Advance Organisers

Giving your students the Big Picture

It’s important to present new material to our students in a way that makes the most of how our brains learn: with the big picture, and with the details.

There is growing evidence that the brain needs two versions of the material being taught:

  • The big picture of the whole topic.
  • The detailed knowledge.

Teachers sometimes forget that they already have the big picture and assume that the students will build it as the topic develops. Of course some do, but the big picture needs to be taught alongside the detail for effective learning to take place.

A great way to present both big picture and detail is to use an Advance Organiser.

An Advance Organiser gives students the big picture before they start to learn the detail. Advance Organisers can be graphical, but they can take any form, like telling a story. 

One option is to do something like the mind map below. You might say: “We’re learning about elephants, and it’s going to cover trunks and ears, and legs, feeding and communication. We’re starting with ‘trunks’ today.”

At the start of the next lesson, you refer back to the Advance Organiser, review the last lesson, and then introduce the next lesson on Ears. This builds the big picture and the fine detail in the students’ minds in tandem.

A diagram showing an example of an Advance Organiser

A variation would be like the table below. You can start off with the right column blank and then slowly fill in the table as the topic progresses.

A diagram showing a table example of an Advance Organiser

 Rule 1: Use non-technical language.

It’s important that the Advance Organiser communicates the information immediately and only in language that the students already know. It shouldn’t contain technical language that they haven’t learnt yet.

For example, if you’re teaching photosynthesis, you shouldn’t start with: “Photosynthesis is how plants make food”. What you should do is say: “This topic is about how plants make food.” Once they have learned a bit about the process you can explain that the word we use is ‘photosynthesis’.

The evidence suggests that the technical language is much harder to learn than many teachers realise. Simply telling people doesn’t work. It seems to take more than three repeats because you need to know what the words means as well as learning the actual word.

Photosynthesis

Let’s use our photosynthesis example. You’ve introduced the term in the first lesson. Maybe the next lesson you say: “So, we learned about how plants make food, does anybody remember what the word is?” Perhaps nobody remembers what the word is and you have to repeat it, or get them to look in their notes.

Then in the next lesson you say: “So, we’ve been talking about photosynthesis, does anybody remember what photosynthesis is?” You have to do this many times before the link between these auditory sounds ‘pho-to- syn-the- sis’ actually starts to make sense to most students.

Anecdote

During a training session, one teacher struggled with an Advance Organiser for the literacy material she was covering. She had written lesson objectives like: ‘Write a letter’ and ‘Fill in a form’ but was struggling. “This doesn’t tell them what it all adds up to. I’m having trouble articulating it to myself. No wonder they have no idea!”.

 Rule 2: No more than 5 elements.

You shouldn’t have too many elements, because it would get too confusing. We suggest five or six as the optimal amount. This is to do with working memory capacity.

As the topic progresses, you could add information to the Advance Organiser. If you’ve used a mind map, you could add more details. If you’ve used a table, you might like to add another column for technical language and gradually complete the table.

Anecdote

A carpentry tutor said that his students tended to get a bit bored in the first year because they came to the course wanting to know things like how to fit a door, but found that they had to spend the whole of the first year on basic skills like sawing, using a plane and cutting a mortice. He now planned to put up an Advance Organiser in the workshop with ‘Fitting a door’ as the main heading and then showing all the skills needed to be able to do this, so that the students could then see the task in context. He thought that that would result in the students being less bored in the early stages of the course, because they could see how what they were doing today fits into the bigger picture.

Why are Advance Organisers so effective?

The reason they’re so effective is because they work in the same way that the brain learns. If we look at the visual cortex, we can see that it does two jobs at the same time. One route (the ‘what?’ route) looks at the detail, while the other (the ‘where?’ route) looks for the big picture.

This distinction also gives us a bit of insight into one of the causes of dyslexia. Reading is almost always done in the ‘what?’ pathway. However, visualising and planning (for example, a building) happens in the “where?” pathway. Everyone is on a spectrum with some being better at ‘what?’ and others better at ‘where?’.

An image showing how the brain processes big picture and detail

Advance Organisers give the big picture, using the ‘where?’ pathway. In order to understand something, you’ve got to have both the detail and the big picture, so it’s best to alternate between the Advance Organiser and details work.

For example, you might create a mind map and add it as you go along with technical language and other details. This mind map would then reflect the way information is stored in the brain, with the sub-branches reflecting how things are categorised.

So, teaching our students in a way that reflects how the brain stores memories means that our teaching is more likely to be effective. However, we need to practise so that we get out of the habit of forgetting about teaching the big picture.

Anecdote

I did this activity with the staff at one college. The teachers at one table were not doing the activity. I asked: “Do you not think this is a useful thing, or do you already do this?”. They said: “Oh yes, we already do it”. When I asked them what they did, they said: “We always photocopy the specification for the course and give the students that at the beginning of the year”. Of course, they had completely missed the point!

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Activity 1: Learn more about Advance Organisers

Here are a few places to go for more information on Advance Organisers. The video below is introduced by Ceri Dean. Skip to 1 min 40 for the section on Advance Organisers by Elizabeth Hubbell – she gives examples other than the graphical version.

The video below is an illustrated clip by Andy Johnson, which shows a variety of approaches to Advance Organisers. He calls them ‘Advanced’ rather than ‘Advance’ – it’s important to make this distinction, since they actually aren’t at all ‘advanced’ or difficult!

There’s some great information on Advance Organisers here, with lots of excellent examples.

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Activity 2: Make an Advance Organiser

Using material from the topic you have chosen, choose a style for your Advance Organiser, then sketch it out using these two guidelines:

  • No more than 6 components.
  • No language the students do not know already.
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Activity 3: Checking the Advance Organiser for understanding

Remember, even though you know this topic quite well, your students don’t. This means you might be a poor judge of whether the Advance Organiser is appropriate. You can check this by giving it to your students and listening to their questions. Ask them if it makes sense. Do several students not know the meaning of some words?

Because it takes this checking process to make an effective Advance Organiser, you can save time by sharing them around the department. As they are so effective (and take little time to use) you might even like to make it department policy that every topic has an Advance Organiser available for it.

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Activity 4: Advance Organisers at different levels

The Advance Organisers described above are for a topic that would last a few weeks.

You could also make an Advance Organiser for the whole year, or even the whole course. Keep referring back to them: “Remember, last year we did… This year we are learning about…”.

Anecdote

Sally teaches in an Further Education college. She draws her Advance Organiser as a jigsaw puzzle. Initially all the pieces are coloured red. She changes the colour through amber to green as the students show their learning.

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Activity 5: Other big picture/ fine detail methods

There is another highly effective method, which works the other way around.

In this method, your students have covered a lot of new material and the task is to make notes, or to summarise the material. The students take in all the detail and draw out the big picture, while an Advance Organiser gives them the big picture first.

Image credits

Header image: http://regex.info/blog/2008-07-03/856

Photosynthesis image: http://www.allposters.com/-sp/Green-Tea-Bud-and-Fresh-Leaves-Tea-Plantations-Nature-of-Kerala-India-Posters_i10864289_.htm

Activity image: https://uk.pinterest.com/pin/215469163399087997/