Episode 83 of The Informed Life podcast features a conversation with information designer and author Oliver Caviglioli. Oliver is a former special education headteacher who’s written a series of books on how to teach and learn more effectively by visualizing information. His latest, Organise Ideas1, which he co-authored with David Goodwin, reviews the science and practice of using graphic organizers for teaching.

Graphic organizers are diagrams that help us organize and visualize information. They’re not about making information more attractive or engaging but about clarifying relationships, distinctions, and patterns. Used in conjunction with texts, they help students learn better.

In this conversation, Oliver shared how to effectively use such diagrams in the classroom. E.g.,

the secret to using diagrams when you’re teaching, is to develop the diagram slowly and make sure, always, you’re absolutely clear that all your listeners know that when you’re speaking, they know which part of the diagram you’re talking about.

There’s an interesting tension in using such means to help students learn more easily: it’s possible to make things too easy. As Oliver put it, “The more cognitive effort you exert, the more you learn. There are no free rides in education.” The key is to use these means to reduce extraneous loads — i.e., unnecessary friction — from the process.

Graphic organizers aren’t free-form diagrams. There are particular types rooted in the ways we understand the world:

there’s four structures underlying knowledge. Let me just go through them. The first one is “defining things.” Which is the whole and the part, or chunking. Chunk up, chunk down. The tree diagram, a mind map, anything like that where we look at the relationship between the part and the whole, which is also called nested knowledge. And it goes all the way back to Aristotle when he talked about categories and the subcategories and super and subordinate, all that stuff. The bits and the whole.

Another major structure is “comparing.” This is the learning skill that all humans have, whether they ever go to school or not. We learn by comparing. Comparing two things in front of us, or comparing one thing of what we already know. Always comparing. It’s the bedrock of learning. So we’re always comparing. Which of course was the ideal advertising structure: before and after! Before, my clothes were this dirty. After, I tried that soap, they’re just sparkling and clean. Before and after. It’s still one of the most powerful ways to explain something. A process.

Those two are to do with things, generally. And there’s another two to do with processes. One is “sequencing”: temporal connections. And then, and then, and then, and then… and it could also go towards continuum, you know? So, sequencing. And then the next one seems to be the same thing, but it’s not. It’s “causal connections.” Just because something precedes something doesn’t mean it causes it. And of course, that’s often the reason for many children to have fights on the playground because they don’t understand that just life isn’t like a billiard ball. Something’s happened way before, which could be said to be causal.

These ways of knowing the world transcend teaching and learning; we can apply these concepts towards better understanding in other situations. Oliver’s book explains how (and why) to use graphic organizers. Our conversation touches on some of the salient points, but not all. I encourage you to check out both the book and the interview.

The Informed Life episode 83: Oliver Caviglioli on Graphic Organizers

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