Hexagonal Thinking: A Colorful Tool for Discussion
Cult of Pedagogy 2020-09-12
Listen to the interview with Betsy Potash:
While hexagonal thinking is not new in the world of business and innovation, it’s just making its way into the classroom. It’s a method for considering the connections between ideas and finding the nuances in those connections. If you’re looking for a fresh framework for discussion and critical thinking, this may be just the thing.
How it Works
When you place an idea on a hexagon, it has six sides where connections could be made to other ideas. When you place many ideas on many hexagons, the discussion about where to connect what will be different every time.
If you gave the same seven idea cards to seven people, do you think you’d get the same seven webs of interconnected hexagons? Would the people explain the connections in the same way?
And really, that’s the beauty of hexagonal thinking. It provides a springboard for a totally creative discussion. When you give a small group of students a deck of hexagons and ask them to connect them however they choose, every group will come up with a different web for different reasons. Along the way they’ll hopefully question each other and dig deep into the concepts on the cards, arguing about which idea connects more to an important concept and which example deserves one of those precious six sides.
Let’s imagine you’ve got your students in small groups, and each group is staring at a beautiful deck of hexagons.
I recommend you kick off this activity for the first time by giving directions something like this:
Once you have your set of hexagons, it’s time for your group to begin making connections between them. Your conversations now will be about showing how and why you think the different ideas and options connect. Everyone will see things differently, and that’s OK. Just keep talking until you find the connections that stick. As you discuss your ideas, use the text to find supporting evidence for why you think your connections are strong ones.
Each hexagon can connect to up to six others. Arrange and rearrange until you feel you have the strongest hexagon web in place that you can. Then begin explaining your connections with connection arrows, writing in why you have created intersections between key hexagons.
Everyone in the group will contribute differently, and that’s OK. You need to have people listening and moving pieces to create the web, people debating, people asking questions.
By the end of your discussion, you should have an interconnected web of concepts along with clearly explained connections. If you’re working with paper hexagons, tape or glue them down to another sheet of paper to secure them, or take a photo of your finished web. If you’re working digitally, submit your two slides: the finished hexagon web, followed by the slide with your explanations.
There’s a lot of room here for students to participate in their own unique ways. For me, part of the point of the activity is for students to see that everyone can take on different roles that matter.
Let’s take a look at what this might look like in your classroom. In this case, I’ll share digital examples created in Google Slides, since you may well be leading your discussions and small group activities via online channels this year. But paper hexagons are equally wonderful when you can use them.
Example 1: English Language Arts
First let’s take a look at a hexagonal thinking discussion for an English class, wrapping up a unit on 1984.
Here’s the set-up, with the terms listed in individual (moveable) text boxes.
Now students can discuss the placement of their terms/hexagons. In this case, rather than shifting paper hexagons around, they will go into the Google Slide, then drag and drop their terms across the slide and into the web of hexagons as they decide where to place them.
Now that the students have made their connections as they wish, they need to explain their choices. This can take place in many ways:
- Students could record arguments for one or two connections on a tool like Flipgrid,
- Students could write down their analysis.
- Groups could collaborate to write explanations for several of their connections or present them back to the class.
Take a peek at what the written explanations look like for the web pictured above. In this case, students are sharing five explanations, but you could adjust that to suit your needs. Some connections are always going to be more interesting than others – the ones that generate the most debate, the surprising ones, the ones where three key sections link in one place. Have students write or present about the key connections, rather than about every single one.
Example 2: Science
Now let’s take a look at how this might look in a science class. Imagine you’re looking back over a unit on global warming, and helping students review the big ideas.
Here’s the set-up: For this version, students can move the hexagons as well as the terms, creating any number of different webs. Then they use the connection arrows to point to the intersections they are going to explain in detail.
Student groups discuss the possibilities, dragging the hexagons and terms into place as they go. The final product could look one hundred different ways.
Once they have their web created, they make their explanations.
Creating Your Hexagonal Thinking Decks
You can create decks of hexagons with the terms already inside (let your students help you cut them out!) or print blank hexagon sheets and invite student groups to brainstorm the concepts to put inside before their discussion.
No matter how you create them, you want the hexagon decks to be filled with the key ideas of your recent class work, as well as interesting ties across disciplines and to the modern world. Hexagonal thinking makes it easy to cross disciplines and bring relevant modern connections into the discussion.
- Let’s say you’re creating a hexagon deck for Jason Reynolds’ book, Long Way Down. You’ll fill it with characters, themes and style elements, but also with figures from the news, current political movements, similar books, and background information about the author.
- Now imagine you’re creating a deck for a unit covering an artistic period. You can put in key terms and artists, but also important authors and political figures of the period, and artists and movements of today that connect back.
As for making the shapes themselves, there are lots of time-saving options, whether you want to use digital hexagons or paper ones.
- Get access to your free copy of the digital hexagonal thinking toolkit featured above right here.
- Create your own digital hexagons with PowerPoint or Google Slides by following these instructions: (VIDEO)
- Use this online hexagon generator
- Print and laminate these free rainbow hexagons, then add concepts with dry erase markers for quick discussions.
- Print blank sheets of hexagons (you can easily create these in any size using the shapes tool in PowerPoint) to give out to small groups of students, then ask them to generate key terms, ideas, connections to other disciplines, connections to the modern world, etc. on their hexagons and cut them out. Then have groups switch decks so they are discussing a fresh list of ideas.
- Create your own hexagon templates with terms you can change up whenever you want to do a hexagonal thinking discussion. Cut them out while watching New Girl on Netflix, or make the first step of the discussion in class to cut out the hexagons while beginning to discuss how they will connect.
A fun addition to any paper deck is a set of connection arrows. Print a few bubble arrows (again, the PowerPoint shapes tool makes it easy) on paper for students to put in at key intersections. Have students fill them in with their explanation of the connection. Sticky notes will also work well.
Wondering how to grade this?
There are a few ways you could grade hexagonal thinking. You could have everyone write a short reflection at the end about their contributions, and grade that. You could use it as a springboard into a writing assignment, asking students to explain and argue for key connections from the discussion, then grade that. You could have students present about a key connection on Flipgrid. Easy.
But I want to suggest a slightly more complex option too. Recently I interviewed Sarah Fine, co-author of In Search of Deeper Learning. One of her findings, after years of study across American high schools, was that we rarely ask students to truly collaborate in our core subjects, so we don’t really create a culture of interdependence among them. They don’t get to use their individual gifts to contribute to a final product created by the team, although that is often what real-world projects look like. Instead, we favor what she calls “lockstep learning.” Everyone must do the same thing, separately.
So maybe for hexagonal thinking, you grade the final group web. And you ask the kids to share about how their different strengths allowed them to contribute to the final product.
Maybe some kids are super brainstormers, coming up with lots of great terms and ideas for what to put on the hexagons. Maybe one or two students in the group are great at lettering and drawing. They could create beautiful visual representations of the terms and ideas. Maybe some students shine at leading discussion. Maybe some are natural at making spatial and visual connections, and can help move the hexagons around as they listen to the group. Maybe some are excellent listeners, and can be taking notes about the connections based on what they hear from others. Maybe some are good mediators, who can help find common ground and calm down heated debates when discussion gets intense.
If you go this route, I really think it’s worth discussing in advance what project teams are like in the workplace, and how people contribute in different ways. Then, at the end, you might let kids write a short paragraph about how they contributed based on their own strengths and skills, and whether they were happy with the way the group dynamics turned out.
Variations and Additions
Individuals or Partners
This would certainly work as an individual assignment or a prompt for partners as well. But with a small group, you’ll get more perspectives on where to place what, which can be nice. You might consider giving students the option to work alone, with a partner, or in a group.
If you and your students are fans of sketchnotes or one-pagers, you can always add a visual layer to your hexagons. Invite students to illustrate their concepts with representative imagery and add quotations from their texts to bring more meaning for each idea into the conversation.
This is certainly not necessary, but adds dimension to the discussion and the eventual display of the concept web.
Once your students have completed their webs, you can do a gallery walk to see each other’s concept webs and check out the connections their peers have made (this can be done online through a collaborative Google slides presentation), or have each group in turn present briefly back to the class about some of their most interesting connection points. The hexagons that caused the most debate will probably be the most fun to share back, and everyone will get to see how others mixed and matched the same hexagons in unique ways.
When you bring hexagonal thinking into your classroom—whether that’s online or in person—you bring a fresh spark of energy to discussion. Your students will see things in new ways as they seek to connect wide-ranging ideas. If you’re finding it difficult to get kids talking this year as they transition into new scenarios, you’re definitely not alone. Hexagonal thinking just might be the tool you’re looking for to help your classes over this transition and back into their critical thinking zones.
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