Order out of Chaos:
Using Concept Maps to Re-Envision Student Writing
By Mark Crane
For many students and teachers who use writing in their respective disciplines, the early stages of the writing process can prove to be almost overwhelmingly chaotic as students draw together their initial research and informal writing. This chaos I am referring to is not the chaos of James Gleick’s 1986 book of the same name, which in fact contains recursive degrees of order. Rather, I draw upon the more traditional definition, “[a] confused, unorganized state existing prior to the creation of distinct forms” (Merriam-Webster). For teachers who conference with their students throughout the writing process, the early conferences can be time consuming and occasionally unsatisfying, as instructors struggle to help students construct an organizing shape for their early drafts.
Traditional writing handbooks offer little help. Many refer to “inventing,” “discovering,” or “brainstorming” as possible methods of generating and organizing ideas. Yet most of these “invention strategies” are based upon a metaphor of discovery, as if knowledge were a hidden treasure waiting to be excavated. In addition, many invention strategies, such as listing and freewriting, may neglect the learning strategies of visual learners or gloss over the important step of making conceptual connections between generated ideas.
Concept mapping is one instructional tool that can help students and teachers make sense of the early chaos of writing, facilitate emerging patterns in research, and encourage “the development of innovative and persuasive arguments based on looking at the evidence in a very different way” (West 266). Concept mapping has been used by teachers for decades to help their students “learn how to learn,” usually as a method of defining or envisioning an existing body of knowledge. As an invention method, concept mapping combines the spontaneity of freewriting and listing while helping writers visually determine conceptual relationships between emerging ideas. Novak and Gowin, in Learning How to Learn, discuss how concept maps can be used to “externalize concepts and propositions” by visually expressing relationships between ideas (17).
Concept maps work to make clear to both students and teachers the small number of key ideas they must focus on for any specific learning task. They are a kind of visual road map showing some of the pathways we may take to connect meanings of concepts in propositions. After a learning task has been completed, concept maps provide a schematic summary of what has been learned (15).
Novak and Gowin’s use of concept maps
is strictly hierarchical and summative, i.e., they use the maps to describe
pre-existing bodies of knowledge. Yet they also hint at more creative uses:
Students and teachers constructing concept maps often remark that they
recognize new relationships and hence new meanings (or at least meanings
they did not consciously hold before making the map). In this sense, concept
mapping can be an activity that may help to foster creativity (17).
The figure at right is an example from a first-year composition class. It was created in response to my request that the students map out their research and initial thoughts about their topic prior to writing a rough draft. As you can see, this student already had a number of ideas that still require some organization. Although she told me that she was ostensibly writing about “dysfunctional families,” most of the examples and ideas that she generated dealt more specifically with incidents of domestic violence and alcohol abuse. Though not all of the conceptual relations between topics have been clearly worked out, even having a map in this state allowed me to quickly point at key concepts and discuss their possible relations, as well as generate questions to guide this student’s additional research and writing.
Maps can help writers see their writing as a series of ideas, rather than just a linear string of words separated by punctuation marks. They can also prompt writers to recognize new relationships and hence new meanings (or at least meanings they did not consciously hold before making the map). As maps go, this example from early in the writing process can help to organize what we already know and form new relationships between ideas. It doesn't, however, clearly show the relationships between the different concepts, except to group them in visual clusters.
Such initial, less-hierarchical maps can be used by teachers to get a quick overview of a student's initial research or thinking concerning a topic. This is most useful in classrooms where multiple drafts of larger papers are required. It's much easier to quickly respond to a concept map than to conference with a student who only has a pile of unorganized research materials and rough notes. These kinds of maps are also useful for helping students see the big conceptual picture during conferences, rather than focusing on sentence-level errors.
When concept maps are used to represent more developed pieces of writing, more care must be taken to establish the conceptual relationships between main ideas and subtopics. Novak and Gowin recommend using maps of this sort to grasp the structure of existing knowledge. As a means of helping students revise existing writing, concept maps can be used to show the relationships between ideas in their later drafts. Often when students are unable to insert appropriate linking words between key concepts, they discover that they haven't made those relationships clear in their writing as well.
Concept maps are not a blanket solution to the problems associated with guiding students early in the writing process. But they can provide a visual supplement to more linear invention strategies and serve as a conceptual tool for writers mired in the complexities of later drafts. Finally, concept maps may prove more useful to visual learners, providing them with alternative invention and organization strategies.
Novak, Joseph D., and D. Bob Gowin. Learning How to Learn. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984.
Dinitz, Sue, and Jean Kiedaisch. Annotated Instructor's Edition for The Blair Handbook. 2nd ed. Toby Fulwiler and Alan R. Hayakawa, eds. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1997.
Wolf, Michael Roth. "Student Views of Collaborative Concept Mapping: An Emancipatory Research Project." Science Education. 78.1 (1994):1-34.
West, Thomas. In the Mind's Eye: Visual Thinkers, Gifted People with Dyslexia and Other Learning Difficulties, Computer Images and the Ironies of Creativity. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 1997.
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