Nine-year-old Pascal Caviglioli loved reading. He would spend an hour or so a day with his Tintin books, his stories from the Oxford Reading Tree, his well-thumbed copy of The Twits. Sometimes his parents heard him acting out the best bits in his bedroom, muttering favourite lines or giggling over a joke.
But, at a parents' evening, Pascal's mum and dad were given the bad news - Pascal had remarkable decoding skills but understood little of what he read. Most of the time, the teacher explained, he was merely "barking at print".
Oliver Caviglioli was not happy with this diagnosis. As a special school headteacher, he knew enough about Down's syndrome to recognise that Pascal would always have learning difficulties. But surely there was a fair amount of understanding there? Otherwise why should a child under no pressure to read at home rush daily to these storybooks, often rereading them time and again?
So Oliver sat down with Pascal and his current book - an abridged version of the Wizard of Oz - to talk. Who were the characters and what were they like? What happened, when and where? What were the consequences? As they talked, he jotted key words down on a piece of paper and, to amuse Pascal, doodled little pictures to go with them. Despite his difficulties with language, Pascal added to the key words. By pointing, and borrowing his father's pencil to draw lines, he indicated relationships between characters, and the sequences and consequences of events.
By the end of their chat, Oliver knew two things. First, Pascal understood a lot more about his book than either his teacher dreamed of or his limited language allowed him to explain. Second, this annotated conversation had a significance beyond Pascal's reading ability. Indeed, that day had consequences for Oliver's attitude to education that have transformed his life.
The methods by which he had represented Pascal's understanding - the combination of words, images and spacial connections - were "mapping" techniques he had used himself for many years. So far Oliver had used mapping - as many people do - to take notes, to organise his thoughts when planning a talk or a piece of writing, to aid creativity or analyse ideas. But this conversation with Pascal had provided graphic evidence that mapping is more than a useful study skill. It is a tool for representing meaning.
"Pascal used the map to demonstrate what he understood. And once he could see what he understood, he could understand some more."
From then on mapping became one of a repertoire of tools through which Oliver helped Pascal learn and express his understanding. "I could map things to help me explain them," says Oliver, "and Pascal could map to show he'd understood - to make his learning visible." It also became a major tool in Oliver's repertoire as a teacher. "At the heart of teaching is explanation," he says, "and at the heart of learning is understanding. Mapping aids both of these. You can use the same tool for both purposes."
With his colleague Ian Harris, Oliver began to investigate ways of usin mapping in teaching and learning - and the possibilities seemed endless. In the vexed area of teaching writing skills, for example, they devised a routine called DOMming, short for Dump, Organise, Map, which helps pupils organise their thoughts before beginning to write. Indeed, once they had seen the educational potential of mapping, Oliver and Ian could not understand why it is so little applied in the education system as a whole. "It tends to be seen as a technique either for special needs or the very able. And it has unfortunate associations with a particular sort of cleverness - such things as the Mind Olympics."
They also noticed that people who ran courses recommending mapping often did not use the technique themselves. "Or they could demonstrate it but not tell you how to do it - or how to teach it. They assumed a level of understanding about basic thinking skills which most people don't have."
In order to map satisfactorily, Oliver and Ian decided, you need first to be able to label your thoughts, then find similarities and differences between them, then sort and categorise, and finally see relationships between the whole and the parts. These stages are illustrated in the DOMming technique. Two years ago they began running their own MapWise courses for teachers, introducing these techniques, explaining them and how to apply them in various learning situations.
They have just completed a book, MapWise - Accelerated Learning Through Visible Thinking. "But mapping is just the beginning," says Oliver. "We're already beginning to see how making thinking visible can help in all sorts of educational contexts." I have to agree. I have booked to do talks with them called LiteracyWise, on the applications of mapping in teaching writing skills. Once you have tried it, you tend to see what they mean.
Sue Palmer is a freelance writer and literacy INSET-provider. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
* OUTLINE OF DOM TECHNIQUE
WHEN presented with a topic on which to write, the pupil is encouraged to: Dump: This is a general brainstorm, when the pupil jots down any key words that come to mind.
Organise: Next the pupil sorts through the words, grouping them together. Often the reason underlying a choice of grouping is obvious and easy to explain; if not, the pupil must search for a label. Each group requires a word or phrase to express the underpinning idea. Extra key words may be added at this stage and some may be dropped.
Map: At the centre of the page the pupil writes the original topic, then draws from it a labelled spine for each conceptual group. Radiating from these spines are arranged the words from the Dump (or those words on which the pupil has chosen to focus), with further lines illustrating any inter-relationships.
Again, new ideas may emerge during this process, which can be added to the map.
Finally, with thoughts organised and structured, the pupil is ready to write.
For information about MapWise and LiteracyWise courses: email@example.com 'MapWise - Accelerated Learning Through Visible Thinking' by Oliver Caviglioli and Ian Harris (Network Press), paperback pound;14.95, hardback pound;23.95.
Tel: 01785 225515