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Making Thinking Visible

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Arts Integration

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Arts Integration

Visible Thinking & Vocabulary: When a Web is More Than a Web


When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.
                                                                          -John Muir

I sat in my 8:00 a.m. undergrad class; let's call it "Teaching 101." It was Monday morning, and after a weekend of vigorous and social undergrad activities, I was near catatonic. My roommates and I were watching the thread of saliva that dangled precariously from the professor's top lip. We discussed his spit thread weekly, and we felt sorry for the poor souls who came late to class and had to sit in the front row. At some point, that thread was liable to fly, and we were entertaining ourselves by placing bets on who it would land on when it did. 

Our professor was an animated speaker. The first week of lecture, I thought, "This won't be too bad. At least he's putting some feeling into it." But by the third week, we realized that his voice and gesticulations were his monotone. Finally, the spit thread broke and flew onto the desk of one of the sorority sister Bobsy Twins. Margot passed me a dollar, while Amy high-fived me. That's when I heard the words, "All learning is about making connections. The brain learns only when there's prior learning to hook the new learning onto...this is on the test. Are you writing this down?"

Flash forward 10 years. I'm sitting in a week-long Eric Jensen workshop on brain-based learning. It's in San Diego. I'm cooped up inside, while outside the sun is shining, the ocean breeze is warm, and the fish taco truck is parked on the corner. And then I hear, "The brain likes connections. It thrives on them."


Most spiders eat and remake their webs every night.
                                                                                              -Alice Oswald

The reason these learning memories have stuck with me is because my brain is really geared at looking for patterns and connections. It's the first thing I do when I'm learning something new, and if I can't make those connections or see patterns, I struggle. Webbing has been one of my favorite strategies for as long as I can remember. In fact, I sometimes write my lesson plans in the form of a web!


Oooooh, Ms. Willis! We could go on and on and on with this web!
                                                                                         -Fifth Grade Student

I've been working with visible thinking routines for the past three years. I have my favorite stand-bys, but this past week, I wanted to try something new. I was teaching a lesson to introduce a new tier 2 vocabulary word and decided that I'd give Generate-Sort-Connect-Elaborate a try. The word we were exploring was accurate. We had already looked at it in context and dug around in a trusty dictionary for the standard definitions. Here's the thinking routine, in a nutshell:

1. Select a topic, concept or issue for which you want to map your understanding. In our case, we chose the word accurate.

2. Generate a list of ideas and initial thoughts that come to mind when you think about your topic. 

My students came up with these words:
Test, answer, exam, information, question, correct, perfect, precise, exact, accuracy, on point, sensational, aim, close, almost.

3. Sort your ideas according to how central or tangential they are. Place central ideas near the center and ideas not as related toward the outside of the web.

For me, this was the coolest part of the webbing process. It was fascinating to hear my students debate how the words were related to the vocabulary word. They created a category of words that addressed times for when accuracy would be important.



4. Now connect your ideas by drawing connecting lines between the ideas that have something in common. Explain/write a short sentence about how the ideas are connected.

Since this was our first attempt at this routine, we did this orally. Again, students debated with each other, and I reminded them to use the discourse sentence stems we had learned earlier in the school year. 

5. Finally, we elaborated on any of the ideas/thoughts they had by adding new ideas to our web that expanded their initial thoughts about the word accurate.

One thing that the kids talked about at this point was how we often use accurate to describe things that are close to being correct. Yet, when we looked at the actual definition, it refers to something that is exact. At this point, our web also grew to include scenarios and circumstances in which they would come across the word.

This thinking routine blew up our understanding of our vocabulary word. The kiddos' depth of thinking was exciting to witness. In addition, engagement was through the roof. Everyone was involved in the conversations. 

What would I do differently next time? I always ask myself that after trying a new teaching approach. Next time, I'll spend more time on the "Elaborate" part of the routine. By doing so, I think their thinking will deepen even more. My approach to concept webbing has changed because of this thinking routine, and I can't wait to try it again!

P.S. If you're interested in finding out more about teaching tier 2 vocabulary or visible thinking routines and strategies, check out these resources! They'll rock your classroom world!

P.SSSSSSSS. You can read more about teaching tier 2 vocabulary HERE!








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