Constructivism in the classroom: mapping your way through.
Ian M. Kinchin
School of Educational Studies, University of Surrey, Guildford, Surrey GU2 5XH, UK.
Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association
Annual Research Student Conference
The Queen's University of Belfast, August 26th - 27th 1998.
The focus of this paper is the use of concept mapping as a tool for achieving constructivist learning methods in the classroom. This is discussed with particular reference to the study of photosynthesis at Key Stage 4.
The literature documenting students' misconceptions and naïve theories in science is briefly reviewed and the use of common trajectories of conceptual development as a basis for the design of curriculum sequences is discussed.
The paper emphasises an individual approach using concept mapping as a classroom tool to improve teaching and learning, and to provide a framework for classroom organisation.
Additional key words:
collaborative learning, concept mapping, misconceptions, science education.
The form of concept mapping described in this article was developed in the early 1970s by Joseph Novak and his colleagues at Cornell University. During a 12-year study of children's understanding of science concepts (see Novak and Musonda, 1991), the researchers became overwhelmed with the volume of interview transcripts that they had collected. They also found that patterns of responses were difficult to identify. Their search for a more manageable method for recording patterns of students' understanding lead to the development of hierarchical concept mapping. Historical accounts of this are given by Novak (1998a; 1998b).
Concept maps are two-dimensional representations of a set of concepts1. The concepts are arranged in a hierarchy with a superordinate concept at the top. In a school setting, this would usually be the title of the topic under discussion. The concepts are linked by arrows which are labelled with connecting words or phrases. Each concept can only appear once in any map, but can be linked to any number of other concepts. As one travels down a map, the concepts should become more and more specific and the map is ideally anchored with examples. The understanding of any concept within the map is illustrated by its connections with other concepts. An example of a concept map is given in figure 1 for the concept 'animal'. The construction of a concept map is intended to reveal the thoughts and beliefs of the author rather than a reproduction of memorised facts. The structure of a map is, therefore, unique to the author, reflecting his/her experiences, beliefs and biases as well as understanding.
The use of concept mappping is often linked to the 'constructivist' view of learning as a concept map makes a good starting point for constructivist teaching. There are many views which are grouped together under the constructivist heading. In outline, it has been usefully summarised by Novak (1993) as being based in the belief that from birth to senescence or death, individuals construct and reconstruct the meaning of events and objects they observe. For the constructivist, knowledge is created rather than discovered. Even those who have been critical of the constructivist stance have acknowledged its success in generating a significant body of empirical data which has contributed to our knowledge and understanding of difficulties in the learning of science; enabling the development of some innovative teaching methods and creating a greater awareness of the central importance of the learner (eg. Osborne, 1996). Studies reported in the literature describe the advantages of a constructivist approach to teaching biology, including improvements to test results; student attitudes and student enjoyment of the subject (eg. Lord, 1997). Constructivism emphasises that science is a creative human endeavour which is historically and culturally conditioned and that its knowledge claims are not absolute.
The development of such constructed and reconstructed knowledge can be represented graphically using concept maps. Teaching that helps this reconstruction process will lead to meaningful learning. The action of mapping is also thought to help the process by revealing to the student connections that had not been recognised previously and by acting as a focus for communication between student and teacher. This is illustrated by Novak and Gowin's statement that, "students and teachers constructing concept maps often remark that they recognise new relationships and hence new meanings or, at least, meanings they did not consciously hold before making the map" (1984: 17). Wandersee (1990: 923) went even further in his comparison of knowledge construction and cartography when he remarked, "to map is to know".
Pupils as 'meaning makers'.
By the time children begin their formal science education they have already started to develop
theories to explain the world around them, including various biological concepts. Some of these naïve theories may be in agreement with the accepted scientific view whilst others may not. Those that conflict with the accepted view are often called 'alternative theories' or 'alternative frameworks' and the points of disagreement as 'alternative conceptions' or 'misconceptions'. The range of work documenting misconceptions in students' alternative theories has been described by various authors (eg. Driver et al., 1994a; Hatano and Inagaki, 1994; Mintzes et al., 1991). These have been shown to arise from a variety of interacting mechanisms, including conflicts in the use of language in scientific and non-scientific settings; students' preconceptions from prior experiences and inadequate prerequisite knowledge of the topic under investigation. Figure 2 shows how some of these factors interact.
In the first stage of the process of conceptual change (which can also be seen as a process of construction of shared meanings between the student and the teacher), it is important for both the student and teacher to identify misconceptions within naïve theories as a preparation for further learning. This must be done so that they do not impede meaningful learning (ie. learning which is built upon existing understanding in the constructivist tradition). These points clearly reflect some of the key assertions made by Mintzes and Wandersee (1998) in their discussion of 'Human Constructivism', that:
a) Human beings are meaning makers.
b) The goal of education is the construction of shared meanings.
c) Shared meanings may be facilitated by the active intervention of well-prepared teachers.
The arguments for the use of concept mapping are developed here with reference to the teaching of photosynthesis, as a number of commonly held misconceptions have been described in detail by various studies (eg. Amir and Tamir, 1994; Bell, 1985; Bell, Barron and Stephenson, 1985; Lavoie, 1997; Stavy, Eisen and Yaakobi, 1987 and Wandersee, 1984a; 1984b). The relationships between these misconceptions are given as a concept map in Figure 3. The most fundamental and widely held misconceptions can be summarised as:
a) Plants get their food from the soil, via their roots.
b) Photosynthesis produces energy.
c) Gases (in particular CO2) are not involved in food production.
d) Photosynthesis occurs in plants, but respiration occurs in animals.
The use of concept maps to help in overcoming these conceptual problems has been described recently by Kinchin et al. (Submitted). An important function of the map is to help make the overall framework of the concept explicit. This is particularly important for complex topics (such as photosynthesis), where students display a fragmentary understanding of a topic and are frequently unable to integrate all the components to form a meaningful overview (eg. Stavy et al., 1987). Identifying these fragments of understanding, termed 'anchoring conceptions' by Clement et al. (1989), is vital as these must form the foundations for future meaningful learning.
It has been shown that the ways in which scientific understandings develop tend to follow 'common conceptual trajectories' (Driver et al., 1994). An awareness of these trajectories (gained from surveys into misconceptions such as those described above) allow certain developmental pathways to be anticipated by the teacher. From this, a careful sequencing of teaching materials to reflect these trajectories should promote meaningful learning. However, common patterns of misconception can only be loose generalisations. As Chi et al. (1994:37) noted, "even though the false beliefs of a significant minority of students may share similar elements, they are not the same beliefs". An assumption that all the misconceptions summarised in Figure 3 are held by every member of a class is likely to be erroneous and would simply substitute one set of assumptions for another, ignoring the diversity of naïve theories that may exist within a group. As students' ideas are likely to evolve at differing rates and in response to differing influences, so each student will develop a unique view of the world. Gaining access to these views and then guiding the student to build upon them seems to be the essence of the constructivist view of learning.
Within the constructivist literature, one of the most frequently quoted statements is that by David Ausubel, "The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows" (Ausubel, 1968: Epigraph). Discovering what each student knows (rather than trying to anticipate it) can be achieved in the classroom using concept maps (eg. Novak, 1990; 1996; 1998a). This has been shown to be as effective in revealing patterns of understanding and misunderstanding as conducting personal interviews (Edwards and Fraser, 1983), and is more practical as a classroom strategy. In addition to showing what knowledge a student holds, concept maps illustrate how that knowledge is arranged in the students' mind. This arrangement of knowledge and the nature of the links between concepts suggests practical implications for the student's future learning. Certain arrangements may make it more or less difficult for new ideas to be incorporated into the student's existing framework. An appreciation of this is key if the teacher is to be adequately prepared to organise learning experiences which promote shared meanings.
The increased popularity of collaborative groupwork as an instructional strategy in the sciences has been described recently by Jones and Carter (1998). They view this growth as a parallel to a perceived shift in the focus of educators from an individual (Piagetian) perspective towards a wider social (Vygotskian) perspective. Implications of this have been explored by Scott (1996); Howe (1996) and Hodson and Hodson (1998). This move towards a social development of understanding recognises the central importance of the use of appropriate language by students in a scientific context. Various initiatives have promoted the active use of scientific language through pupil-pupil interraction and pupil-text interaction (eg. Henderson and Wellington, 1998) as an attempt to reduce reliance on passive learning.
Within collaborative classroom settings, it is not at all clear that the decisions on group structure are often made on sound educational criteria rather than purely social or organisational reasons, such as simply letting friendship groups work together. Studies have shown that closely related factors variously termed 'achievement levels', 'ability' or 'status' of students will influence learning opportunities within collaborative groups (eg. Bianchini, 1997; Hirokawa and Johnston, 1989; Rafal, 1996; Webb, 1989). Some studies have deliberately arranging students in mixed ability groups as it was believed that this provides better learning opportunities for all students (eg. Mueller, 1997). However, if the ability range within a group is too wide, it is suggested by Blumenfeld et al. (1996) that in particular, middle ability students will benefit less. Rafal (1996: 291) also reminds us that "small groups occur in a larger social and academic context, embedded within a history of relations", and so the group should not be viewed in isolation, but seen in the context of the whole class. Therefore, just as some individuals within a group may be perceived by their peers as being of 'high' or 'low' status, some entire groups may also be working under similar labels. If differences within a group could be maximised (even within a narrow ability range), it has been suggested that this difference may act as a stimulant for conceptual development (eg. Mugny and Doise, 1978; Thorley and Treagust, 1987). Such differences provide opportunities for each pupil to 'stand back' from their own perspective in an attempt to co-ordinate their views with those of their peer (Wood and O'Malley, 1996). The method used by Thorley and Treagust to differentiate between pupils was to simply divided their students in two groups: those who 'knew it' and those who 'did not'. They subsequently found this to be unsatisfactory. A recognition of different concept map structures may provide a more sensitive mechanism for creating such mixed groups without the attached stigma of individual or group labels as 'high' or 'low' achievers. This would allow students with complimentary knowledge structures to be best placed to promote each other's learning in a collaborative environment.
Using concept maps in the classroom
Reviews of concept mapping studies have shown that the technique has been generally perceived as having a positive effect on learning (eg. Horton et al.,1993; Lawless et al., 1998). A summary of some of the benefits of concept mapping are given in Figure 4. Relatively few of the reviewed studies have investigated the potential of collaborative concept mapping. Investigations conducted by Roth and Roychoudhury (1992), Roth (1994) and Sizmur and Osborne (1997) used concept maps as a focus for collaborative learning and found that it could help communication between students and between the teacher and the students in a way that promoted social thinking. It is noted that such works often neglect to differentiate between individual and social knowledge (Carley, 1986) and do not analyse the degree of 'internalisation' acheived by the students after the collaboration has ended. In addition, details of group composition are not considered with any consistency.
One aim of collaborative activity is to promote conceptual development within groups as a result of interractions that generate student dissatisfaction with their own theories, (ie. cognitive conflict). To achieve this, some differentiation between potential group members is required to optimise group structure. Relative scores of naive concept maps could be used as a basis for a more subtle differentiation between students than has been described above. Differentiation between concept maps has often been undertaken quantitatively, based on the scoring protocol devised by Novak and Gowin (1984). Subsequent authors have made minor modifications (such as the relative weightings of the scoring components), but all tend towards an aggregate score of factors including the number of valid links presented; the degree of cross-linkage indicated; the amount of branching and the hierarchical structure - sometimes in comparison with an 'expert map'. This creates a blurring of what the score actually reveals. The scoring of only 'valid links' also misses the point that 'invalid' links may have a value to the student by supporting more valid links and so contributing to the overall knowledge structure that he or she is using as a basis for further learning. For example, figure 3 indicates an awareness by a student that plants may store starch, but suggests that the student considers the origins of the starch to be a direct conversion from sunlight rather than from a chemical raw material.
The usual emphasis on 'valid links' seems to contradict the constructivist philosophy underlying the use of concept maps by failing to recognise the students' perspective. The invalid links in a student's map may reveal much about the thought processes that lead a student along a particular path of understanding. The definition of a 'valid link' can also cause problems as a link may be 'valid' in terms of providing a factually correct statement, but may be inappropriate when considered in the context of the core concept under discussion. Other problems in the use of scoring schemes such as consistency have also been highlighted in the literature (eg. Liu and Hinchey, 1996; Ruiz-Primo and Shavelson, 1996).
This suggests that a more informative assessment of concept maps is required that could be used to bring benefits to the students' learning experience whilst not placing unrealistic demands on the classroom teacher. To satisfy these requirements, a more qualitative description may be appropriate. The comment was made by Stuart (1985: 80) that "to continue to rely on numerical scores ... is to risk missing ... diagnostic data used to help the pupil". For example, a numerical score allocated to the map in Figure 3, would convey little about its content or structure. Such a numerical description only seems necessary if the map is to be used for summative assessment. I am suggesting here that concept maps should be viewed as a qualitative instrument to aid the process of meaningful learning. The comment has recently be made by Greca and Moreira (1997) that most studies that have dealt with the development of naive knowledge structures, have considered them as an undifferentiated group. Analysis of naive concept maps will quickly show this not to be the case and I suggest that a recognition of this diversity may provide a tool to bring benefits to the students' learning.
Analysis of the patterns of concepts and links within a concept map may not only be used to pinpoint existing understanding, but may also give an indicator of a student's readiness to progress in a certain direction. In Vygotskian terms, they identify a student's zone of proximal development (ZPD)2 in a particular domain. A comparison of a naïve map with a subsequent collaborative revision amy indicate the dimensions of the student's ZPD at a given time (Brown and Ferrara, 1985). Such a mechanism for identifying a student's personal relevance may provide the classroom teacher with a powerful tool which may effectively suggest learning targets and provide a means of monitoring progress by revealing thought processes that generally remain private to the learner (Cohen, 1987). Traditional testing, which typically focuses on the end result of prior learning, does not expose such developmental thought processes. In such tests a student may be able to produce the 'right' answer whilst retaining fundamental misconceptions (eg. Marek, 1986).
If figure 3 is considered to relate to a student's understanding in this way, a number of target areas for teaching can be recognised within such a complex knowledge framework: eg. The student understands that Carbon is involved, but has related this to the Carbon cycle in the soil rather than to atmospheric carbon dioxide, and considers this to be providing energy (rather than materials) for growth. In part, this misunderstanding may have been promoted by the use of the word 'nutrient' which has subtly different meanings in other topic areas such as human nutrition where the term is often used to include carbohydrates. The word 'mineral' may generate less confusion in this context.
It can be seen that there is a need for the development of a qualitative system of classification for concept maps. This needs to fulfil a number of criteria and suggest answers to a number of questions if it is to be of value in the classroom:
1) As a matter of practicality, it must not be too time-consuming. If the costs to the teacher are perceived to out-weigh its benefits, then the technique will simply not be used.
2) The complexity of the map structure needs to be evaluated in terms of the degree of integration and interaction between the concepts as this relates to the ease with which additional material may be added to the existing structure. It also relates to the resilience of the framework in accommodating additions or deletions.
3) The context of the key concepts needs to be established. Does the structure show an appreciation of a broader view of the subject area or is it an isolated framework that is difficult to relate to other knowledge areas?
4) How does the structure compliment the 'expert' view implicit in the National Curriculum?
Ongoing studies at the University of Surrey will be attempting to relate these requirements to the types of concept maps gained from a range of students in order to establish a workable system of classification. This is currently under development and will be reported elsewhere.Footnotes
Novak (1998a:22) defines a concept as "a perceived regularity in events or objects, or records of events or objects, designated by a label". A working classroom definition that I have found useful is 'a word, that represents an event or object and that conjures an image in the mind of the subject'.
The zone of proximal development is defined as, "the distance between the actual development level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers (Vygotsky, 1978:86).
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This document was added to the Education-line database 07 October 1998