The fundamental educational problem?

There is often a key book, a key paper, or even a key question that may be the turning point in an individual’s academic career. Something that made you stop and think. Something that Land and Meyer may consider has helped you to pass through a portal to a new place – a Threshold Concept?

There may be a number of such instances within a single person’s career. Books that you read and people that you meet along the way having a profound impact upon your academic trajectory. When I was engaged in the work on my PhD, I found that concept mapping was the tool that I needed to use to visualise the story that I wanted to tell. I found an expanding literature on concept maps, and a global community that were engaged in the research and application of this tool within educational practice and research (mostly not based in the UK!).

I found the work of Joe Novak and was using his books and papers within my study. But it was a single quote within a fairly obscure paper that really turned everything on its head for me. The quote:

“Moving from a linear structure to a hierarchical structure and back again is in some ways

the fundamental educational problem”

Novak and Symington, (1982: 8).

When I read this statement, it was like everything had suddenly become clear to me. Many of the problems that I was tackling suddenly had a possible solution. Finding this reference corresponded with me also viewing concept maps as structures in their own right (Kinchin et al., 2000) rather than as collections of individual concepts and links.  The ‘linear’ and the ‘hierarchical’ appeared to describe so many other perspectives: theory and practice; procedural and conceptual. As a result of this insight, my subsequent research was offered a new trajectory – one that I am still exploring. Within the quote there are so many buried assumptions. One of the most important is summed up in the first word of the sentence, ‘moving’.  Learning is not static, but dynamic as one moves from one knowledge structure to another in order to develop understanding. A recognition of this dynamism is already a major step forward in determining what learning is; what students should be doing; how teachers should be teaching and how assessments should be constructed.

Whilst appreciation of the significance of this quote may not be universally acknowledged, I do take some comfort in the fact that no-one has yet (in my opinion) come out with a better summation of what ‘the fundamental educational problem’ might be. I was lucky enough to meet Joe in person at the Concept Mapping Conference in Helsinki in 2008 (photo below) and to tell him how he had influenced my life. Maybe such personal interaction is what academia is all about.

 Joe Novak and Ian Kinchin CMC Helsinki 2008Joe Novak & Ian Kinchin (Helsinki, 2008)


Kinchin, I.M., Hay, D.B. and Adams, A. (2000) How a qualitative approach to concept map analysis can be used to aid learning by illustrating patterns of conceptual development. Educational Research, 42(1): 43 –57.

Novak, J.D. and Symington, D.J. (1982) Concept mapping for curriculum development. Victoria Institute for Educational Research Bulletin, 48: 3 – 11.


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