Teaching tools: Visualizing theory

Concept mapping

Concept maps are graphical tools for organizing and representing knowledge. They include concepts, usually enclosed in circles or boxes of some type, and relationships between concepts indicated by a connecting line linking two concepts. Words on the line, referred to as linking words or linking phrases, specify the relationship between the two concepts. The format can be both top-down and bottom-up with multiple connecting sub-concepts.  This is an excellent pedagogic tool to acquire analytical fluency and to deepen learning wherein, students graphically map out relationships between key themes.

Visual representation of concepts:

  1. renders them into accessible forms,
  2. promotes systematic organization of information through quick overview
  3. allows for easy connections between readings,
  4. promotes active learning and lively class interactions, and
  5. provides a sense of accomplishment of learning goals

This exercise can be taught in class but also adapted for independent study and review sessions. The gallery attached to this shows examples from an advanced class on Sociology of Deviance.

Though it requires some instructions and examples students seem to love concept mapping. Seeing all they have learned on a blackboard is reassuring and it reveals areas requiring clarifications.

How to?

  1. Introduce the idea of a concept map and its purpose
  2. Illustrate with an example
  3. Develop a focus question to guide and limit the concept map
  4. Create a list of key concepts and rank order them
  5. Ask them to:
    1. Use only keywords that capture each concept and sub-concep
    2. Write clear and concise relationships between concepts
    3. Be legible


Visualizing theory

Visualization as a tool of understanding allows you to draw pictures as you are reading the text. You will read a paragraph, look out for key descriptive words that stand out, and begin to form mental images. The same can be applied to the text as a whole: What does it look like? Does it imply a web, a contrast, a line, a ball of wool, a thunderstorm, a bite, or darkness?

To get a feel of this exercise see the instagram gallery of “Rich Kids Of The Internet” or the “Rich Pickings” staged at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg in 2015. Both galleries exhibit translated sociological theories of class-making into a selection of quite plain visuals illustrating the self-presentation of the very rich. A photograph by Juergen Teller, for instance, showed an old man holding the earring of a woman decades younger than him, as if reconfirming that both (the woman and the jewelry) are his property. Another set of photographs from the RKOI shows a tongue in cheek picture of a woman on a yacht in a pool captioned Tough fridays with low reserves of champagne. Such pictures provide an immediate, if basic grasp, of Pierre Bourdieu’s (1984) conceptualization of class as operating through our bodily modes of being: our tastes, gestures, and positions, as well as the stuff and people we assemble around us.




For best practices

*Adapted from: Davies, M. (2011). Concept mapping, mind mapping and argument mapping: what are the differences and do they matter? Higher Education62(3), 279–301.

**Adapted from the “Envisioning Theory: An Anthropological Teaching Experiment, Part One and Two.” Teaching Tools, Fieldsights, June 4.