Learning maps (Knight, 2013) are graphic organizers that can support student learning and growth through a focus on the big idea and the connections that link it to the content. 

In our work as instructional coaches in a school where learning maps have significantly impacted instruction and driven conversations around curriculum, we have discovered important and effective coaching practices as a result of working with and coaching teachers on creating learning maps for their classrooms. Teachers enjoy the amount of voice and choice they have in creating and implementing maps, and end up improving the impact of the maps on student learning based on their own as well as their students’ perspectives.

When entering learning map work, teachers start in many different places.  Some teachers can sketch a learning map quickly, beginning with the big idea, while others work from the unit details, building up to the big idea.  When helping teachers develop their big idea, we have found the following question helpful: “If your students could tell you at the end of the unit in one sentence what the unit was about, what sentence would best summarize their learning?”  Almost all teachers can answer this question, and the answer usually becomes the big idea for their map. 

In addition to the big idea, some teachers need support in constructing and using the maps.  Templates help many get over the initial hurdles with regard to construction, enabling teachers to make their own style and design choices.  Some teachers also need support with the physical use of the maps in class. Some teachers use OneNote on their tablets to write on their maps while others use a document camera.  One teacher uses butcher paper!

In the process of coaching teachers through their beginning struggles, we wrestled with how to make the learning maps more impactful for both teachers and students.  We knew that using the strategy as a part of Impact Cycles would leverage the greatest success, but we did not know where to start with regard to helping teachers set PEERS goals.  When bringing this up with Jim Knight, he suggested using student attitudinal data to measure success and make changes, as needed, based on students’ perceptions of the maps.  This idea helped make maps that better served teachers’ goals while also meeting the needs of all students. 

After deep learning about the strategy and how to use it for an Impact Cycle, we started looking at how to improve the maps – a task that all three stakeholders – teachers, students, and coaches – took seriously. 

Teachers began to dig into a few vital areas of improvement, in particular, the importance of connections.  Many teachers wanted to improve linking words and how all of the ideas connected to the main idea.  Eventually, they moved from making maps on 8.5×11” sheets of paper to 11×17” folded paper with the maps on the inside. Thus, they used the front and back of the maps for learning targets, schedules, checklists, thesis statements, etc., utilizing every inch of the map in important ways.

Students also played a role in the improvement process. That is, through attitudinal date, they provided great insight into what was working and what needed to be improved to help their learning.  While they overwhelmingly found this to be a useful strategy, they had great suggestions for how to improve the maps.  In one class, for example, students said that they needed more space to write. The teacher at first didn’t see how it would be possible to add space, so she decided to give the students paper and have them demonstrate how they would create more space.  As a result of being given voice to help the teacher make the maps better, students reported feeling a sense of pride and ownership in the maps.

Effective use of learning maps is a complex strategy that requires a big-time commitment. As coaches, we realized that it was important not to overwhelm teachers at the beginning to give them voice and choice with regard to how to approach the work.  We discovered the best way to honor that is by not putting too much emphasis on a given area of the map when a teacher isn’t ready.  Teachers will come back through the improvement process, and in time make maps that work even better for their students’ learning.

This strategy has created a culture of deep learning and engagement around big ideas and connections at our school.  It has helped teach us a great deal about the partnership principles, as well.  And finally, learning maps have not only helped create clarity and focus for teachers, they have also helped our coaching program to grow.


Knight, J. (2013). High impact instruction: A framework for great teaching. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Click here to access map templates and examples that illustrate our learning map work.