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Using Graphic Organizers across Webb's Depth of Knowledge

Deploying graphic organizers to match desired cognitive complexity

image of seven doors in a row

Normal Webb developed the Depth of Knowledge levels in 1997 as a way to evaluate the cognitive complexity of student tasks. The idea isn’t to make tasks one level or the other, but to ensure that classrooms are asking students to do a mix of tasks across all levels of thinking.

A graphic organizer uses visuals to show relationships and connections between ideas. Many classrooms employ graphic organizers to help better comprehend large amounts of information and complex ideas. Not all graphic organizers, however, require the same level of thinking.

Level 1: Recalling what you know

At level 1, students can use graphic organizers to demonstrate knowledge of facts and details. Great level 1 graphic organizers include:

If students are reading literature or informational text, this could take the form of character trait clusters, 5 W’s organizers and character-setting-events organizers.

images of a level 1 graphic organizers for English Language Arts and Math

Sequence organizers work for almost every subject, whether it is the life cycle of an animal, the order of events in history, or the beginning-middle-end of a story.

images of a level 1 graphic organizers for science and social studies

Level 2: Thinking about what you know

At level 2, students can use more complex organizers, like Venn diagrams, to organize their thinking — showing comparisons, classifications, and hierarchies. Great level 2 graphic organizers include:

In English Language Arts, students can use Venn Diagrams to compare characters, genres, or texts. They can use sorting organizers to help them understand hierarchies in math and science, such as food chains and rules of geometry.

images of a level 2 graphic organizers for English Language Arts and Math

Students can use organizers like Pros and Cons or Facts vs. Opinions as they conduct research for science projects. Cause and effect organizers are helpful for thinking about events in history as well as impacts in science.

images of a level 2 graphic organizers for science and social studies

Level 3 and 4: Thinking for a purpose and extended thinking

At level 3 and 4, graphic organizers are used not as the end goal or instructional task, but as a means for students to organize information and thinking during the process of solving a problem. In other words, graphic organizers are used to help students make sense of information for a bigger purpose.

To help them better think about content and think about their learning, the use of the graphic organizers at this level should be student-driven, not teacher designed.

Graphic organizers help students organize their thinking in ways that help them identify misconceptions as they encounter new information that leads them to rethink, reorganize, and iterate (level 4). As students work on larger projects, these organizers provide opportunities for formative assessments so that educators can more effectively coach learners.

In fact, a level 3 or 4 instructional task may be effectively supported by a level 1 sequencing task that helps a team clarify their understanding of the steps in a process or problem they are trying to solve. Other organizers may get them thinking more deeply about the content or their approach to the problem, such as this 5 Whys example.

sample student five whys about why students don't read well

Level 3 and 4 instructional tasks often take the form of project-based learning (PBL). The goal of a PBL approach is not only high-level thinking and deeper content learning, but also the acquisition of “college and career-ready” skills like project management, leadership, and collaboration. Graphic organizers can help students build these skills by facilitating the organization of information and the planning of tasks and project design.

To help them better think about content and think about their learning, the use of the graphic organizers at this level should be student-driven, not teacher designed.

Graphic organizers can be used to support student thinking and comprehension. Match the graphic organizer to the level of the instructional task and provide students with opportunities to use them at all levels of Webb's Depth of Knowledge for powerful classroom learning.

Melinda Kolk

by Melinda Kolk

Melinda Kolk (@melindak) is the Editor of Creative Educator and the author of Teaching with Clay Animation. She has been helping educators implement project-based learning and creative technologies like clay animation into classroom teaching and learning for the past 15 years.

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