SEO concept. Idea of search engine optimization for website as marketing strategy. People make web page promotion in the internet. Vector illustration in cartoon style
ATD Blog

Using Graphic Organizers to Develop Critical Thinking Skills

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Want to know how successful you’ll be in life or how well your company will compete in today’s volatile climate? It is hard to predict future outcomes like this, and it requires critical thinking performance. More than ever, the world needs critical thinkers to solve our complex problems. But these skills are trending in the wrong direction. Rather than getting better at recognizing fake news, evaluating information sources, or making rational decisions, we’re getting worse.

The good news is that you already have a tool for reversing this trend and developing critical thinking skills in your organization: the graphic organizer. This post explores an exciting application for this ubiquitous tool, which will teach people how to think.

Critical Thinking Is a Survival Skill, and We’re Losing It

Critical thinking is a term that covers a collection of cognitive skills that help us get along in the world. Our ability to evaluate what we read, recognize false and unsupported claims, question the validity of sources, and make connections between multiple sources of content are all critical thinking skills. The British Journal of Educational Technology identifies critical thinking as one of the essential digital literacy competencies, and our collective abilities are trending in the wrong direction at an alarming rate.

Since Nicholas Carr alerted us to how the internet is changing the way we make decisions, the global loss of critical thinking skills can be measured in terms of the increase in a vast amount of conspiracy theories. Obviously, we can’t solve all those problems with a simple tool, but you can help your team make incremental improvements in how they process information, recognize patterns, and make decisions.

How Can Graphic Organizers Help?

A graphic organizer is any visual representation of information in a structured, visual form. There are many types—mind maps, content maps, story maps, and infographics—of specialized graphic organizers.

If you’ve ever inserted a table into your training materials, you’ve used a graphic organizer. But the power of graphic organizers isn’t in how easy they make it to consume information—it’s what happens in our brains when we create one. Let’s say you have a portfolio of products that new employees need to learn. Some products are great for large enterprise solutions, while others are better for small to mid-size companies. So, you decide to make a table.

Enterprise Solutions
Small and Midsize Solutions
Product A

Product B

Product X

Product Y

To prepare this table for learners, you needed to evaluate features of each product in terms of its potential to benefit each type of business. That’s an example of critical thinking. (Notice that the one who’s doing the critical thinking is the person who builds the table, not the one who refers to it later.)


A Stimulus for Our Lazy Brains

Your brain is essentially lazy. It has evolved to find the simplest path towards any decision. This pre-wired preference gives us the ability to navigate a complicated world and prevents “paralysis by analysis,” but it also gives us confirmation bias, echo chambers, and other barriers to becoming our best selves. When actively comparing and evaluating information, recognizing patterns, and choosing a means of representing these connections, your brain works harder. And flexing those cognitive muscles is the best way to build them over time. When graphic organizers become a learning activity, they become an exercise in critical thinking.

The Key Takeaway

Stop making graphic organizers for your learners. Invite them to construct their own ones instead. The cognitive benefits derived from the regular practice of developing their own tools can improve overall thinking skills in your learners. In addition, they’ll remember those connections better. Add an exercise where learners get to share their organizers. This social learning component will aid in critical thinking development through the exchange of ideas and debates about conclusions, trends, and patterns.

A Word of Caution

Because the work of creating a graphic organizer is a high-load activity, it must be a focused activity. If you ask learners to build an organizer while you’re presenting content, the cognitive load is too great and you may hinder comprehension and retention.


Other Great Things You Can Do With Graphic Organizers

Let’s not forget that traditional approaches are still valid strategies for knowledge management, content summaries and review, reinforcement, and other important stages in the learning process. You’re probably already familiar with the potential for infographics to make data more visually accessible. Check out this list of 50 types to see how flexible these tools can be in the hands of a skilled designer. Also, consider this great example for using graphic organizers to drive innovation, as shared by MJ Hall.

Getting Started

There are many online tools that help create visually compelling organizers. Here are some to get you started (but don’t forget PowerPoint, a good place to begin on a budget):

The Bottom Line

The act of building a graphic organizer builds the cognitive skills necessary for critical thinking. It’s an easy way to introduce a fresh approach that can develop thinking skills across your curriculum.

About the Author

Margie Meacham, “The Brain Lady,” is a scholar-practitioner in the field of education and learning and president of LearningToGo. She specializes in practical applications for neuroscience to enhance learning and performance. Meacham’s clients include businesses, schools, and universities. She writes a popular blog for the Association of Talent Development and has published two books, Brain Matters: How to Help Anyone Learn Anything Using Neuroscience and The Genius Button: Using Neuroscience to Bring Out Your Inner Genius.

She first became interested in the brain when she went with undiagnosed dyslexia as a child. Although she struggled in the early grades, she eventually taught herself how to overcome the challenge of a slight learning disability and became her high school valedictorian, graduated magna cum laude from Centenary University, and earned her master’s degree in education from Capella University with a 4.0.

Meacham started her professional career in high-tech sales, and when she was promoted to director of training, she discovered her passion for teaching and helping people learn. She became one of the first corporate trainers to use video conferencing and e-learning and started her own consulting company from there. Today she consults for many organizations, helping them design learning experiences that will form new neural connections and marry neuroscience theory with practice.

“I believe we are on the verge of so many wonderful discoveries about how we learn. Understanding what happens in the brain is making us better leaders, teachers, parents, and employees. We have no limits to what we can accomplish with our wonderful brains— the best survival machines ever built.”
—Margie Meacham

Sign In to Post a Comment
Thanks for this article and for the embedded links!
I really appreciate your Key Takeaway and Word of Caution tips!
I'm glad you enjoyed it, Dawn! I can't take credit for the format. Our editor Alexandria Clapp, makes sure that I always include Takeaways!
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.