Concept Mapping by Dr Kerry Gilbert

Last week we had our annual Small Group facilitators conference (the first one for PU PSMD). Taking the opportunity to reflect and report on our joint reflections on problem-based learning and jigsaws and the common ground and interplay between the two, Anne St Aubin-Roberts and I presented a session on what we had found out to stimulate discussion, which it certainly did! More of that later, as I wanted to use my first blog to concentrate on one skill that can be used in most educational settings, one which has amazing power in generating understanding, critical thinking and transfer of knowledge in a group setting and that is: Concept Mapping.

Based on the educational theories of Ausubel and developed by Novak and Gowin, concept mapping provides a visual representation of concepts organised in a logical (often hierarchical) way. It builds on the power of the more often recognised Mind Maps (proposed by Tony Buzan) in that it calls for the builder to include ‘linking’ words or phrases, to make sense of the concepts presented and, it is these linking words that provide the power to help understanding and critical thinking – so what? I am hearing you say – how can that make the difference? Well, in one sense, it is simple – by having to agree how one concept links with another, you have to understand each concept and why and how they relate to one another and therein lies the power! If you take a simple concept, let’s say dog – that conjures a picture for most people, you probably have one right now?! But, is that picture the same one that I have in my mind, or the same as the person sitting next to you right now, or your son’s or your wife’s, or anyone else’s for that matter – actually, chances are no it doesn’t (unless you have a family pet and you all think of Fido!). However, when considering this concept, we all know what a dog is – so what is it that gives us a consensus picture of a dog? We have to consider all aspects and generalise to agree, which aspects are fundamental to our understanding of a dog and what are the other factors that flesh out that understanding to provide the picture we conjured up when I introduced dog as a concept a few minutes ago. Thus, we need to really know and understand what a dog is to be able to produce a useful concept map that conveys the sense of that concept in a meaningful and useful way. We have to think critically, using deductive reasoning skills to develop our understanding to the point that we can convey our ideas to somebody else. Once that discussion is completed, we have formed a firm understanding of the concept we sought to describe, which is embedded and remembered and then can be subsequently transferred to other situations and scenarios. In this sense concept mapping provides a power tool to aid understanding and develop learning – maps can be linked, so as more learning is added, understanding is improved and knowledge based is increased, surely a recipe for sustainable lifelong learning?

All this sounds great – so why aren’t we doing it? As far as I can see, the main barrier to using this technique is that it is difficult. Supplant ‘dog’ as a concept with ‘health’ or ‘education’ and you can see my point! How do we reach consensus in concepts with such a diversity of meaning? Getting agreement in such fundamentally held ideas and beliefs requires an understanding from each person involved, which will allow them to formulate a map that represents the key elements that describe a given topic, whilst still allowing the freedom for individual interpretation and opinion.

From my point of view, it is the complexity of these subjects that really illustrate the power of concept mapping. The fact that we need to discuss and critically appraise – maybe even argue about the fundamental ideas that underpin such concepts means that we truly have to deconstruct our own ideas and beliefs to drill down to the nub of the concept. Once we have done this, we can reconstruct, incorporating our own opinions and views, which are based in our individual experiences and ideas, but with a deep and critical understanding of how we came to those ideas. To do this individually is difficult enough, but in a small group setting with 8-10 others who have to agree the final map, surely this will set us up with a far more diverse and memorable understanding of our topic, which will shape our development as we continue on our lifelong educational journey?

Dr Kerry Gilbert

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