K-12 Teaching and Learning From the UNC School of Education


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Although the curriculum is divided into subject areas, educators realize that it is essential that we help students to see the relationships between subjects. Anyone who has worked in education for even a short time is aware that students tend to see math as being used only during math periods and language arts only during that period. Particularly at the high school level, our classrooms often represent boundaries between subject areas for many students.

One of our greatest challenges, then, is to present knowledge to students in a way that will help them to reconstruct it and to see the relationships between subjects. There are a number of options available to assist teachers in this. This article focuses on the use of concept maps as a tool for instruction, learning, and evaluation. Because concept maps can serve a number of purposes, they are a great productivity tool and time saver.

A great solution: concept maps

A simple yet very effective tool for presenting information visually can be found in the use of concept maps. The wealth of research into learning styles and brain research tells us that it is easier to make meaning of new information when it is represented visually. Concept maps have been used for quite some time in numerous disciplines. Joseph D. Novak of Cornell University is credited with having developed the idea of concept maps and has done extensive research on their use. He provides a concise explanation of concept maps, their nomenclature, use, and effectiveness in his article "The Theory Underlying Concept Maps and How to Construct Them." In the past five to ten years, educators have begun to use them more frequently as tools not only for conveying information and helping students to understand concepts on their own, but also as evaluation tools. Concept maps are also useful for summarizing units of study or introducing them as an advanced organizer. When students are asked to create a concept map to explain a concept and/or to show relationships between domains of knowledge, they are using the higher order thinking skills of synthesis and evaluation according to Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Software options

Several commercial products exist that help teachers and students alike to create concept maps. Perhaps the best known are Inspiration and Kidspiration, which are widely used in the K–12 environment. Both of these programs allow the user to create concept maps using a library of symbols and other drawing tools. Their website even uses a concept map to illustrate the concept. The company offers a free trial download that is well worth the effort. If you read Novak’s article, you will notice that he has his own version of concept-mapping software, which can be downloaded for free. Please note that it is not as “kid-friendly” as Inspiration or Kidspiration and that it comes with several usage agreements.

Free options

If you do not have access to programs like these, then the web offers a number of free tools that will allow you to print concepts maps from your browser. If you need a blank map but don’t have the time to create one, take a look at the Canadian site www.2Learn.ca. This site houses a large collection of educational resources for educators produced by an alliance of organizations from the province of Alberta. Available in both French and English, one of the most attractive features of the site is the Teacher Tools section. From this page, click on Our Tools at the top of the page. There are numerous teacher productivity tools in this section, but since you can only look at one at a time, take some time to explore the Concept Map Assignment Builder in the drop-down window for Teachers. This page offers fifteen different blank concepts maps that can be customized and printed from the browser. The templates for these maps allow the teacher to customize the following information at the top of the map page:

  • Teacher name
  • Title or topic of concept map
  • Instructions for the student explaining how to complete the map

Concept maps in context

Concept maps belong to a larger category of teaching/learning/evaluation tools called graphic organizers. Graphic organizers are tools for organizing and presenting information. The choice of which type of graphic organizer to use is based on the particular skill to be addressed. For example, a Venn diagram is a graphic organizer commonly used to show the unique characteristics of two different entities like a book or an event as well as characteristics the two have in common. In other words, Venn diagrams are well suited to compare/contrast activities. The Graphic Organizer website contains a nice Index of Graphic Organizers and their primary functions. If you want to begin your use of concept maps but would prefer something low-tech, consider using note-cards or sticky notes as the nodes of the concept map. The background could be any flat surface. Marker boards or white boards are great for this activity, since you can easily move the sticky notes around on the board and redraw the connecting lines. Once you begin using concept maps, you will easily imagine many applications for them, professional and personal. As my own personal time saver, I am going to create one to help me organize my desk until I find a time saver to do that for me.