Concept, concept, concept mapping!

I actually really enjoy making concept maps. I find it quite a satisfying process to take several pages of content, a whole chapter, or a curriculum document, and present it all on one page, showing the links and creating an overall, cohesive graphical representation. And, of course, adding a dash of colour.

I first started making concept maps at school when I was studying. Although, they did not look anything like the ones I have made recently. Instead of using them as a summarizing tool at school, and then at university, I used them as a learning tool while I was going through content. As I was reading/studying/revising, no matter the subject matter, whether it was physics, maths, biology, English literature or art history, I constantly had a blank exercise book open beside me where I would be scribbling down key words and creating very rough concept maps. I never looked at them again or wrote neatly or used pretty highlighters (and when I ran out of paper in a book, I would often turn to the front again, and just start writing over the pages!). It was more a way to process the content and concepts I was going through, turning it into something physical and representative on paper, thereby solidifying my learning and thinking. And the key here is creating linkages between key concepts.

cmaptools-logo When I first started coordinating the project at Siyavula to produce Gr 4-6 Natural Sciences and Technology workbooks in 2012, we decided to first create concept maps of the curriculum. I used the open source software called CmapTools, which you can download here.

The first versions I created were quite sparse, but they have since been though a few iterations and now span Gr 4-9 for a strand (which is one of four themes running from Gr 4 to Gr 9 in Natural Sciences, in South Africa). These were initially intended to be used internally at Siyavula and for authoring, but when I took them to our first collaborative authoring workshop with volunteers (read more about the process here), the teachers responded very positively towards them. They had never seen the curriculum presented to them in such a way before and found them very useful to see what learners should have covered in a previous grade and where they would be going in future grades, to inform their current teaching. In the workshops, we used the concept maps as a tool for planning and a point of discussion. We had several requests for the concept maps to be used in staff rooms and teacher meetings. (You can now download all of these concept maps on our Thunderbolt Kids website.)

Life and Living concept map. Click on the image to see the large version (it is a very big image!)
Life and Living concept map. Click on the image to see the large version (it is a very big image!)

During the authoring and editing phase, I also constantly referred to the concept maps to create linkages within the content back to previous grades, so that we are building on learners’ prior knowledge, and also point out these linkages within the teachers’ guides. I strongly believe that highlighting these linkages to learners and teachers reinforces and solidifies learning.

In 2013, I then moved onto the next phase to produce Gr 7-9 Natural Sciences workbooks. I reworked the concept maps, making them more detailed and implementing new linkages which I only realised after engaging with the content in more depth. This highlights the iterative process. We used the maps again at our brainstorming workshop with volunteers for Gr 7-9 (read more about it here). This time, the volunteers really engaged with the maps, and I actually had them laminated and provided markers so that they could draw on them, adding their own notes, and I also then added some of these new connections into the files after the workshop.

Using the concept map as a tool to discuss the curriculum and brainstorm ideas at the workshop.
Using the concept map as a tool to discuss the curriculum and brainstorm ideas at the workshop.

During the production of the Gr 7-9 workbooks, I also then decided that I wanted to introduce concept mapping to learners and teach it as a skill, which they can then take forward with them, especially into the higher grades. I decided to use the end of chapter summaries to do this. Recognizing that concept mapping may not suit everyone’s studying style, we still included a written, bullet point summary of the chapter, and then also a concept map. But, the concept maps were aimed to also teach concept mapping. So, in the beginning of each year, the concept maps were more complete and had some tips on how to “fill in the gaps”, but towards the end of the year, the maps were left more and more open for learners to finish them off and also construct their own from scratch by the end of the year. I always provided a complete version of the concept map in the teachers’ guide. I say version, as this is my version of the chapter. It is important to recognize that concept maps are a personal expression and different people will have different ways of approaching the content and create different linkages. This must be encouraged. There is no wrong answer with a concept map!

As I mentioned before, I have included colour in these maps. I feel that colour can really not only add to the visual appeal, but also aid in understanding and “reading” of a map. So, for example, I used different colour palettes for each strand and also the more important concepts were darker in colour, with the more periphery content being the lighter colours. For example have a look at some of the following maps:

A map from Gr 7 Matter and Materials on separating mixtures. This is relatively easy in the younger grade and in the beginning of the year, as learners just need to provide examples to complete the map.
A map from Gr 7 Matter and Materials on separating mixtures. This is relatively easy in the younger grade and in the beginning of the year, as learners just need to provide examples to complete the map.
Gr 9_Ch 1_learner
A map from Gr 9 Life and Living on cells. Although this is the first map learners will see in this year, it is more complicated than previous grades as they have to engage with it properly in order to fill in the blank concepts.
This map is left more open towards the end of Gr 9, in the Earth and Beyond strand, as learners have to decide for themselves how they want to summarize the different stages of stellar evolution.

I have now uploaded all of the completed versions of these concept maps (used in the teachers’ guides) for Gr 7-9 Natural Sciences to Flickr. Follow this link and click on each of the strands. I hope that others around the world will also find these useful! They are all available under a CC-BY license.

At Siyavula, we are constantly striving to improve and update our content. We will soon start to rework our Gr 10 textbooks. In anticipation of this, I have produced some concept maps for some of the chapters in Gr 10 Physical Sciences. These concept maps serve as revision summaries of the content that learners should have covered in Gr 7-9, which is relevant to that Gr 10 chapter. They are not summaries of the content covered in gr 10. They can be used as introductions to a chapter for the learner or for you as a teacher to quickly reference what learners should already have an understanding of.

For example, see the concept map below which summarizes all the content that learners have covered in Gr 7-9 on electric circuits which is relevant going forward in Gr 10.

Gr10_Ch17_electric circuits
A summary concept map of all the content covered in Gr 7-9 relevant to electric circuit going forward in Gr 10 Physical Sciences.

All of these concept maps are also available for viewing and download on Flickr. Follow this link.

If you find these useful or have any comments or feedback, please do let me know. Also, if you use them in class with your learners, no matter where in the world, I would love to hear about it!ย 

Update: Several people have asked how they can download the concept maps from Flickr in high resolution. So, I created this quick step by step instruction on how to do this. See here.

7 thoughts on “Concept, concept, concept mapping!

  1. Hello dears
    How can i refer to this concept maps in my article? do you have any valid reference for DC electric circuits concept map?


    1. Hi there. Thanks for your interest. I have uploaded all of the concept maps I have created to our Siyavula Flickr photostream. For example, here is the one on Electric Circuits that summarises everything learners should have covered up to the end of Gr 9:

      These are all available under a Createive Commons By Attribution License. If you would like to make use of the images, you need to attribute us as the original author and include the link to the image on Flickr.

      Fro example: Electric circuits by Megan Beckett of Siyavula Education (CC-BY on Flickr)


  2. Hello,

    do you have the data available in another format (say, SVG), too? I’d like to tinker around with it in my sparse time ๐Ÿ™‚

    Maybe it’s possible to make it interactive, that is, a responsive website for a browser. Are web browsers available in South Africa? I’d like to make it independent from a webserver ๐Ÿ™‚

    You can contact me via email


    1. Hi Andre! The programme I used is called CMapTools and after creating it you can export in many different formats, including svg and html. I have mostly only exported them as jpegs, but can easily export as svg.

      What is your email address? If you let me know which maps you are interested in, I can send you the files.

      And yes, I definitely want to make the large maps into webpages. My idea for the large curriculum maps is to make the individual concepts across the grades link to the relevant sections in our book content, so for example a teacher could click on the concepts for electric circuits in the map across the grades, and be able to compare the content in more detail.


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