Maps and Other Useful Representations
is a Concept Map?
map can be thought of generally as a pictorial representation of a system.
It often includes concepts or ideas, enclosed in circles or boxes, that
are represented in a hierarchical fashion. They show relationships between
concepts, indicated by a connecting line, with words on the line specifying
the precise relationship. Good concept maps include cross-links, or relationships
between concepts in different domains of the concept map, and specific
examples of events or objects to help clarify meaning of a given concept.
1: Sample concept map created using Inspiration Software (click for
(Used with permission from http://www.inspiration.com)
map captures an overall system in a visual representation so we can at
once perceive the level of complexity in a way that we can not immediately
comprehend from a narrative description. Concept maps also help in the
process of refining and adding new ideas to an existing framework of knowledge.
One can think of learning as adding to, refining, and revising the concept
map of your mental model.
is no definite prescription for drawing concept maps, as they are simply
"a schematic device for representing a set of concept meanings embedded
in a framework of propositions", or "meaningful relationships
between concepts in the form of propositions."1
To accommodate alternate ways of thinking and knowing, it is important
to retain this fluidity of definition. However, it is also important to
show students various examples, or better still, devote class time to
have them generate maps, and discuss the alternate representations of
the same set of related concepts, and the clarity of communication necessary.
mentioned earlier Fritjof Capra's six properties of ecological systems.2
These properties will often arise as indicators of a good concept map.
Once again, they are:
Interdependence, diversity, complexity
Scale and limits
Recycling of resources and partnership
Energy and resources
Succession and co-evolution
balance: Self- organization, flexibility, stability, sustainability
of Concept Mapping
map was born out of the constructivist theory of learning, which holds
that the learner constructs or builds his/her own knowledge, as opposed
to the previous notion of knowledge as something that was acquired through
direct transfer from books or experts. In the constructivist theory of
learning, information can be acquired, but knowledge is pieced together
only through the incorporation of new information or ideas into the framework
of the learners existing knowledge. Constructivism is based on two
principles first noted by Von Glaserfield, cited by Cheek :
Knowledge is not passively received but actively built up by the cognizing
The function of cognition is adaptive and serves the organization of
the experiential world, not the discovery of ontological reality."
[Cheek 1992, page 63].
elaboration of this model and an extensive bibliography is found in the
book by Dennis Cheek on using constructivist approach to teach STS (science-technology-society).3
words, it is only when the learner begins to recognize and to understand
relationships between existing ideas and concepts and newly-presented
meanings that internalization truly occurs, making the new information
accessible as part of the learners active reservoir of knowledge.
D. Novak and D. Bob Gowin are cognitive psychologists who expanded our
understanding of the uses and benefits of the concept map with the publication
of their book, Learning How to Learn.4
David Ausubel, a cognitive psychologist who was at the forefront of constructivist
thought--and whose research and findings strongly influenced the work
of Novak and Gowin--explains that "the acquisition of new materials
is highly dependent on the relevant ideas already in cognitive structure
meaningful learning in humans occurs through an interaction
of new information with relevant existing ideas in cognitive structure."
of Concept Mapping
across the spectrum have discovered many useful functions for the concept
most common uses generally fall under three basic categories:
SUPPORT: Provides an important format and direction for planning and
generating new ideas.
AID: Facilitates effective note taking, summarizes newly learned concepts,
or lends some structure or activity to reflective thinking.
TOOL: serves as visual aid or schematic summary, demonstrates complex
relationships, or provides a means for assessing of understanding or
purposes of this class, we attempt to expose students to many of these
beneficial applications; however, we primarily use the concept map as
an instructional tool.
diagrams are central to encouraging students to construct their own worldviews
or "mental models," and reflect upon relationships and systems.
Because students have experiential knowledge about the environment, it
is important to use their frameworks as a starting point of learning.
We use the student's existing experiential knowledge to obtain a their
"mental model" as the starting point. This model is used to
lead to the framing of the environmental problem in the context of the
relevant environmental system. We then follow analysis, synthesis and
evaluation as steps to decision making.
is also at the heart of the constructivist approach to teaching and learning,
which treats learning as "meaning making". The use of such maps
serves as a primer for active learning in which students organize their
prior knowledge for the present context, and prepare to modify or add
concepts and relationships. Practically, such a start for a topic also
serves as a tool for brainstorming, to spark discussion, and for the teacher
to observe and correct existing misconceptions. The
learning environment provided by starting a topic in this fashion also
conveys to the student that there are alternate frameworks for representing
and dealing with knowledge.
Visual Tools for Constructing Knowledge, perhaps the most useful
primer on a variety of simple learning diagrams, David Hyerle states that
learners can use learning diagrams "to become independent, flexible,
and interdependent builders of knowledge."5
draw concept maps of environmental phenomena or of a configuration of
environmental entities. Economics, politics, organizations, individuals,
science, and technology all interact with the environment. They influence
and are influenced by the environment. Concept mapping provides a systematic
way to capture the relevant elements of a system.
Notes on Efficacy
a concept map, the mapper must always keep in mind the ultimate purpose
of his/her final product. The many uses of the concept map bring varying
levels of organization or methods of presentation to ensure that the maps
goals are most effectively fulfilled. Concept maps can be held to different
standards of organization or consistency depending on their intended purpose.
Novak and Gowin would emphasize that there is no "right" or
"wrong" way to organize a concept map-they express time
and again that different learners will come up with creative and innovative
ways to represent concept relationships on paper. They do, however, offer
three basic guidelines for assessing the relative value of any given concept
that concept maps are most effective as an instructional tool when the
map-reader has at least a basic prior knowledge of the subject. In this
sense, a map is beneficial as a visual aid for summarizing or supporting
ideas already presented in another form. Concept maps are capable of demonstrating
complex relationships clearly and efficiently. However, if offered without
supporting material, the perceived vagueness and complexity of the map
can be overwhelming and intimidating, inhibiting the process of comprehension.
Also, because important concepts are often reduced to a single word, the
map-presenter must ensure that the meaning and implications of the word
are not lost or misconstrued. For these reasons, it is most desirable
to offer some sort of explanation or guide to the map, be it verbal or
ways of drawing relationships among concepts are inherent to representing
and reflecting on a systems view of a subject in question. Diagrams for
representing knowledge frameworks, or logical sequences, have been used
in many disciplines under differing names such as concept maps, flowcharts,
hierarchical, and cycle maps--as well as more analytical tools such as
decision or probability trees--are also diagrams in this category, each
with a different definition and purpose. Flowcharts are used to show sequences
of events or activities or causal links. Hierarchical maps may show the
relations - usually hierarchical - of various positions in organizations,
including ecological niches. Cycle maps show the "closed loop"
nature of processes in nature including biological or chemical cycles.
These are particularly relevant to environmental issues as conservation
of matter in nature often occurs by cycling of critical components. Thus
we have the water cycle, or the carbon cycle. Cycling materials also becomes
a cornerstone of ecological practices, as discussed extensively by Barry
Commoner.6 "Closing the circle"
is at the root of many emergent paradigms for design, engineering, and
industrial production such as Green Design, and industrial ecology, that
we discuss elsewhere in this book. Probability or decision trees are analytical
tools often used in decision making in tracing the paths alternative decisions
may cause the event or system to take, and associating with them the likelihood
and consequences of each decision.
All of these
tools are valuable means of expressing concepts and relationships, helping
students in the process of defining and redefining their own mental models.
Novak, Joseph D. and D. Bob Gowin. Learning How to Learn, Cambridge
University Press, 1985. Page 15.
Capra, Fritjof. The Web of Life : A New Scientific Understanding of
Living Systems, New York, NY: Anchor Books, 1996.
Cheek, Dennis. Thinking Constructively About Science, Technology and
Society Education, State University of New York Press: Albany, NY,
1992. Page 63
Novak and Gowin, 1985.
Hyerle, David. Visual Tools for Constructing Knowledge. Association
for Supervision and Curriculum Development: Alexandria, VA, 1996.
Commoner, Barry. Closing the Circle ....