Constructivism In the Classroom: Concept Mapping for NGSS

Hands on learning with elementary science studentsAs a science teacher for over 20 years, I’ve seen a lot of teaching strategies come and go. Today, the focus is on Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) to help prepare students to join the workforce of the future. The teaching methods required by NGSS are based on constructivism – the idea that learners actively create new knowledge and understanding based on what they already know. Concept mapping is one way to help students link new ideas to knowledge they already have.

You can think of a concept map as a graphic organizer that can help students visualize how different concepts connect to each other. They help students improve critical thinking skills and make deeper connections about new concepts by understanding how they relate to what they already know. Teachers can also use concept mapping as an NGSS assessment tool to jumpstart engaging classroom discussions and as a way to hold students more accountable for their own learning journey.

KnowAtom’s hands-on science curriculum puts the constructivism learning theory into practice with phenomena-based lessons that connect students with concepts as they occur in the real world. It encourages student-centered learning and strengthens STEAM education in the classroom and has been shown to improve student engagement levels as well.

Identifying Learning Gaps Using Concept Maps as an NGSS Assessment Tool

I am using KnowAtom’s science curriculum to show how you can use concept mapping to improve students’ understanding of core concepts, but you can use them in any curriculum and for any subject. The first way to implement concept mapping is as a pre-assessment tool. They can be used early on to help teachers understand how much students know about the topic at hand. As many students re-enter the classroom after a year of virtual learning, using concept maps can help teachers identify learning gaps and understand where to begin.

A concept map is a great way to find out:

What do they already know? What do they need to know?

Here’s an example: in a pre-assessment a student makes a strong connection between precipitation and flooding, for instance, writing “too much water or rain” and drawing a line between the two words. This shows that the student has a high level of understanding about what a flood is and how it connects to the concepts of evaporation, precipitation, and the water cycle.

Concept map for climate

Concept mapping gives students the opportunity to show their mastery of core NGSS concepts from previous lessons and teachers the ability to identify knowledge gaps, vocabulary needs and provide just-in-time supports for accelerated learning. Concept mapping can serve as a great kick-off activity for students, helping them to connect new ideas with previous concepts and lessons. With student-centered learning based on constructivism, concept maps give students more autonomy over their own learning process.

Using Concept Maps When Teaching NGSS STEM Education

Concept mapping can also be used as a formative and summative assessment tool. Instead of asking students to memorize and respond to new vocabulary words and definitions only, concept mapping tests whether they are making deeper NGSS connections within the subject matter. This gives students more accountability for their own learning, as they make connections between new and past concepts, share the results of their critical thinking with the NGSS class, and prove their theories during assessments.

Concept mapping provides a great opportunity for discourse in the classroom when used to jumpstart engaging science discussions led by students, rather than instructors. The student centered learning tool asks students to defend their own thinking, question their own ideas and those of their peers, and sparks lively classroom debate in Socratic seminar. Here’s an example of how concept mapping works within the KnowAtom NGSS science curriculum, where they are used in every grade level K-8, every science lesson, and every NGSS unit taught:

Blank Concept Map for Sun

This one was created by a teacher from the blank concept map provided by KnowAtom. For this grade one concept map, you can see it's simply vocabulary words that represent the big ideas of NGSS concepts that students will tackle in the next unit. It also includes NGSS vocabulary words they may have seen before – in prior lessons or grade levels or in the "real world." You can see that students simply connect concepts (from science to sun) and dictate or write words or phrases that explain why they connected them.

I admit that when I first saw the sample concept maps from KnowAtom, especially for older grade levels, I thought "I don't think my kids can do this." Here's an example of a completed concept map from the higher grade levels (Grade 7 NGSS science class):

Concept map for energy and matter

Seeing this the first time, I felt very overwhelmed, and I almost didn’t use it because I felt so threatened by it. But when I introduced the concept map routine to my 5th grade NGSS science students, their response was absolutely not what I expected. In fact, their understanding was already much deeper than I could imagine.

As you can see, this concept map asks for a more sophisticated level of connecting concepts; this is building Webb's level 3 and level 4 depth of knowledge in science ( DoK ), for example, where a chemical reaction may go in many different directions. You can see the whole chain of connections here that the student made. A student could be working on something like this throughout the course of an entire unit – day after day making new connections as they explore, read, learn, question, and add to their knowledge. What's so wonderful is that a student can come to this routine from any level of depth of knowledge or intellectual rigor and be challenged to move up in DoK and rigor, from low-level recall and basic skill to strategic thinking and extended thinking.  

Student Centered Learning Improves NGSS Classroom Engagement

The constructivist approach to teaching NGSS shows us how student engagement levels rise when they take charge of their own learning process. Using concept maps in the classroom gives teachers a great opportunity to question students as they build critical thinking skills by connecting new concepts to knowledge they already have. Here is an example:

Teacher: Why did you connect sun to weather?

Student: Well, let me think about why did I connect sun to weather?

Do I need to go do some more research, or do I already know that?

Concept maps can be used to close out the unit or just finish the daily lesson, whether it’s a classroom discussion, hands-on activity, or reading assignment. I often ask students right before they leave to take out their concept map and create three new connections based on the day’s work. As students engage with concept maps day after day, you will see their maps become more complex, into a blizzard of arrows and comments.

Using Concept Maps with English Learners EL ( ESL ) Students and Distance Learning

With NGSS student-centered learning, concept maps are a fantastic tool for my ELs and English language learners. I also have a NGSS Spanish version for each concept map I use, which helps English learners start to connect with the new NGSS vocabulary. When they identify “I see this in English, and I already know this in Spanish,” they can begin to see how the words and concepts connect without a lot more work.

Spanish language concept map for ecosystem

Concept maps make a great NGSS homework assignment as well, especially for distance learners and Zoom lessons. A sample assignment could be to read pages of the NGSS nonfiction student reader four to eight and connect three different science concepts. This helps students really dig into the text, identifying core vocabulary and thinking deeper about how the concepts relate.

Engaging Classroom Conversations with STEM Learning

Using concept maps to kick-off classroom discussions gives students a great way to ask questions, interact with their peers, and ultimately take some risks. For example, students share with a small or large group, “Here's what I connected and here's why I did it.” KnowAtom provides teachers with discourse sentence frames to help students get a sense of how to question one another. These are the best science starters for NGSS science; they're authentic and empower student voice. For example, for a student looking at the concept of animal versus plant, they can use sentence frames to start the conversation with questions like, "I wonder why some animals are predators and others are prey. Why can't the prey be a predator too?" What a great question to kick-start the group discussion.

This is a great example of the goal of concept mapping. It’s not for the students to make every perfect connection. Instead, it’s a tool for intellectual rigor that helps students to make NGSS connections on their own, identify and share how they made those connections, and build new depth of knowledge based on how the concepts connect to what they’ve learned in the past. Constructivist learning with NGSS shows us that K-8 students are more engaged when they are making those connections on their own rather than just being told – and that they’re building key NGSS science skills, like critical thinking, communication, and persuasion – as they do it together with their peers and with the support of teachers through hands-on lessons. As students connect concepts from the classroom with real-world NGSS phenomena, as KnowAtom does in every lesson, they make stronger connections between what they are learning and the STEM education skills they’ll need in the future.

NGSS Concept Maps and NGSS Science Thinking Moves

Thinking moves are those ways of thinking that really promote deep understanding. This is the type of thinking that we want students engaging in when they're engaged in a concept map activity. For example, when teachers and students ask, "Why did you connect these two ideas?" A student's natural instinct is to reason with evidence why they connected those particular concepts, it introduces students to connecting their reasoning with evidence. As a teacher I know I have at times taken for granted that students don't always understand what I want them to do when I ask them to "think about" something. For instance, a student could just try to guess what I want to hear. But introducing thinking moves and modeling curiosity in the NGSS classroom gets much rigorous responses like "Well, after we did our experiment, I realized that these two concepts go together in this way... because….” This helps students understand the importance of CER in conversation and claim evidence reasoning in science discussions, backing up your claim with evidence is a ground rule in my class.

Thinking Moves and Concept Mapping: 

  1. Observing closely and describing what’s there
  2. Building explanations and interpretations
  3. Reasoning with evidence 
  4. Making connections?
  5. Considering different viewpoints and perspectives?
  6. Capturing the heart and forming conclusions?
  7. Wondering and asking questions?
  8. Uncovering complexity and going below the surface of things?

Ritchhart, Ron; Church, Mark; Morrison, Karin. (2011). Making Thinking Visible. Hoboken, NJ: Jossey-Bass.

For a student to connect to something that's meaningful to them is so helpful in building a true understanding of new NGSS concepts, according to constructivism. Thinking moves also promote the practice of considering different viewpoints and perspectives. One of my favorite things as a teacher is to hear a science student defend a connection that they made and for another student to say, “I never thought of it like that.” That is such a powerful NGSS learning tool.

Finally, implementing NGSS Standards in the classroom teaches us, the teachers, to widen our own idea of what the "right answer" is. Students who are given the opportunity to wonder and question learn how to be more confident in their own thinking, defend their ideas, and respond appropriately when questioned. They also learn an important life and job skill – it's okay to not have all the answers. When one authentic answer creates even more authentic questions, you may be on just the right track! It's okay to stop and think. It's okay to go back and say, "You know what? Let me go back into the experiment, the data, or the text. Or let me look at my neighbor's approach. And then I can better explain why I connected those two science concepts."

Concept mapping is a very powerful tool, and I've seen how much it can help deepen students' NGSS critical thinking skills. I hope that you'll try it in your own NGSS science standards classroom, regardless of whether you're a science teacher using KnowAtom, a science teacher teaching in another way, or an ELA teacher. It's so easy to begin creating your own concept map and pushing that higher-order thinking in your own students. 

Implementing NGSS standards in the classroom provides more opportunities for student-centered learning. KnowAtom's hands-on curriculum connects students to real-world science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)-based concepts as well. With NGSS constructivist learning theory and the use of concept mapping, mastery of core concepts is achievable for students of all levels.