Concept maps are useful tools for graphically imagining ideas and making connections between ideas. They help clarify concepts, both by representing the ideas more clearly than an image and by requiring the mapmaker to clearly understand the concepts while making the map. As such, they can be tools for research or for learning. Concept maps rely on several psychological observations: our tendency to think hierarchically (maps have the most important item at the top), our ability to remember images far better than to remember words or numbers, and the need to make connections with prior knowledge or ideas in order for learning to be meaningful.
Importantly, concept maps move beyond pure rote-memorization and help find and understand connections between multiple ideas rather than, potentially, one or no connections. For example, the “Height of the Sun above Horizon” in this example is connected to “Amount of Sunlight,” “Summer,” “23.5 Degrees Tilt of Axis,” and “Winter.” To state and explain all those connections in a paragraph would take much more space and time than in this map. These connections can help clear up misconceptions about things, such as what causes the seasons, and help students and researchers learn more meaningfully.
To better understand concept maps, and how to create them, you can read the great explanation at: http://cmap.ihmc.us/docs/theory-of-concept-maps
So how can they be used most effectively in a Latin or Classics classroom? The IHMC website contains several suggestions for how to use concept maps as student projects or to evaluate students’ understanding of ideas. They also recommend that concept maps be used for answering a “focus question.” So, they are probably more helpful for explaining ancient culture and history than they are for explaining Latin–though I can imagine a concept map that usefully explains why language-learners need to pay attention to case endings.
Perhaps a concept map to help explain certain lessons or an entire class would be very helpful. For example, this idea seems very appealing for the mythology class that I will be teaching in the fall. At Ohio University, mythology is often taught thematically instead of focusing on one god or goddess. On the first day, we could brainstorm “What is myth?” While talking about this very broad topic, I would be able to gauge my students’ prior knowledge and ask leading questions to help hit the themes of the course, such as “Sources of Myth”–both how ancients knew myths and how we know myths–to connect it to ideas that they already know about, such as stories or jokes or parables, and to ask why it matters that they learn about myth. While we are brainstorming, I could develop a rough draft of a concept map on the chalkboard. On the second day, I would present a nicer looking concept map based on this brainstorming and introduce one of the themes that we will focus on for the next several days. Throughout the course, I could return to (and add to) the concept map to show how our new theme/idea relates to other themes, or to help students make explicit connections between prior knowledge and each new day’s lesson. In this way, concept maps could encourage students to make connections between the course’s themes instead of presenting them as discreet, unrelated ideas, which they most certainly are not.
Tools for Making Concept Maps
- Prezi (Free with signup) – this can also let you easily present the concept map to a large audience
- CmapTools (Free with signup) – used to create the image(s) on this post but required me to download an old version of Java
- OmniGraffle (Pretty results but not free)