Could we crowd source concept maps for what we teach? #ResearchED #Touchpaper

At ResearchED Birmingham last weekend, Alex Weatherall and I used our presentation to sound out the delegates on an idea that stemmed from our previous discussions on Touchpaper Problem 4: determining the complexity of a concept. Many thanks to everyone who attended and listened to us. Even more thanks to those who have since been in touch with reviews, comments, questions and suggestions.

Physics concept map

I have blogged previously about why a concept map is a useful thing:

  • … it makes you think about the order you do things in as a teacher.
  • … it helps you pitch work at the right level for your students.
  • … you can become more confident in sequencing units of work.
  • … it identifies gaps in your own subject knowledge.
  • … it provides you with a diagnostic for correctly identifying your students’ misconceptions.
  • … it can help you pre-empt difficulties.
  • … it involves identifying threshold concepts that probably take more time to teach.
  • … it could help you work out an assessment structure.

The question then becomes about what is the best way of putting together a concept map for school subjects that is

  1. comprehensive enough to serve these uses.
  2. tailored for teachers.
  3. accurate.

Our inspiration is two-fold: Galaxy Zoo (and the Zooniverse) that crowd sources the classification of galaxies, and Wikipedia which invites contributions from all, but has an editing policy to ensure accuracy (click here to have a look at the different levels of editor you can get to!). We would like to see if it is possible to create an interactive software that over time would help display and categorise the key concepts in the subjects that we all teach.

We do not think this work would need to be done from scratch. Although it may seem like a daunting task, the plethora of curricula, schemes of work and concept maps already in existence means that many teachers are already doing this. We need to find the best way that this can be shared and coordinated.

In our research to date we have encountered several key thoughts around complexity that have influenced our approach:

1) Complexity is not the same as difficulty

When something is complex it is because it is made up of many parts. This can be objectively determined by identifying them. When something is difficult, the pupil finds it strenuous, requiring more effort. This might depend on prior knowledge and is subjectively determined. However (and this is where it becomes a little confusing), there is usually a correlation between something that is more complex also being more difficult. This is because if something requires more prior conceptual understanding, it will be more cognitively demanding.

2) Some concepts are more important than others

There is a lot of research, spearheaded by Jan Meyer and Ray Land, into Threshold Concepts. I highly recommend that people read a short introduction to the idea here, from which I pull the following definition:

A threshold concept can be considered as akin to a portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something. It represents a transformed way of understanding, or interpreting, or viewing something without which the learner cannot progress. As a consequence of comprehending a threshold concept there may thus be a transformed internal view of subject matter, subject landscape, or even world view. This transformation may be sudden or it may be protracted over a considerable period of time, with the transition to understanding proving troublesome. Such a transformed view or landscape may represent how people ‘think’ in a particular discipline, or how they perceive, apprehend, or experience particular phenomena within that discipline (or more generally).

 Alex and I propose that if it is possible to map concepts and how they link to each other, it is possible to identify which are the key threshold concepts as they will probably have the most links, bringing together a varied, and perhaps unexpected, range of subject concepts. This is a hypothesis that will need testing, but might provide an answer to the Touchpaper problem as it might determine the complexity of concepts.

3) Linguistic complexity is important

In many of our discussions, Alex and I felt that some concepts were more difficult because they were not easy to explain in words. We also know from teaching that homonyms and homophones can cause pupils difficulty because they confuse meaning. What we propose, is that a concept map may include a linguistic dimension. This might take the form of a glossary or links to the etymology of key conceptual terms and provide teachers with a tool that both improves the definitions that they can give of each concept, and helps identify potential misconceptions before they happen.

Is this not just remapping a national curriculum?

No – a curriculum includes detailed content as well as concepts, but is prescriptive. It does not give you a complete map of the subject area as it has already selected what must be taught. This is not to say it is wrong, but it does mean that as a teacher you might be unaware of the full complexity of a concept and how it links to other areas of the curriculum. This is a particular problem when teaching non specialist subjects as happens frequently at primary level, and between subjects such as mathematics and physics at secondary. A particularly pertinent example might be the new computing curriculum which requires an understanding of binary, which is not included in the mathematics curriculum (as far as we are aware!). From a brief survey of the teachers at our ResearchED session, most agreed that a large, accurate and detailed concept map would be a useful tool to improve the planning of units of work.


There is still a long way to go with this project and many questions to resolve. At the end of the presentation we proposed a timeline for anyone who is interested to get involved in the project. If you don’t think we’re completely bat crazy – do complete the form below and we’ll be in touch.