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Concept maps to deepen thinking in Economics

Concept mapping is a visual approach which forces students to focus on the abstract concepts and to make generalisations between interconnecting ideas. It can be used as a pre-assessment or formatively or even revisited through a unit of work if you use a digital tool such as Mindmeister. The approach is applicable to any classroom which is founded on a concept based curriculum and big ideas. Whilst it seems like a mind-mapping or brainstorming activity it has more structure and intentionality where the teacher must outline the key concepts to focus on.

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In Economics our Grade 12 students are grappling with a set of interconnected concepts related to International Trade which form the basis of their understanding of the topic and lead to them being able to answer the key questions for the unit of study. These are very much micro-level concepts and discipline or topic specific, as opposed to more macro-concepts such as opportunity costs. They bigger ideas are more trans-disciplinary or ‘meta’ in nature. There is an excellent paper produced by Lynn Erickson for the IB which digs into this concept based teaching and learning more deeply.

The concepts we explicitly focused on where

  • inflation (sustained increased in average price level over period of time)
  • tight monetary policy (low interest rates to increase aggregate demand)
  • appreciation of currency (relatively value of currency increasing in terms of another)
  • trade deficit (value of exports – value of import)

We could check for the understanding by asking them to write a couple of paragraphs but there is something far more powerful in having them do this activity visually and off-line.

Step 1: Students should all be able to define each concept separately as listed above. This was a knowledge check based on previous definitions of understanding of economic models. The students write these beside or around the circles.

Step 2: Students can begin to explain some of the interconnections between each of the concepts. They can draw a line and then write a generalisation alongside. Some students can probably make one generalisation that higher interest rates would likely lead to the appreciation of the currency. From this students can really diverge in their thinking and begin to find other connections.

img_8240Step 3: A good protocol for this style to activity is to give student lots of independent and then pair thinking space. I gave them 10 mins in near silence first to commit some ideas to paper. I then paired my students up with someone new to discuss their concept map, then again matched  pairs to form groups of 4 so they could develop their thinking even further.

Step 4: The final twist I added was to stretch their thinking through the use of a question that would allow them to transfer their knowledge to the opposite scenario. This is where interest rates fall and to check if the government could possible achieve three macroeconomics goals at once (high growth, stable and low inflation, balanced trade) I think you can always add an additional question at the end which can allow the groups of 4 to ponder a more meta-conceptual question. In economics the meta-concept in this topic is the opportunity cost that governments must make trade-offs when trying to satisfy the five macroeconomic goals. After a discussion students could write an answer to this question in the left panel.

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