Concept mapping was developed by Joseph D. Novak and his research team at Cornell University in the 1970s as a means of representing the emerging science knowledge of students. It has subsequently been used as a tool to increase meaningful learning in the sciences and other subjects as well as to represent the expert knowledge of individuals and teams in education, government and business. Concept maps have their origin in the learning movement called constructivism. In particular, constructivists hold that learners actively construct knowledge.
Novak’s work is based on the cognitive theories of David Ausubel, who stressed the importance of prior knowledge in being able to learn (or assimilate) new concepts: “The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach accordingly.” Novak taught students as young as six years old to make concept maps to represent their response to focus questions such as “What is water?” “What causes the seasons?” In his book Learning How to Learn, Novak states that a “meaningful learning involves the assimilation of new concepts and propositions into existing cognitive structures.”
Various attempts have been made to conceptualize the process of creating concept maps. Ray McAleese, in a series of articles, has suggested that mapping is a process of off-loading. In this 1998 paper, McAleese draws on the work of Sowa and a paper by Sweller & Chandler. In essence, McAleese suggests that the process of making knowledge explicit, using nodes and relationships, allows the individual to become aware of what they know and as a result to be able to modify what they know. Maria Birbili applies that same idea to helping young children learn to think about what they know. The concept of the knowledge arena is suggestive of a virtual space where learners may explore what they know and what they do not know.