responses should I be prepared for and how will I address them?
  • What structures can I put in place so all are engaged and no one can hide?

Desired student actions during Accountable Talk also need to be explicitly taught to students. By modeling and practicing those actions, students build consistency with ways to voice and articulate their thoughts around their learning community, content of study, and task at hand. Without clear actions, students may struggle. Therefore, providing scaffolds, such as Accountable Talk expectations and question stems, can ensure success until automaticity is reached.

It has been reported that most jobs in the 21st century will require students to be able to think at the four highest levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy: application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. For this reason, it is important that students are regularly provided opportunities to think and respond, verbally or in writing, at these higher levels. Thinking Maps may be used to ensure that all students are able to engage in multiple cognitive processes and higher levels of thinking. Combining Thinking Maps with Accountable Talk can make the process more concrete and effective for students.
We introduced the use of Thinking Maps for Accountable Talk in the School Improvement Guide that we developed for our schools, along with many other strategies for teaching, assessment, instructional planning, coaching, and school leadership. In fact, the Guide not only introduces the Maps as a strategy, it uses the Maps throughout to illustrate and explain different strategies to school leaders and teachers. We have found the Maps to be a highly effective way to communicate complex information with both students and staff. In fact, we’ve found that almost everything we do can be improved with the right Map.

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Posted in blog, Common Core, Educator Voices, General, K-5, Leadership, Map Examples, Spotlight School, Uncategorized
11 comments on “Using Thinking Maps to Support High Quality Questions and Deepen Accountable Talk
  1. James Dean says:

    Wow! Thank you Kati Pearson and Lake County Schools for this great blog. What an awesome reminder of how powerful Thinking Maps can assist with communicating rich, dense information like Accountable Talk. This blog reminded me of the importance of STOPPING during my presentations and providing meaningful time for participants to reflect, internalize and dialogue about their understanding in a constructive approach (not just Turn and Talk).
    I look forward to hearing what others have to say about this Blog posting and how the Maps have assisted them as well.

    Kudos Kati!!

  2. Judi Herm says:

    Kati and Team,

    I hope EVERY EDUCATOR clicks on the link to your exemplary School Improvement Guide at where you have embedded Thinking Maps in all that you do.

    I want to be you when I grow up, working in a place like Lake County Schools that puts THINKING at the core of everything you do. Or maybe I want to go back and be one of your lucky students, receiving a THINKING-centered student-based education. Thanks for showing what can and does happen when educators fully understand and embrace the power of real and lasting commitment to best practices. Talk about Accountable Talk – your team is Walking the Walk! Thanks for leading the way and setting the bar so high!

    Shout out to James Dean, too, who I know is proud to be your partner on this exciting journey!

  3. Anonymous says:

    I must echo the comment above posted by Judi Herm. Lake County’s approach to embedding Thinking Maps into the teaching and learning resource guides is GENIUS. I have viewed the documents and believe every district should take a look at what you all have done. Utilizing Thinking Maps to communicate such critical information, set the expectations for respective groups, and outline the process for each area is indeed one of the many steps that shifts a district from GOOD to GREAT! Your team has set the bar high!

    Hats off to James Dean for guiding us all through the world of “mapping”. I have enjoyed every moment of this journey and I can’t wait to develop something similar to what Lake County has created for my own district!

    Nice job Lake County team…and James. 😊

  4. Kim says:

    Katie and Lake County,
    As a member of the ELA Dept in a district in Northwest FL, I consistently refer to your website for ELA inspiration and now for Thinking Map inspiration! As a district that’s fairly new to Thinking Maps, I’m looking at your work and results as a guide – you’ve set the bar very high!
    I’ve not thought about using TMs for accountable talk. It makes perfect sense, though. Accountable talk is so important but it’s often overlooked. Also, students need to be able to orally communicate their thinking before they can write.
    Great work on the School Improvment Guide! I know your entire district in fortunate to have someone who is able to effectively show, by using TMs, how all initiatives merge together.

  5. Lindsay Messner says:

    Thinking Maps truly are at the heart of Lake County! This is such a simple, but powerful way to guide students in the “how” and “what” of accountable talk.

  6. Wesley Gordon says:

    How inspirational to read about a school district who has invested so much in teaching students to think! As a teacher in a Thinking Maps school, I can attest to the increased levels of cognitive thinking and discussion that I see from my students, and agree with Kati that the use of Thinking Maps has been the foundation for that. To Kati and her team, a job well done. I hope that other districts can take from your lead, the idea that providing a strong tool to help guide student thinking will only help to improve their learning achievements!

  7. Shelly Cox says:

    This is incredible. As a school administrator, I’ve seen first-hand how Thinking Maps promote integrated thinking and interdisciplinary learning. By giving our students these tools, we’ve educated them for life. I commend your county for embedding these valuable tools district wide. I look forward to reading about the achievement your students are going to make. It’s going to be amazing!

  8. Kati Pearson says:

    Thank you so much to everyone for the kind remarks and affirmations. As you know, the most challenging part of any implementation you are involved is remembering where you started from. We started our implementation and haven’t really had an opportunity to reflect deeply about the overall progress. We tend to reflect on what else needs to be done and not affirm how much has been accomplished. Your voice has been a wonderful support to us and we feel we are now “fluent” in the language of Thinking Maps as a tool for leading. The advice I have for others is to stay consistent and model the expectation. You must use the Maps and become fluent if you want to see them used by others.

  9. Melba Johnson says:

    As a Thinking Maps consultant who has had the privilege of training in Lake County district numerous times, I want to congratulate Kati Pearson and her team for the high expectations and opportunities they have provided to all with this common language thinking tools. The colloborative map journey for Lake County educators and students in cognitive and metacognitive growth has been incredible; the results of this collaborative effort phenomenal. Congratulations!

    Thanks, too, for creating and sharing the School Improvement Guide, which is genuine evidence of how the Maps have become an embedded facet of your classroom and leadership culture. I am excited about seeing where you will go from this year into the future of “mapping” with rigor and relevance.

  10. cynthia kiffer says:

    Congratulations, Katie!
    You and your team have done an outstanding job creating Lake County’s School Improvement GUIDE. The section on Accountable Talk is specific, timely and provides a road map for everyone from novice to master teacher in how to ensure that all students have an opportunity to engage in student discourse with a focus on the current content.

    The entire GUIDE is comprehensive, timely and easy to comprehend. The use of Thinking Maps to explain the content and to provide examples for users should help improve leadership capacity, teacher efficacy and student outcomes. I look forward to sharing your successful work as I continue to train school leaders throughout Florida in the “Language for Leadership.”

  11. Gail Sansome says:

    Wow! Fantastic blog, Kati! Working in your district I have seen first-hand how embedded high-level thinking and communicating is with not only all your students, but your staff as well! Using Thinking Maps as a structure for Accountable Talk is brilliant! If we want our students and teachers to think and communicate at higher levels, we need to give them a model and structure to guide these processes. Your district continues to excel in this!
    I love your school improvement guide as it helps staff members SEE complex thoughts. It is so much easier to interpret through the Maps rather than just words. Sometimes educators talk the language without really internalizing the meaning. Using Thinking Maps has helped to make MEANING of complex topics. I look forward to continue to train educators in Thinking Maps using your model!
    Bravo! Continue your awesome work!

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