Joseph D. Novak

Cornell University and University of West Florida


Concept maps were first developed in our research program in 1972 as a way to represent changes in children’s understanding of science concepts over the 12-year span of schooling.  We were using modified Piagetian clinical interviews to assess changes in their knowledge over time, but we found the interview transcripts were too difficult to analyze for changes in specific aspects of the children’s knowledge.  Instead we prepared concept maps from the interviews, two of which are shown in figure 1.  They illustrate the specific changes in this child’s understanding of the particulate nature of matter from grade 2 (7 years old) to grade 12 (17 years old).



Figure 1.  Changes in Paul’s understanding of the particulate nature of matter from grade 2 to grade 12.  Notice how his knowledge has gained in complexity and precision [1].



We soon found that concept maps could be used to represent knowledge for any age group and in any domain of knowledge, from science to history to literature and dance.  Moreover, teachers who prepared concept maps to plan their instruction gained confidence and skill in assisting learning, and students who prepared their own concept maps not only improved their understanding of the subject, but also found they were "learning how to learn" [2-5].


Concomitant with our development of the concept mapping tool, there was the shift in North American psychology from behavioral psychology to cognitive psychology.  David Ausubel [6;7], on whose learning theory our work was based, was a pioneer in developing cognitive psychology and we benefited greatly from his work.  In addition, there was shift away from positivist/empiricist epistemologies to constructivist epistemologies that were much more congruent with cognitive psychologies.  During this interval, my colleagues and I were developing a theory of education [4;8] to guide a more scientific approach to the improvement of education.  In my view, we now have an adequate theory of learning, theory of knowledge and theory of education to guide improvements in education.  Combined with in new pedagogical insights and rapidly advancing technologies, there is a chance for revolutionary improvement in education—if we can find the political will and support necessary to effect needed changes.


A major advance in our work resulted from advances in computer software and the Internet, and this is only the beginning of what I expect will be a technological revolution in education.  The Institute for Human and Machine Cognition at the University of West Florida has been developing new software tools to enhance human performance by designing computer software that will complement rather than compete with human abilities.  Their work includes the development of Cmap, a software program that not only permits the easy construction of concept maps, but also provides for interaction among learners or knowledge creators.  Earlier versions of the software were used to facilitate collaborative learning among elementary school students in several Latin American countries [9].  The software has been used in many applications and information is available at:  hppt://  In addition to providing for easy construction of concept maps, icons can be attached to concept nodes and these provide access to photos, videos, text, URL’s, other Cmaps, etc.  The software also provides for "discussion threads" that permit map makers to collaborate in organizing, critiquing, and refining their knowledge structures.


The traditional model of professor lecturing and student taking notes and memorizing for exams is slowly being replace with models of instruction that recognize that learners must be engaged in their own meaning making and the role of the professor or "coach" is to facilitate the process of learner’s meaning making.  I expect this to be enormously facilitated by emerging technology, including extensive application of concept mapping tools.


The imperative for all countries is increasingly becoming the improvement of educational programs that not only provide for the acquisition of rapidly growing bodies of knowledge, in well organized frameworks, but also the enhancement of the learner’s capability to learn meaningfully.  Traditional classroom structures, at both the school level and at the tertiary level, need to be replaced with much more active learning approaches that new technology, pedagogy, and understanding of human learning facilitate.  The cost and inefficiency of traditional educational structures will no doubt be required to be modified enormously to compete with the far more cost efficient strategies that can be achieved with theory driven, and technology driven, new distance learning approaches.  Professors will always play an important role in the process, but the nature of their work must change substantially.


In the expanding competitive environment on the "global marketplace", every citizen requires and deserves to receive the best possible education.  I believe we now have the capacities needed to deliver such education.  We must press for the social/political changes necessary to achieve these goals.



1. J. D. Novak, D. Musonda, A Twelve-Year Longitudinal Study of Science Concept Learning. American Educational Research Journal, 1991, 28, 117-153.

2. J. D. Novak, D. B. Gowin, Learning How to Learn, Cambridge University Press: New York and Cambridge, UK, 1984.  Also published in Spanish, Thai, Chinese, and Japanese; Arabic, Finnish, and Portuguese.

3. J. D. Novak, D. B. Gowin, Imparando a imparare, Societa Editrice Internationale: Torino, 1989.

4. J. D. Novak, Learning, Creating, and Using Knowledge: Concept MapsTM as Facilitative Tools in Schools and Corporations, Lawrence Erlbaum and Associates: Mawah, NJ, 1998.

5. J. D. Novak, Traduzione Italiana di Learning, Creating, and Using Knowledge: Concept MapsTM as Facilitative Tools in Schools and Corporations, Edizioni Erickson: Trento, 2001.

6. D. P. Ausubel, The Psychology of Menaingful Verbal Learning, Grune and Stratton: New York, 1963.

7. D. P. Ausubel, J. D. Novak, H. Hanesian, Educational Psychology: A Cognitive View (2nd ed.), Holt, Rinehart and Winston: New York, 1978.  Reprinted, Werbel & Peck: New York, 1986.

8. J. D. Novak, A Theory of Education, Cornell University Press: Ithaca, NY, 1977.

9. A. J. Cañas, K. M. Ford, J. Novak, P. Hayes, N. Suri, T. R. Reichherzer, Using Concept Maps with Technology to Enhance Collaborative Learning in Latin America, The Science Teacher, 2001, 68, 49-51.


This article will appear in Scuola & Città, 2002, LIII(2), 000-000. Reported with the permission of the editor, Prof. Edoardo Lugarini.