Teaching with Maps – Lessons from “The Back of the Napkin”

Continuing a series of posts on Dan Roam’s The Back of the Napkin

Roam has a fairly expansive definition of map, one that includes not only land maps, but concept maps, Venn diagrams, org charts and more.  For instance, here’s a screenshot from an activity by Greg Kulowiec, who teaches history at a high school in Massachusetts.  Roam would classify this as a map.


As Roam writes, “North is a state of mind.”  You can use up-down and left-right coordinates to represent more than just compass directions.  Having students individually or in groups plot concepts and examples on a coordinate system according to two different characteristics can be a productive way to help students develop conceptual understanding.

I gave this technique a shot recently.  This spring I led a workshop for some incoming TAs in which the TAs reported on recent classroom observations they had conducted.  I asked each TA to describe what he had noticed during the class he observed.  (I say he because, as it happened, all of the TAs in this session were men.)  As he did, I took notes on the whiteboard, positioning the items the TA noted in particular spots around the board.  After a couple of TAs had shared, I drew coordinate axes on the board without labels.  I told the TAs that I was using a coordinate system–that the up-down axis represented a particular quality of their observations and the left-right axis represented a different quality.  I then asked them to try to infer what those two qualities were.


This was a tough task, but I think it was worth having the TAs do some analysis of my note-taking strategy.  I had to give them the first axis–that items near the top of the board were ones that were more teacher-centered, whereas items near the bottom were more student-centered.  Once I shared that with them, they had a sense of where I was going with this, and they were able to guess the second axis, more or less.  Items on the left of the board were more about course content, whereas items on the right were more about interactions among students and teachers.


When the remaining TAs shared their observations, I asked them to suggest where they should appear on the axes.  This activity worked very well as a way to embed some analytical thinking in what could have been simply an opportunity for the TAs to report their observations.

In The Back of the Napkin, Roam also provides advice for creating maps that look like land maps but actually represent connections (and disconnections) between ideas.  Roam asks, “If these ideas (or nouns, concepts, elements, components, etc.) were nations, where would their borders be-and what roads would connect them?”  Here’s an example of such a map by the online comic strip xkcd.

Note the use of cardinal directions to add meaning here, too.

The key idea when using maps in teaching is that conceptual relationships among ideas are represented spatially on the map, making maps excellent tools for exploring those conceptual relationships.  The next time you have your students brainstorm or discuss in class, try scribing their ideas at the board-and, when you do, see if you can come up with vertical and horizontal axes that might help your students make sense of their ideas.

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