Concept Maps Teaching Strategy | Facing History & Ourselves
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Teaching Strategy

Concept Maps: Generate, Sort, Connect, Elaborate (UK)

Students sort, arrange, and connect their thoughts on an idea or question, creating a visual representation of their understanding.


This resource is intended for educators in the United Kingdom.

At a Glance

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Teaching Strategy


English — UK
Also available in:
English — US


Teaching Strategies

Designed to support History, Citizenship, PSHE, RS and English, this resource offers a variety of classroom strategies to develop critical thinking and communication skills, model democracy in the classroom, and empower students to become active, responsible citizens.

About This Teaching Strategy

A concept map is a visual representation of a topic that students can create using words, phrases, lines, arrows, space on the page, and perhaps colour, to help organise their ideas and show their understanding of an idea, vocabulary term, or essential question. Students first respond to a topic (an idea, term, or essential question) by brainstorming a list of words, phrases, or ideas they associate with it.

Then they sort and arrange the items in their list visually on a page to represent both the items’ relationships to the topic and to each other. The result is a visual representation of students’ thinking about the idea, term, or question.

This strategy provides an effective way to introduce big ideas to the class and capture their initial thinking. Students can then return to their concept maps over the course of a lesson or unit to revise them, providing a way for both the teacher and students to track individual understanding and growth.

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Lesson Plans

Steps for Implementation

Identify a topic or question that you would like students to explore in depth using this teaching strategy. Big ideas such as prejudice or stereotyping work well, as do essential questions that students can approach from different angles.

You might also use this routine to help students write a working definition of a new term or concept.

  1. Explain to students that they will be creating a concept map for the topic you have chosen.
  2. First ask students to GENERATE a list of words, phrases, and ideas about the topic you have selected. The goal at this point of the activity is to brainstorm without judgement, and encourage students to avoid self-editing their lists. After students have finished generating their lists, you could challenge them to add one more idea to help stretch their thinking.
  3. Then have students write the topic or question in the centre of a piece of paper, perhaps using their journals if you plan to revisit the concept map at a later time during the unit. Ask students to SORT the ideas from their lists, graphically organising them on the page in a way that makes sense to the student. For example, students might place ideas that are central to the topic near the middle of the page and more tangential ideas at the edges. They might also clump similar ideas together or arrange them vertically to suggest a progression. If you have the materials in your classroom, students might use colour to help sort their lists into categories, if appropriate.
  4. After students have generated and sorted their lists, ask them to CONNECT similar ideas with lines, dotted lines, and arrows. Students can write a brief explanation above each line that describes the connections they are making. Students could also create a key if they have sorted and connected using colours or different kinds of lines.

In pairs or small groups, ask students to share their maps. During this process they might ELABORATE on their maps, adding new ideas that their peers have shared, if it expands their thinking on the topic in some way. Or they might elaborate on their own after they have finished sharing and returned to their seats.


You could also use concept maps to introduce an essay topic or question. Students create their concept maps early in the unit and then return to them at key moments to elaborate with quotations, evidence, and new ideas that extend or challenge their thinking. The maps become visual representations of their deepening understanding of the complexities of the topic, and students can draw from them when drafting their essay/assessments.

Students can also use colour in a number of ways on their concept maps. In addition to using colour as a sorting tool, they could also use a different colour every time they add information to their maps and create a key so that it is clear which colour corresponds to which date. In this way, students can track their understanding over time from their initial thinking about a topic to their final ideas.

After generating their own ideas about the topic in their journals, students could share with a small group, which then creates a group concept map by sorting and connecting their ideas together. Students could share their maps with the class, elaborating after the presentations and then returning to their group map periodically over the course of the unit to see how their thinking has expanded or changed. Alternatively, you might use their individual concept maps to create a class concept map, in which every student shares at least one idea that they generated, and the class collaborates to sort and connect the ideas.

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