Whiteboarding Is A Verb: Make Thinking Visible

woman thinking

I made a life changing instructional discovery this year that I can’t wait to share with you. It’s not an app, platform, or piece of tech, but rather a suite of tools. They’re easily available and relatively cheap. They can be used in a multitude of situations, contexts, and classrooms. They’ve been around for decades, but are still utilized by the top tech firms in the world: Google, Apple, Microsoft, you name it.

What is this magical educational discovery you ask? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you…


BEHOLD! The future is now. Join the revolution.

Hear me out! Chances are your initial response to my revelation is similar to the ones my colleagues had when I kicked open the door to our teacher’s lounge and yelled “GUYS! GUYS! HAVE YOU USED POST-ITS AND WHITE BOARDS BEFORE!?” Obviously, they had. Obviously, they were unimpressed. In my defense, I didn’t really articulate my instructional revelation well (I blame the Expo fumes), so consider this post my shot at redemption. Below I’ll share some of my new favorite strategies, resources, and student work samples.


I participated in an edchat few weeks ago around John Warner’s phenomenal book “Why They Can’t Write,” and (though there were a treasure trove of amazing insight) one idea really stuck out to me was this: How often are we misdiagnosing student’s inability to generate ideas as an inability to write? I know in years past I’ve had students who, despite paying money for tutors and completing expensive workbooks, fell apart when they had to take their 11th grade writing SOL. After a few conversations with those students during my first remediation session, I started to realize that their writing wasn’t the problem, it was that every time they encountered a prompt they had nothing to say about it. They drew a big, fat blank. Enter Edstorming!

Edstorming (a remix of the innovation playbook that inspired it) can be taken a lot of different directions. I’ve had students use it to plan essays, facilitate discussion, and work on group projects. Regardless of how its employed, it always follows this general model.

Image credit to Dave Grey

Opening (Divergent)

  • Rewrite the question at the top of your whiteboard. Reread it aloud word by word.
  • Write down ANY idea that comes to mind on individual post-it notes.
  • They can be concrete details, inferences, personal connections, anything.
  • Quantity over quality. The more ideas the merrier. Not all will be used.

Exploring (Emergent)

  • Start grouping your stickynotes based on any form of pattern you can discern.
  • Draw a circle/square around your grouped post it notes. Create conceptual “labels”
  • If you’re stuck, consider these potential “idea containers” for your categories
    • Universal Concepts: Power, control, truth, love, hate, order, chaos, etc.
    • Literary Elements: Plot, setting, characters, theme, conflict, tone, etc.
    • Chronology: When did each event occur? Can you make a timeline?
    • Internal/External: Is what’s happening internal or external in nature?
    • Cause/Effect: Which ideas lead to something else? Which are an end result?

Closing (Convergent)

  • Depending on the number of categories you have, start consolidating them.
  • Consider a broader idea or concept you can file your current labels under
  • Repeat this process until you have 3-5(ish) ideas that are cohesive.
  • These “groupings” and the rationale behind them can serve as paragraphs in an essay, talking points for a Socratic seminar, exit slips, or just general formatives.

To help make it a little more concrete, here are some examples my students came up when I first introduced them to the process. Each group chose a movie and had to plan an essay that would explore the role that “power” played in the narrative. They then followed the steps listed above to open, explore, and converge their ideas to a thesis statement. When teaching my students cognitively demanding strategies, I like to start by having them use prior knowledge to ensure they can really focus on the process. Hover over each image for a little more detail on the student’s rationale.

Here are some resources for anyone interested in learning more, trying Edstorming in their classroom, or connecting with other educators who are utilizing it. For those of you on EduTwitter, I’ll also share some people I follow that are always upping the game.

Resources for Edstorming Inspiration

Concept Mapping

For anyone following me on social media, you’ve most certainly seen me beating the concept based curriculum  and teaching for transfer drum (check out this awesome webinar [and future blog posts] for more). It’s been a transformative but intuitive shift in my pedagogy and has opened up so many new doors for my praxis. The most challenging and rewarding aspect of this method is asking students to take their murky, abstract understanding of several concept and forge them in to conceptual relationship statements of steel. The way I see it, concepts are the individual threads that, when weaved together, create a tapestry of wisdom and understanding.

That said, asking students to weave that conceptual knowledge together is easier said than done. In order to make those conceptual relationship statements they must not only understand the concept on its own, but also the relationship it has with other concepts we’ve explored that unit. Enter whiteboarding!

The first few times I asked students to express these relationships I encountered a lot of blank stares and stilted conversation. After some reflection, I found some research that helped me realize the cognitive load was just too high, but whiteboarding would be a great way to help. So, I asked students to visually capture these relationships and suddenly things started clicking. By allowing students to express these relationships via pictures, mapping, and (in some cases) metaphor, the floodgates opened.

Here are a few examples from my current 10th Grade Unit: “Reason, Rhetoric, &  Narratives: Understanding the Art of Persuasion.” 

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Now, these were more exploratory than final, but allowing students to start discussing and articulating these conceptual relationships, helped them realize how all of our activities and corresponding concepts fit together like puzzle pieces. As the unit continues, they’ll have chances to return to their concept maps, tweak them, and eventually communicate their generalizations in a series of three to five written statements.

The idea of concept mapping or mind mapping isn’t exactly new, but it can be a powerful tool for anyone who’s recently shifted to a concept based model. Even if you haven’t, allowing students an opportunity to explore and refine their understanding of abstract ideas through concept maps can be a powerful tool for your instructional utility belt.

Empowering Students

What I’ve found most powerful about whiteboarding is, even when I’m just asking my students to discuss, plan, or reflect after a lesson, they’ve started using these strategies. Some students have even started remixing, tweaking, and inventing their own whiteboarding strategies to plan their essays. Below are a few examples.

I love it that when students whiteboard, they aren’t only using it as a medium to organize and convey their knowledge, but are honing a transferable strategy as well. Like I said in the opening, whiteboarding is used by businesses, consulting firms, and tech companies across the globe. There’s a lot of talk about “21st century skills” that revolve around technology, but there’s no replacement for collaboration and creativity, and if tech giants like Apple and Google value tech lite, human focused innovation, shouldn’t we? Some food for thought!




2 thoughts on “Whiteboarding Is A Verb: Make Thinking Visible

Add yours

  1. This is a great post! I don’t have formal terms, but I took a more inquiry-based approach to “the big essay” I have my seniors complete. I plan to write up a post about it really soon, and I will definitely drop you a link because I used some of these whiteboarding strategies here.

    I love this! Great work!


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