Thursday, April 4, 2013

Uncovering students' thinking about thinking using concept maps

Posted by Tara Della Rocca

Ritchhart, R., Turner, T., & Hadar, L. (2009). Uncovering students' thinking about thinking using concept maps. Metacognition and Learning, 4(2), 145-159.

This article presents a research study aimed toward proving the effectiveness of concept maps as a tool for illuminating students' conceptions of thinking.

The authors provide background to the need for this tool by describing the work teachers are doing in the classroom to develop the thinking of their students (the strategies students use to learn, problem-solve, and make decisions and judgments). As teachers aim to develop the thinking dispositions of students, they also wish to make students' thinking about their thinking visible (to help students determine growth and better focus teaching about thinking strategies).

"Thinking dispositions are not so much learned as they are enculturated over time, our project [Cultures of Thinking Project] focuses on helping teachers to understand the culture of their classrooms and working with them to shape that culture in a way that supports students' development as thinkers. In practice, this means attending to a set of eight cultural forces we have identified as important shapers of group culture: 1) the physical environment of the classroom, 2) the use of language, 3) student and teacher interactions, 4) the allocation of time, 5) the creation of learning opportunities, 6) the use of structures and routines to scaffold and support thinking and learning, 7) the modeling of thinking, and 8) the setting of expectations for thinking."

"we seek to make classrooms cultures of thinking... we in turn seek to develop students who are themselves more thoughtful, self-regulating, and self-initiating in their learning."

The authors parse out the terms related to thinking and conceptions of thinking. They quote various other authors who give slightly varying definitions of metacognition, but then result in their view that metacognitive awareness places a focus on cognitive actions or thinking (rather than on learning) - it is "awareness of the thinking processes that facilitate learning, problem-solving, decision-making, and judgment." By focusing on thinking, we produce learning (along with problem-solving, decision-making and judgment skills). This study aimed to focus attention on how students conceive what it means to THINK without limiting it to the realm of learning. "We were interested in uncovering students' awareness of thinking moves they might undertake that can facilitate their learning, problem-solving, decision-making, and judgment."

The authors point out that the development of students' metacognitive awareness is not the end goal of efforts to promote thinking, but rather can "serve as one marker of students' development."

"when students' conceptions of thinking are limited to knowledge retrieval and memorization strategies, then they may be more likely to try and adopt these kinds of strategies when their teacher asks them to "think"" The authors suggest that teachers can better nurture the development of students' thinking dispositions when they are aware of students' conceptions of thinking. This is where the concept maps as tools for uncovering student conceptions come into play.

The authors finally get to the tool they created for this research.

"one of our goals has been to develop measures that can capture these changes... concept maps can: 1) be an effective tool for capturing students' thinking about thinking, 2) reveal developmental differences, and 3) capture changes in students' conceptions over time."

"Concept maps offer a structure on which to hang one's ideas... can range from very simple to complex, which makes it usable by a wide range of learners... Owing to their potential for uncovering nascent ideas and to reveal interrelationships and connections, we felt that concept maps could be useful tools for us as researchers to uncover students' conceptions of thinking and chart their development over time."

The authors describe the instrument they created (the concept map) and the protocol for implementing this tool in the classroom. They gave the specific language they used in instructing students to complete the concept maps in order to elicit the highest-level response from the students possible. Once the concept maps were complete, the authors coded the responses into ten categories grouped into four main response types: Associative (comments associated with thinking), Emotional (revealing an affective connection to thinking), Strategic (mentioning actions one takes when thinking) and Meta (focused on the nature of understanding or building knowledge).

The authors examined hundreds of concept maps completed prior to and after teachers were supported through 9 months of creating a 'culture of thinking' in the classroom in which thinking strategies were emphasized and reinforced. After studying the pre- and post-maps, the authors concluded that these were effective in uncovering students' conceptions of thinking. "Concept maps are largely a qualitative measure. Nonetheless, we have shown that it is possible to code students' responses in a way that illuminates their current mental model of thinking."

"The fact that we were able to see growth in students' conceptions of thinking after a year of indirect instruction that sought to make thinking more valued and visible in the classrooms suggests that a focus on creating a classroom climate conducive to and supportive of thinking effects students, at least to the extent that it broadens their conception of thinking and their meta-strategic knowledge. It also provides evidence that students' conceptions of thinking are malleable and can be advanced beyond expected developmental progress."

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