Enhancing Conceptual Understanding in the IB PYP: The Power of Concept Maps in the Classroom


Concept maps are a valuable thinking routine in the inquiry based classroom. They visually represent relationships between concepts, fostering critical thinking and facilitating the exploration of complex ideas. For teachers navigating the terrain of inquiry-based learning, leveraging concept maps can be a game-changer in supporting students' conceptual understanding. If you havent tried them, I promise you....pick one, train your kids how to use it then sit back and watch the magic unfold. 

Why I'm A Fan:  I’ve been using these in my IB PYP classroom for years and years and years and, every time, they stimulate thought provoking conversations from the children all whilst aiding in developing conceptual awareness. Simple to implement and integrate into any inquiry, any subject, you will get a lot of bang for your buck!

I usually begin using them as part of doing the groundwork in the first week of our inquiry as we are tuning in, unpacking concepts and I'm assessing prior knowledge. The children can then come back to them as we progress, reflecting on their past knowledge and comparing with their current understanding. They are ultimately a fabulous on-going assessment tool that supports student agency with reflection and assessment. Read on to learn more. 

Concept maps act as a formative assessment and evidence of progressive learning.

⭐️Within our IB PYP classroom, we are aiming for a deep, conceptual understanding. Our transdisciplinary approach to teaching and learning ensures that we plan and implement the learning experiences through concepts + skills in order to bring context to the content. Concept based learning looks at a given subject through the lens of concepts or “big ideas” and encourages the children to think about those big ideas rather than having a subject stuffed into a small box. It enables more connections to be made and, in my opinion, creates a more authentic learning experience where all subjects and skills can be utilised.

Function: How We Can Use Concept Maps:

Ongoing Assessment: Incorporate concept maps into regular assessments to gauge students' understanding. For instance, ask students to regularly update their concept maps as they progress through a unit or project. This allows you to track their evolving understanding and provide targeted support where needed.

Pre-assessment: Administer concept mapping activities at the beginning of a unit to assess students' prior knowledge and misconceptions. By examining students' initial concept maps, you can tailor your instruction to address specific areas of misunderstanding and build upon existing knowledge.

Tuning-In Strategy: Use concept maps as a tuning-in activity to activate prior knowledge and engage students in the upcoming inquiry. Encourage students to collaboratively construct a concept map related to the concepts of the inquiry. This not only primes students for learning but also provides insights into their existing understanding, also guiding your instructional approach.

For today, let's look at a few examples of different concept maps as a strategy for developing conceptual thinkers and as a tool for making thinking visible. 

Form: Examples of Concept Maps:

The Circle Concept Map-as seen above.

The idea of using background knowledge with inquiry and directing thinking strategies to create understanding in science. Each circle is labelled with a concept. This can be a macro concept ( key/specified) and/or a micro concept ( related/additional concepts). The children will record their connections, schema, questions etc in each circle.  

Bubble Concept Maps: These can be used to connect key vocabulary within the inquiry with the concepts that are planned for investigating. In the example below, I gave the children commonly known words related to the concept of migration and asked them to work together to show how the words connect. Each line connecting two words had to have a written association or connection. This was done in small groups, which for this vocabulary activity was arranged in ability groups. You can of course implement this with mixed ability groups too. As I chatted with them, they explained their thinking, allowing me to assess understanding in real time.  

Putting It Into Practice:  If you are inquiring into the micro ( related/additional) concept of SYSTEMS , you would include this word in one of the bubbles, add in a few macro concepts to guide the children as they narrow their focus ( E.g. FORM, CONNECTION) and perhaps a few key words that they will be using throughout the inquiry. (E.g. Circulatory system, Digestive system) The bubbles are then connected with lines drawn by the children as they think, and they may write their explanation on the lines or simply explain their connections verbally.         


Early Years Concept Maps: The example below comes from Dilek & Alona from @reggio.inspired.pyp. Both very talented early years PYP teachers, they work their magic with our youngest learners, bringing conceptual thinking alive. You can clearly see the concept is EXPERTISE, as the children explored related concepts of IDENTITY. Conversations with the children have been annotated in red. A wonderful example of how we can absolutely bring conceptual learning experiences to the early years. You can learn more from these ladies in this article, Developing Thinkers & Inquirers in the Early Years. 

As you and your students become familiar with concepts maps as a form of making thinking visible, consider also the ATL skills that are implicitly being applied.  

Thinking Skills Focused by Concept Maps:

  • Analytical Thinking: Students analyse relationships between concepts and discern patterns.
  • Synthesis: They synthesise information by organising concepts hierarchically.
  • Evaluation: Students evaluate the significance of connections between concepts.
  • Creative Thinking: Concept maps encourage creative thinking as students make novel connections between concepts.
  • Problem-Solving: They aid in problem-solving by illustrating multiple approaches to a concept.

Concept maps serve as dynamic tools for both teaching and assessment in inquiry-based classrooms. By harnessing their power, you can nurture students' critical thinking skills, deepen conceptual understanding, and cultivate that all important culture of inquiry in the classroom. As we strive to equip students with the skills they need to support agency in learning, concept maps stand out as invaluable aids in the journey towards meaningful learning experiences.

If you would like more information about concept based learning, you can head over to this article Concepts vs. Topics: Bringing Clarity  for IB PYP Teachers and watch the fabulous video that really clarifies things. 

PYP Teaching Tools to Support Conceptual Thinkers:

You can link directly to my collection of tools designed especially for developing conceptual thinkers & inquirers, right here. 

I have created MANY tools to support conceptual thinkers and inquirers. This article shares more strategies and ideas that can be implement with your students of ANY age. You can read more here, Strategies for Developing Conceptual Thinkers & Inquirers.

I hope you can find some use with these examples of concept maps. Feel free to let me know how it goes by tagging me on Instagram @pypteaching. I would LOVE to share your success with our community. 


~ Susan

P.S. Watch this video on Facebook that explains more about the transdisciplinary approach to teaching within the IBPYP classroom. 


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