• Christian Moore Anderson

Live organisers: Pairing concept maps with questioning in the biology classroom

Updated: Oct 10, 2021

David Ausubel's assimilation theory of learning is all about connections. Rote learning leads to knowledge that is isolated. Meaning emerges from connecting to prior knowledge structures. But making meaning doesn't just mean the addition of new knowledge to existing structures, but causes adjustments to the structure itself.

Thus, learning can't just be about knowledge accrual, students need to search for meaning, which is to wonder how the new knowledge fits into their networks of knowledge. Students also need help in this search.

Even more so because biology is a subject perpetually cursed with content overload, and often requires moving forward through a curriculum while simultaneously attempting to keep present what came before. I often bombard students with questions on prior-content, attempting to encourage recall of what needs to be connected, and also for opportunities to connect.

However, there can be so much knowledge to be recalled and connected, that the questioning can take some time, and soon enough students, especially those who struggle more than others, may begin to loose the thread of the original questions. Here's how I try to help them: live organisers via concept mapping.

Joseph Novak was an early convert to Ausubel's ideas and took them to the core of his educational research. His team found that the only way they could measure the organisation of student knowledge was via interview, which was simply too much work. The solution was the invention of the Novakian concept map.

Novakian concept maps are hierarchical, beginning with the most general concepts and gradually working to more nuanced detail. Novak's maps included linking phrases between nodes so that they could be read as a proposition (an example below).

When helping students to recall and connect knowledge via questioning, I have found it helpful for a concept map to be built as the questions proceed. The students can follow the direction of the questions, and I can also ask for advice for building the map we go.

An additional benefit is that I can frequently model the drawing of a map. Novak found that young primary students found concept mapping quite intuitive, but not older students, who generally struggle initially. By modelling regularly, encouraging their participation in forming the links, and the linking phrases, when I do come to ask students to construct their own map, the task has been somewhat scaffolded.

Ian Kinchin is now the researcher who carries forward the baton of Novakian concept maps. He often discusses how the nodes of networks of knowledge are often themselves made of even more nuanced knowledge, especially in the form of chains.


One possible use of chains (not the only one) in biology is that of a procedural knowledge structure, i.e. the causal mechanisms we teach. Here the board drawn diagram is king for showing the sequence of causes and events that lead to an effect. However, it can also be useful for students to see how this fits into a conceptual network of knowledge.

Here is an example from a lesson on muscle contraction, in which we recalled the details of the sarcomere and I organised them in to a brief concept map on the board.

While not perfection (as seen in the example), live organisation via board-drawn concept mapping helps lower the cognitive load of connecting to abundant prior-content, in a flexible manner, according to student needs. The maps can be as detailed as they need be, and a scaffold that remains for the lesson.

Christian Moore Anderson

@CMooreAnderson (follow me on twitter)

Other posts you may enjoy:

The scales of curriculum planning: why sequence isn't king.

Classroom questioning for explicit networked-thinking in biology

Beyond description: Begin your biology curriculum with autopoiesis


Ausubel, D. P. 2000. The acquisition and retention of knowledge: A cognitive view. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Kinchin, I., 2016. Visualising powerful knowledge to develop the expert student. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Novak, J. D. 2010. Learning, Creating, and Using Knowledge: Concept Maps as Facilitative Tools in Schools and Corporations. 2nd ed. London: Routledge.

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