My first teaching position was at a charter school in New Jersey. I had just graduated from college and was excited for the chance to teach a 7th grade creative writing course. At the time, I had never heard of graphic organizers. But if there was one thing I did know, it was that I would not be using any worksheets.
Worksheets represented everything I disliked about education. I still remembered spending endless hours as a student, mindlessly filling in blanks and circling a, b, or c.
My mission as an educator was to save students from the tyranny of the worksheet. We would read stories and have lively class discussions. Students would just soak it all up and turn it into their own stories.
The first night, I assigned a story for homework and wrote myself a list of discussion questions for the next day. They were open-ended and conceptual – designed to get everyone talking. But the next day, each prompt was met with dead silence. I prodded, I rephrased, I cold called. But nothing was working. Finally one student called out, “Can’t we just do a worksheet!”
This was the first of many “cold shower” moments in my teaching career. Those times when you believe so hard something will be amazing, only to find that you’re the only one who thinks so.
I quickly realized that engaging my students was going to take more than eliminating worksheets.
Graphic Organizers and Hands-On Learning
Over the years, I taught a range of subjects and grade levels. But I remained committed to hands-on learning, including projects and collaborative inquiry. While this approach engaged many students, for some, it presented a challenging transition.
They had spent years in a school system designed around lectures and memorization. For most of that time, they were asked to answer questions they had already been given answers to. They were used to grading systems that emphasized right answers over deep thought.
But the “blank page” was scary and overwhelming. They had spent years in an aquarium. I was dropping them into the ocean and exclaiming, “Swim little fishes!” But I wasn’t preparing them for the challenges of navigating the open seas.
I kept thinking back to that 7th grade student who begged for a worksheet. Deep down, I knew my students longed for independence and creativity. I began breaking down open-ended tasks into smaller steps. If we were working on a paper, I gave them a list of all the steps they should take.
One day, a colleague showed me what she called a ‘graphic organizer.’ I thought, “This is just a fancy name for a worksheet.”
But over time, I found it was easier to create handouts that mirrored my step-by-step directions. Without realizing it, I had embraced the graphic organizer.
Graphic Organizers vs. Worksheets
On the surface, graphic organizers and worksheets are a lot alike. Some educators even use the terms interchangeably. But there are some key differences that make graphic organizers better suited to hands-on learning.
One obvious feature of graphic organizers is the amount of open space. Organizers provide structure, while still leaving room for deep and flexible thinking.
Worksheets are designed to maximize repetitions. The idea is that if students repeat something enough, it will finally sink in. While repetition works in weightlifting, there is little evidence it supports meaningful learning. When students memorize lists of facts, they rarely retain the information for the long term.
Vocabulary is a great example of learning that disappears after the quiz. Vocabulary skills, on the other hand, stay with students. Graphic organizers can help students practice using resources and finding context clues.
Scaffolding a Process
I started using graphic organizers simply because my students wouldn’t follow directions. I’d read them out loud. I wrote them down. I e-mailed them to parents. But beyond two or three steps, my students would get lost.
Graphic organizers gave me a way to translate directions into visual form. This was a life saver for both big projects and in-class activities. When students were outlining their 5-paragraph essays, I created graphic organizers to help them structure their paragraphs around textual analysis.
Graphic organizers are incredibly useful for inquiry-based learning.
An ELA worksheet might ask for main characters’ names or whether a word is a noun or verb. A graphic organizer can address the same content in a deeper way. My character analysis organizer had students consider characters’ motivations and growth.
Graphic organizers can also help students solve word problems. Many students find word problems difficult, partly because there are so many steps. So-called “strategies,” such as CUBES can make matters worse. A simple organizer based on Polya’s process can better support students. It also makes it easier for teachers to understand and assess student thinking.