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I’m still loving hexagonal thinking. And so should you.

I can’t remember where I first learned about hexagons in the classroom. But I’ve loved them ever since I started exploring the idea. If you’re already using hexagons, good on you. You are excused. (Though feel free to hang around for a quick refresher and maybe a couple of new tools.)

If you’re not quite sure what I’m talking about, you’re in the right place.

Using hexagonal thinking in the social studies classroom is a way for students to think about and understand connections between ideas, people, places, dates, events – basically all the stuff we’re asking our kids to mess with while they’re in our classrooms. Hexagons are a perfect tool for creating intentional conversations between students and content. They give you a great tool to encourage deep and critical thinking about the foundational knowledge that make up the discipline.

Why are they perfect?

A hexagon can connect with six other hexagons. And those six can connect with even more. So when you put a bunch of ideas or events, people or places on a bunch of hexagons and pass them out to different groups of kids, every conversation and every set of connections will be different, even though the decks of hexagons they received are all the same. The discussions that develop will go in all sorts of directions, with kids asking questions and justifying their connections with evidence. And this works in all the social studies disciplines.

The basic idea?

Give individual kids or small groups a stack of hexagons. Each of the hexagons has a person, place, idea, event, or whatever printed on it. All of these persons, places, ideas, events, or whatevers are part of a broad topic such as the Cold War or the New Deal or whatever. They connect them together in ways that make sense to them. And then you ask them to explain their thinking.

Maybe some more details?

So . . . let’s imagine that you want to try this as part of one of your units, say a Civil War unit. What steps are involved?

  • Start by deciding what people, places, ideas, and events you want kids to connect. Short phrases like “naval blockade by Union forces” can work as well as single words such as “Lincoln.”

Maybe like this middle school Revolutionary War version shared by KCSS past president and social studies rock star Kori Green:

  • Create your hexagons.
  • There are few ways to do this. Social studies rock star and tech tool guru Russel Tarr has create a handy hexagon generator on his Classtools.net site. This is my go-to tool. Simply copy and paste in your words and phrases and with a couple of clicks, the tool generates both a Word document for the paper version and a web-based version. (Try out this Civil War online example.)
  • Pam Hook also has a free paper hexagon generator that I like because it makes larger hexagons than Russel’s – though it’s not as easy to copy and paste. She’s also created a very cool iOS mobile app that you may want to try out if you work in a one-to-one classroom. (Though it’s gonna run you $1.99.)
  • Betsy Potash has put together a very cool hexagonal digital toolkit over on her Now Spark Creativity site. Use her how-to video for some extra tips:

  • Decide on textual or visual. Realize that visual hexagons have the potential for powerful learning. But using visuals rather than text can make connections more difficult for kids because it adds an extra layer of decoding that students must perform.
  • Decide whether this is an individual or group activity. For formative assessments during learning, I love the idea of students work together in groups. For summative, I’m thinking probably individuals. (Read on for an example of using hexagons as an individual summative assessment.)
  • Once you’ve got your hexagons made, hand them out and ask each student or group to arrange their hexagons in a pattern that makes sense and that they can defend. Whenever hexagons touch, students need to be able to justify with evidence why that connection was made.
  • After each group is finished, have students do a quick gallery walk to see how other groups arranged their hexagons. Have groups to leave behind clarifying questions or divergent thinking for other groups. It also works great to have one group member hang around and act as a spokesperson to explain that group’s thinking. Once the rest of the group gets back to their original hexagon set, encourage them to discuss whether they want to re-arrange their connections. What did they learn that may have impacted their thinking?
  • Depending on grade ability level, starting with fewer than ten hexagons is probably a good idea the first time through. Remember that these connections represent high levels of thinking. The more hexagons you ask kids to mess with, the more abstract and high level the activity becomes.
  • I like using a hard copy version – I think kids appreciate the tactile experience. Your mileage may vary. Kids can spread out the paper versions on desktops and I love asking kids to glue them down on paper for more permanent versions.Ramp up thinking by forcing students to pick three hexagons and that all six sides must be covered.
  • Ask students to take photos or screenshots of their temporary arrangements and use them to write summaries of their thinking using Google Docs or other digital tool. If you’re having kids glue hexagons down, the backside of the paper is perfect for posting their summary. These summaries should incorporate evidence to explain the connections they made while arranging their hexagons. 

(Student sample from @megankohlman)

  • You might also try using different colors for different things – perhaps red for people, green for ideas, and yellow for events. A short YouTube video highlights this variation.
  • Ramp up the thinking by adding items to the original collection that should NOT be part of the group – say . . . adding “1929 Stock Market Crash” to a collection focused on western expansion during the 1800s. Or add blank hexagons and ask kids to add terms that should be present but that you purposely left out of their collection.

Need an idea for individual summative assessment? Try using what I call the triangle.

  • In this version, you fill in the ten hexagons with content and provide each student with a copy. Then ask students to write explanations about three (or four or six or one) of the connections represented by the letters on the triangle. This version has connections between just two hexagons. You could easily put the letters at the corners where three hexagons meet to ramp up the required thinking.

Your brain should already be thinking about what this might look like in your history and social studies classrooms. Maybe you use primary and secondary sources rather content knowledge. Maybe all the hexagons are people. Or ideas. Or events. Or connect social studies content with fiction or non-fiction sources. Or editorials from different newspapers. Or images from past and present. Or combine ideas from then and now. Or you ask kids to highlight continuity and change. Or cause and effect. Or . . . you get the idea. Lots of ways to use this.

However you choose to use hexagonal thinking, add it your permanent tool belt. Cause it’s just too good not to use.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Glenn is a curriculum and tech integration specialist, speaker, and blogger with a passion for technology and social studies. He delivers engaging professional learning across the country with a focus on consulting, presentations, and keynotes. Find out more about Glenn and how you might learn together by going to his Speaking and Consulting page.

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