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By Eugene Melnik, teacher, Coquitlam

Several years ago, I came across a teaching methodology called concept mapping. What attracted me right away was how easily it allowed students to visualize whole lessons on a single piece of paper and analyze and evaluate concepts, ideas, and viewpoints. Concept mapping also proved to be a great tool for helping students build new knowledge upon the foundation of prior knowledge, create new meaningful learning experiences, and facilitate development of self-paced, individualized learning. With further research I learned that concept maps are widely applicable and can be used in many subject areas from K to 12 and beyond. As a result, I incorporated concept maps in all my secondary social studies courses.

To create a concept map, begin with a central topic or a question you want to investigate. Ask students to brainstorm ideas that are connected to the central theme, while keeping the hierarchical structure in mind. For example, if a topic is World War II, the next concept related hierarchically to it could be “participating nations,” or “major battles of the war.” After concepts are arranged hierarchically, students connect them with arrows and short, one- or two-word linking phrases. Together, concepts linked with a phrase should form a sentence that expresses a flow of ideas and propositions forming a narrative of the lesson. Ideally, students should be able to read these propositions as ready-to-use sentences that demonstrate their understanding of the material.

First, I introduce concept mapping as a note-taking strategy. I model the process on the board and ask students to follow my lead. Gradually, I allow students to modify the process to match their own style and supplement new concepts with their own examples. Once students feel comfortable constructing maps during note-taking, we expand the use of concept maps to analyze texts and video materials, form investigative questions, brainstorm ideas, and create alternative historical scenarios. We also use concept maps for pair-sharing activities, group projects and presentations, and for daily and end-of-unit learning assessment. 

After students create an initial concept map of a topic, they review the map several times to go over the material and draw additional connections. Students verbally explain parts of their concept maps to a partner and, for homework, explain and teach a member of their household everything that was learned in the lesson, using their concept map as a guide. With verbal repetition, students can reinforce new knowledge and use their own words to explain information, activating multiple brain pathways to deepen comprehension of ideas and help move knowledge from short- to long-term memory. Through verbal pair-sharing, teaching, and guiding, students understand the “overall picture” of the lesson.

Concept mapping is an effective tool for promoting individualized learning. It provides flexibility around content, allows the use of supportive online technology, and offers an opportunity for self-paced learning. For example, when students read and analyze articles with the use of concept maps, they can interpret the content through personal experiences and meanings. Just like storytellers, they can choose to emphasize certain ideas and omit others, thus constructing their personal learning narrative. Furthermore, students can use online concept mapping software to enhance their maps through creative use of colour and style. Finally, concept mapping allows students to work on tasks at their own pace, which alleviates pressure and anxiety while improving confidence and motivation.

Additionally, concept mapping requires students to think critically and logically in searching for connections and relations between new ideas and existing knowledge. It places emphasis on fostering “higher-order thinking”: the active, intelligent evaluation of ideas and information instead of passive memorization of disconnected facts. When students continuously brainstorm new concepts, decide on their proper position on the map, and search for all possible relationships with the neighbouring ideas, they create strong and meaningful links between new and prior knowledge. 

The results of concept mapping with my students have been quite encouraging. Not only has their learning reflected a much deeper and more meaningful understanding of key ideas, but their writing and speaking have improved as well. Using concept mapping helped bridge gaps in students’ understanding of important concepts, improve critical-thinking skills, and deepen analysis of new material. So, instead of clinging to disconnected facts, my students can now retain information longer, make strong logical inferences, and connect ideas to form a holistic narrative of what they learned.

I hope you can try this methodology with your students as well!

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