Posted in mind, social studies

Using Circle Maps in History Class

Teaching Big Ideas to a Class with Diverse Learning Needs

General educators and special educators, alike, daily face a dilemma: how do I teach high-quality, grade-level content ideas when my students have such varied learning needs and abilities?

So often, students who struggle are given a watered down version of the content, rather than the same content, taught in a different way. Similarly, students who excel are often given the same content, but given less support in learning it, as the only “enrichment.”

Using thinking maps enables a classroom teacher to deliver grade-level content, involving higher-order thinking, in a format that is understandable and accessible to the greatest number of students in the classroom.

Thinking maps are visual representations of higher-order thinking skills: defining in context, classifying, describing, comparing, sequencing, showing cause and effect, illustrating analogies and demonstrating part-to-whole and whole-to-part relationships. By using a distinct visual representation for each skill, and limiting the types of graphic representations used, students can master not only the use of the organizer, but the represented skill, as well.

Thinking Maps (Hyerle and Yeager, 2007) are distinct graphic representations of eight major higher-order thinking skills.

What is a Circle Map?

In 2007, Hyerle and Yeager described eight visual tools that could be used to show important relationships in any subject area. A circle map is one of these major thinking maps. It is used to define big ideas, such as the Industrial Revolution, institutionalized racism, or the Fourth Amendment, in context.

The basic structure of a circle map.

In the example, below, a Circle Map is used to define the concept of “storm.” The first circle contains the concept word, which is surrounded by another circle with vocabulary words used to define what a storm is. On the outside, are examples of the concept, from literature and the students’ experiences.

A primary grade example of the use of the Circle Map, to define the concept of “storm.”

I first saw a Circle Map used with adult learners in a session about cultural awareness. The concept being defined in context was the Declaration of Independence. The question being asked was, “Who did the Founding Fathers refer to when they stated, ‘All men are created equal?'”

In the center was the term, Declaration of Independence. The first circle contained a brainstorm description of the types of individuals who were the writers of the document: white men, men of European descent, English citizens, landowners, many of them lawyers, rich by that day’s standards, learned, Christian, The outside area listed other groups of people present at the time of the writing: indigenous peoples, poor, indentured servants, African slaves, people who didn’t own land, citizens from other countries (France, Germany), women, non-Christians, uneducated.

After the creation of this map, the participants discussed the question, “Who did the Founding Fathers refer to when they stated, ‘All men are created equal?'” They used the Circle Map and the difficulties faced by the groups on the outside, then and today, as discussion points.

Using a Circle Map in Connecticut History: The Millionaires of Norwich

I recently developed a series of lesson tools on the Millionaires’ Triangle, an area of Norwich, Connecticut that once served as the seat of Connecticut government (during the Civil War), and which was settled by some of the richest, most influential people in New England, during the early days of the colonies and the country.

As I read about the prosperity and philanthropy of these individuals, whose wealth rivaled that of the Rockefellers in history, I wondered to myself how far the influence of these individuals actually stretched. I used a circle map to show their reach.

I created a Circle Map in Canva, which ended up as an infographic. Although at first glance it looks more like a Bubble Map, the information is actually in concentric circles, and only surrounded by “bubbles” as a visual aid for the graphic.

An embellished Circle Map, showing graphically the influence of the millionaire founders of the city of Norwich, Connecticut. {Image credit: (c) 2019, Kim M. Bennett}

The concept to be defined, in context, is the influence of the millionaires in the Millionaires’ Triangle of Norwich (center, black circle). Using historical documents and online research, I gathered information about the businesses and government involvement of these founding fathers and mothers of Norwich, and the charitable foundations they established during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Surrounding the concept circle, I broke the information into two concentric circles, instead of a single one. The inner circle represents the major industries where the Millionaires had direct influence, through ownership or through major financing of the venture (white circles). The next layer represented the detail of the various groups of people directly affected by the ventures of the Millionaires, through their companies, their foundations and other philanthropic dealings (green circles).

In the area outside the circles, I wanted to list those groups who were explicitly absent from the influence of the Millionaires, or whose livelihood was in direct conflict with the activities of these individuals. The fact that the entire area now covered by the city of Norwich was once Mohegan Burial Ground, makes the Mohegans an important addition to the outside region of the map.

Circle Maps are not meant to be static. I could easily add “non-servant immigrants” to the outside area. If the only immigrants helped by the ventures were ones employed by the Millionaires, that would be an important fact to add. The Narragansetts were also in the region, and had a very different relationship with English settlers – they could be added to the outside area, as well. The point of a Circle Map is to give the student a better understanding of the key concept, by providing background information that helps define it for that situation, and to be used as a starting point for conversation.

A Circle Map can then be used to generate questions:

  • What about immigrants who weren’t employees? Where were they?
  • What happened to the Mohegan residents of the area that is now Norwich?
  • Is the area still influenced by the early founders? In what ways?
  • Did Uncas make the right choice for the Mohegans to work with the settlers?
  • Did the Narragansetts fair better, by opposing the settlers?
  • What happened to the foundations and businesses of the Millionaires? What still exists, today?

Using Circle Maps in Your Classroom

I would love to hear from you to see how you’ve used Circle Maps with your students. In the comments, write a link to your photo or post, let us know the grade, subject and important concept being defined. Thanks!


Mom of four, Nana to seven, homeschooler, special educator, and lover of all good things... striving to do His work every day.

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