Thinking Maps for Project-Based Learning: Visual Tools for Deeper Learning

May 15, 2024 | Inquiry, PBL

Thinking Maps for Project-Based Learning: Visual Tools for Deeper Learning

by David Hyerle, Founder, Thinking Foundation, and CEO/Owner of Thinking Schools International

Project-based learning (PBL) is all about the journey—and every successful voyage requires a good map. A visual language for learning called Thinking Maps can help students navigate along the way. By activating critical thinking and giving students tools for planning projects, organizing ideas, and developing learning products, the eight visual Thinking Maps empower students to take charge of the learning process in a PBL classroom. 

A Visual Language for Learning 

Decades of cognitive science and educational research have validated the power of visuals to enhance learning, memory, and thinking. Making thinking visible helps students (and adults!) understand and engage with complex ideas and information. I developed Thinking Maps in 1988 to give students and teachers science-based tools for activating higher-order thinking. Each of the eight visual Thinking Maps is correlated to a specific cognitive process:

  • Defining (Circle Map)
  • Describing (Bubble Map)
  • Comparing/Contrasting (Double Bubble Map)
  • Classifying (Tree Map)
  • Sequencing (Flow Map)
  • Cause and Effect (Multi-Flow Map)
  • Part-to-Whole Relationships (Brace Map)
  • Analogies (Bridge Map)

Together, these eight fundamental ways of thinking underlie virtually all learning activities. As students use the visual tools consistently across content areas and grade levels, they develop fluency in the cognitive skills behind them. The Maps act as a “visual language for learning” that helps students activate critical thinking for deep comprehension, planning and organization, communicating ideas, and creative expression. That makes them ideal for project- or inquiry-based learning. 

Visual Tools for Project-Based Learning

PBL is a student-centered, multi-disciplinary process that requires high levels of critical thinking and engagement on the part of students. PBL requires students to take a more active role in the research, planning, and development of an original end product. However, many students have not developed the necessary critical thinking and metacognitive skills for success with these types of open-ended projects. Students and teachers both benefit from having visual tools that provide structure for the PBL process. Thinking Maps can be applied across all phases of PBL.

1. Project Planning: Thinking Maps aren’t just for students—they are also powerful planning tools for teachers. Teachers can map out the whole project process on a Flow Map, set expected outcomes using a Multi-Flow Map, and analyze standards using a Brace Map. 

2. Project Launch: As teachers roll out the project with students, the visual Maps help students understand project steps and expectations. Students and teachers may also use Thinking Maps to brainstorm and organize ideas together at this stage. 

3. Project Implementation: Students can use Thinking Maps in a variety of ways during project implementation. For example, planning their own process, gathering research notes, and developing ideas for their final project. Having a shared visual language facilitates collaborative learning and project planning by making it easier for students to communicate their ideas and build consensus. 

4. Project Conclusion: The final element of a project may be a presentation, report, video, art project, model, performance, or community event. Whatever the final product is, Thinking Maps can act as springboards for creation. Students learn to speak or write off their Maps to turn their ideas into tangible outcomes.

5. Project Debrief: Visual tools help students activate metacognition and evaluate their own and others’ work. For example, a Double Bubble Map could be used to compare and contrast solutions developed by two different teams, while a Multi-Flow Map might be used to analyze the outcomes of a community project.

Throughout the process, Thinking Maps provide a framework for gathering, understanding, developing, communicating, and evaluating ideas. Applying them within the context of PBL helps students develop fluency in the critical and creative thinking skills that students will need both within and beyond the classroom. These are valuable and transferable thinking skills that will serve them well wherever their journeys take them.

Drew Perkins talks with David Hyerle, Founder of Thinking Foundation and CEO/Owner Thinking Schools International, about the use of Thinking Maps to help learners in and outside of PBL.

Listen on Apple Podcasts

You can learn more about Thinking Maps and the cognitive research behind them at or by visiting my Substack

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