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The Concept-Mapping Classroom


Technology In The Classroom

By providing a framework that allows users to focus on topics, and a structure that permits them to easily convert diagrams to outlines and back again, the software programs Inspiration and Kidspiration help students (and adults) organize their thoughts and overcome their fear of the "blank page" as they tackle writing assignments, projects, and more. Best of all, teachers tell Education World, their students are eager to use the software and, as a result, are increasing and expanding their creative efforts.
Included: Cross-curricular activities using concept-mapping software.


The activities included in this article were developed using Inspiration and Kidspiration, the concept-mapping software most commonly used in U.S. classrooms. Most of the activities, however, can be done with any concept mapping software.

According to the market research firm MDR (formerly Quality Education Data), students and teachers in more than 60 percent of U.S. school districts use the Inspiration Software products Kidspiration and Inspiration. Many of those teachers, who primarily use the programs during language arts pre-writing activities, are looking for new ways to take advantage of the software's versatility -- across the curriculum and across the grades. This week, Education World offers teacher-created classroom activities developed with Inspiration and Kidspiration.

Inspiration, for students in grade 6 and above, and Kidspiration, the software's K-5 version, allow students to make organized visual-learning webs that then can be used as the basis for projects and writing activities. Inspiration users can create diagrams and outlines and move between the two views as they work, making new connections between topics, rearranging ideas, and virtually planning any assignment. The software also offers templates for educators that can be used in all subject areas and for planning lessons, setting goals, creating assignments, and more.

Odysseus: Diagram to outline with one click!

"Inspiration and Kidspiration are designed specifically for education," explained Mona Westhaver, president of Inspiration Software, Inc. "The programs offer students tools for clarifying their thinking and thought processing, and for organizing and prioritizing information. They are flexible tools that accommodate students' individual learning styles, allowing them to evaluate information, identify similarities and differences, and organize the information in ways that are meaningful to them."

Westhaver reports that, in some elementary schools, kindergartners write their own books with Kidspiration; while in high schools, students use Inspiration to prepare for state achievement tests. "With Inspiration, science students can develop concept maps that will help them more easily grasp difficult concepts," she said. "Students studying Shakespeare can use Inspiration to illustrate complicated plotlines and better understand the plays. Students also can use Inspiration in collaborative projects, to link individual files or Web resources to a group report structure."

Educators Influence Inspiration "Teachers tell us that once they start using Inspiration in the classroom they see endless possibilities," says Mona Westhaver of Inspiration Software, Inc. "It is easy to think about graphic organizers for pre-writing, but as flexible tools that build relationships among pieces of information, they also can be used for such activities as planning a project or a Web site, studying for a test, understanding the structure and plot of a story or organizing the results of a group brainstorming session."

Every time they meet with teachers or attend a conference, the creators of Inspiration hear about new ways that teachers are using Kidspiration and Inspiration to support their teaching strategies.

"With each version of the products, we add new features based on feedback from teachers who use the software," Westhaver explains. "For example, in Inspiration 7 -- released just last fall -- we added text-to-speech capabilities to help non-readers and give support to auditory learners. We also offer tools to help teachers get started using Inspiration and Kidspiration in the classroom. Achieving Standards with Inspiration 7, is a collection of lesson plans designed to address state and national standards and the Kidspiration Activity Book provides lesson plans for use with younger students."



"I first saw Kidspiration in action at a technology conference," tech support specialist Patricia Knox told Education World. "I was aware of the program before then, but when I saw a demonstration, I really got excited about its potential for integrating concept mapping into our existing curriculum."

Knox's district -- North Canton City Schools in North Canton, Ohio -- purchased a license to use Kidspiration in its elementary schools, and Knox has devoted much effort to training teachers through workshops and Tutorials that she shares online. She encourages teachers to recognize that the software is not simply a language arts tool, but one that lends itself to every discipline.

"Without a doubt, Kidspiration is a wonderful way for students to organize their thought processes and translate ideas into written words," Knox said. "Kids love computers. If we hand them a blank concept map on a piece of paper, they will learn how to organize their ideas. But, if we sit them at a computer and make pictures, sounds and colors available to them, they will love learning how to organize their ideas!"

In her courses, Knox stresses two separate ways to get the most out of the software. One method is to have students open a blank document and create their own activity -- a story map, a compare and contrast diagram, an outline, for example. "The second, and I think equally exciting, method," Knox explained, "is for the teacher to create activities designed around his or her particular curriculum and save them as templates. Students then can use those activities to help reinforce the concepts they are learning in the classroom.

"I encourage teachers to use the Record feature of the software to include directions in the teacher's own voice," Knox added. "I also advocate importing custom graphics, adding hotlinks to valuable Internet resources, and generally customizing the activity in whatever way the teacher can dream up!"

This year, Knox also partnered with instructional technology integration teacher Susan Silverman of the Comsewogue School District in Port Jefferson Station, New York, in two online collaborative projects that incorporated Kidspiration; Kidspired Tales and Frosty Tales.

"Children absolutely love Kidspiration," reported Knox. "They can't wait to get their hands on the keyboards and create. I truly believe that some of them are taking their thought processes to greater lengths than they would with paper and pencil alone, simply because they enjoy the creation process itself."


Educational technology coordinator Jane Boynton of Washington Episcopal School in Bethesda, Maryland, uses Kidspiration extensively in the primary grades for patterning, contrasting, comparing, and many other activities. "The students have responded positively to the software and a number of them have purchased it for home," she stated. "One mother told me that there always had been tears when her daughter was preparing to write. With Kidspiration, the tears are gone, and she loves brainstorming her ideas before writing."

Boynton also uses Inspiration templates to help students brainstorm the traits of characters in reading assignments and summer activities. During summer camp, her students used the templates to develop ideas for an "All About Me" activity.

"The greatest strength of the software, in my opinion, is in helping to organize students' thoughts into a diagram. Next is the ability to click and get an outline of the diagram that then can be used as a basis for writing," Boynton added.

Tamra Oliver brings the diagram-to-outline capability of Kidspiration to the attention of teachers at Kipps, Margaret Beeks, and Harding Avenue elementary schools in Blacksburg, Virginia. "I like to show teachers that a concept map can be designed for a chapter or unit review with the written outline of the same information on the back," she explained. "Then students with different learning styles can choose the review that best meets their needs."

Oliver, a resource teacher for gifted education, works largely with individual and small groups of students. She uses Kidspiration mostly to help young students map out independent learning projects, and for recording and organizing information as a group of students brainstorm together. One advantage to using Kidspiration with group work is that a copy of the results can be printed immediately for each student. She admits that her students would say that the software's kid-inspired graphics are the greatest part of the program.

"Earlier this year, I had a 7-year-old student who needed an independent project to replace work he had already mastered," Oliver recalled. "We discussed his interests and narrowed them down to one area he wanted to learn more about -- the seven continents. This, of course, was still too broad a topic, so we brainstormed what he would like to learn about each of the continents. As we talked, we generated an organizer [with Kidspiration]. This organizer has been his guide all year as he continues to explore the world."


"Students at Iredell-Statesville Middle School (Statesville, North Carolina) love Inspiration," says media coordinator Beverly Rufty, " because it's easy to use and they can show their own creativity with the symbol palette and different layouts. They like changing the background colors, line patterns, line thickness, line colors, and the overall look of their projects."

The ability to make Inspiration creations "their own" gives Rufty's middle schoolers power over their products.

"The students don't even realize how much they are learning while creating projects," Rufty explained. "They see Inspiration as a fun activity, but in reality they are learning more than they ever imagined; not only are they learning about the topic they are working on, they are also learning new computer skills."

When Brad Helland of Old Yale Road Elementary in Surrey, British Columbia, Canada, attended a quick demonstration of Inspiration just a few years ago, it caught his eye as a simple but effective means to expand multiple intelligences' offerings.

"This program is one great tool for a teacher to use in addressing the many student needs and learning styles within a classroom," Helland said. "The software allows users to change between a graphical interface -- including cluster-webs, bottom-up diagrams, and top-down organizational charts -- to an essay outline format, all with one click of the mouse. Inspiration can be used to create diagrams, socio-grams, and so on, within a couple of minutes. The only question is, 'How fast can you type?'"

Helland has had students use Inspiration to take notes from Web pages, which they then converted to reports or essays and used to illustrate such science topics as the water cycle and the flow of blood in the circulatory system. He also has used the software himself to create instructional overhead presentations.

Science Fair Web

"Two years ago, I was teaching a fifth grade class the play Romeo and Juliet," he recalled. "Since we were using the original play by Shakespeare, the students very quickly became confused with the many characters. Honestly, even with an English degree, I found that, unless I was mapping out relationships, it was very difficult to figure out who was related to whom. I created two family charts, one for the Capulets and one for the Montagues. Friends were included with notations. I was amazed at how much simpler this made the play. I believe that I learned and gained from this activity myself!"

Of all of the programs Helland has introduced to his students, he has found Inspiration the easiest for them to master. "Students pick up the main concepts in about five minutes," he observed. "The rest is utilization! Students have responded well, picking out important information and making effective use of the software. The key quality to note here is that the program is not like others that simply require input or answers from students. This program places the focus on creativity and student perspective."


Paul M. Rutherford, Ph.D., uses Inspiration concept-mapping activities to assess his students' understanding of topics covered in his physics classroom. As an introduction, Rutherford provides key topics for students to diagram, and requires them to organize the ideas and fill in the relationships between topics. The activity can be challenging for students at Summit Technology Academy in Lee's Summit, Missouri. One was prompted to tell him, "Dr. Rutherford, I have not had to think this hard before in any of my other classes!"

"This, quite simply, indicates that such an activity as concept mapping does require much thought and meta-cognition," Rutherford added. "Inspiration software, with its ability to insert ready-to-use or imported graphics, imbedded hotlinks to valuable Web sites, and ability to revert to an outline form, has made this instructional activity that much more enjoyable."

Images courtesy of Inspiration Software, Inc.

Article by Cara Bafile
Education World®
Copyright © 2009 Education World


Updated 11/23/2009