Concept Mapping for Complex Thinking
Technology for Learning
by Bob Coulter
One of the ongoing challenges teachers face is helping students to forge connections. Beyond memorizing names, dates, and other isolated facts, we want students to see how things are organized and the ways in which they are linked. When everything is separate, each item needs to be accessed and recalled as a discrete entity.
Just as we help students develop the ability to organize their papers and books, we need to help them to organize what is on those papers and in those books. At the very least, stuffing everything into the great bookbag of life makes it hard to locate what youre looking for. More important, however, is the lack of conceptual connections when everything remains separate. To shift the analogy a bit, are we helping students pile up more and more building blocks, or are we helping them to build elegant structures?
Unfortunately, traditional schooling and much of popular culture work against this structure-building. Most textbooks and efforts at mass assessment favor isolated facts over substance, but the problem goes much deeper. The controversy that erupted this summer over whether Pluto is a planet presents a great opportunity to engage science students in issues of operational definitions and categories, instead of just memorizing planets.
Immediate responses focused on how soon textbooks (as the repositories of all things wise) could be updated, and how the MVEMJSUNP (My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nine Pies) memorization tool for the order of planets was being upset. Clearly an American icon useful in helping generations of students pass their astronomy test was at risk. While some of this press-posturing was decidedly tongue-in-cheek, the fact that the discussion is even an issue is indicative of how far schooling can stray from being an intellectual endeavor if we leave the curriculum to being a collection of loose pieces.
Helping our students to view the world through organized systems offers one powerful means to combine their loose blocks and build up elegant cognitive structures. As a means to that end, concept-mapping software offers a flexible tool for building, sharing, and critiquing models. Over time, many find that having access to such a tool becomes an indispensable part of their thinking repertoire. Once you start thinking in terms of systems its hard to stop!
To start, two examples are provided here of how concept mapping can advance typical elementary school science investigations. These examples use Kidspiration, the kid-friendly version of Inspiration ( http://www.inspiration.com), since these programs are commonly used in schools. A wide range of other programs is available. A web search for concept-mapping software reveals a plethora of options for different computer platforms, some of which can be downloaded for free.
Cause and effect
Perhaps the simplest use of concept-mapping software is to show cause and effect. Under what conditions do plants grow well? Among other considerations, they need water, light, and good soil. A simple diagram can be constructed showing how these factors lead to good plant growth.
Going further, a common elementary grade experiment investigates what happens when a plant has most of these conditions but one is removed. For example, how well does a plant grow when it has no access to light? An experiment I did with my students once tested this with sunflower seeds, with the resulting plant being reasonably well developed, but a pale milky white instead of green. Without the light to feed photosynthesis, the normal coloration doesnt appear.
Using Kidspiration, the students could show the results of their experiment, comparing the different outcomes realized by having or not having access to light. One possible representation of this is included here.
Students could then add digital photographs to their project, showing the causal link and the results. One could argue that the photographs by themselves show the outcomes, but a concept map can show the full scope of the project, helping students to document the thinking behind the experimental design, the inputs, and the outcomes. In all, this leads to a more comprehensive view of the project that ideally can become recursive, promoting thought about what else could be changed in a second round of testing.
Displaying local food webs
In the ecology field labs we run for students at the Litzsinger Road Ecology Center (a division of the Missouri Botanical Garden), we start with careful observation of attributes and behaviors of the organisms found on site. One of the common extensions past this initial phase of observation is a consideration of where the organism fits in the ecosystem. From where does it get its energy? Which animals are likely to prey upon it? This avenue of inquiry, of course, can lead to a very engaging look at adaptations: What features allow an animal to eat and not be eaten?
Students can use concept-mapping software to capture these relationships, showing what sources provide energy to the plant or animal in question, and which animals in turn rely on it for energy. This multi-layer thinking is an essential part of developing ecological literacy, promoting understanding that everything is connected to something else.
As your students mature, the complexity of these models can grow to reflect ever more interconnections, but even simple webs in the elementary grades are a great start. In terms of ecosystem thinking, creating a model of your local food web helps students to visualize what might happen if there were a shortage of a particular prey species or an abundance of a particular predator.
As these examples show, adding concept mapping to your curriculum can help students to integrate their metaphorical blocks into larger conceptual structures, showing how one factor affects others. Paper and pencil concept mapping is extremely valuable, but the benefit of software-based models is the ability to quickly revise or expand a model based on new insights or critical feedback. Whether your students build their models with software or with quick sketches, they are on their way to becoming systems thinkers.
©2006 by Synergy Learning International, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
- Bob Coulter is director of Mapping the Environment, a program at the Missouri Botanical Garden's Litzsinger Road Ecology Center that supports teachers' efforts to enhance their science curriculum through the use of the Internet and geographic information system (GIS) software. Previously, Bob taught elementary grades for 12 years.