Student Achievement Opinion

Going Deep With Maps

By Contributing Blogger — April 09, 2014 4 min read
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This post is by Steven Levy, Expeditionary Learning School Designer

What is it about a map? I remember losing myself in the atlas in my father’s office - the oversized thick pages filled with muted colors and enigmatic symbols, exotic names and faded blue oceans with lots of lines in every direction. A map arouses our imagination, fills us with wonder, humbles us in the small place we stand to look out at the great big world.

So I was delighted when Ms. Phelan and Mrs. Maiorano, teachers at Presumpscot Elementary School in Portland, Maine, asked me to help them design a project for their kindergarten students - making a map of the school. Many map lessons are more about map conventions - how to use a key, interpret map symbols, locate specific places - than about visual literacy and higher order thinking. In fact, in many classrooms, students - even older students - primarily interact with maps simply by coloring in states or countries with colored pencils. Map conventions are important, but we wanted to explore how maps can build deeper understanding, and what map-making in a deeper learning context might look like in kindergarten.

Deeper learning in kindergarten (maybe in every grade) begins with wonder. Adults have seen thousands of maps, enough at least, that we don’t wonder anymore how amazing it is to fit the whole world on a single sheet of paper. We can’t take for granted the amazing idea that we can represent the three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional piece of paper.

The goal of our mapmaking activity was to provide experiences and introduce concepts that would build the schema for conceptual understanding throughout the grades. In the Presumpscot map-making project, we focused on four concepts: representation, point of view, scale, and position.

The idea of representation is a concept that prepares the way for deeper learning. Making a map is one example. What makes representation deep is that it has the possibility of growing over the years in complexity and application. Opportunities for visual representations of data are unlimited. As they grow, students will explore many ways to represent all kinds of data beyond physical location, for example traffic patterns, molecular structure, or the relationship between poverty rates and literacy around the world.

To help kindergartners grasp the concept of representation, we asked them to sort a variety of drawings - houses, trees, cartoons, abstract expressions, etc. By doing this, they noticed the difference between drawings that represent something they can see and touch, from ones that come from the imagination of the artist (like the literary distinction between non-fiction and fiction.)

Point of view is a big idea that opens the window to deeper learning because of its broad manifestations and complex implications. Kindergarteners can experience it in a simple drawing activity, but can grow with it their entire lives. At Presumpscot, we asked students to sit in a circle and individually draw the object in the center. Surprise! How could representations of the same thing have such different shapes and colors? It depends on your point of view. We learn the language for different points of view: front, side, back, above, below, etc. When there is a conflict during play, we see how it might be interpreted from different points of view.

To introduce the complex concept of scale, kindergarteners need a carefully sequenced journey beginning with drawings of one-to-one correspondence. First, we represented a box of Mr. Sketch markers. The drawing was the same size as the actual object. Another concept arose here-that of position. We wanted to put the markers in our drawing in the exact place that they are in the box. We mapped our lunch tray on a larger piece of paper to practice representing the position of all the items on the tray. Then, we were ready for a perplexing challenge. The markers fitted on our piece of paper. The lunch tray fitted on a larger piece of paper. But what if we wanted to make a map of our room? Would we need a piece of paper as big as the room? “Believe it or not, I can fit this whole room on a piece of paper!” I showed a map of the room. “Now, would you believe I could fit the whole school on a piece of paper?” I showed them the map of the school. I showed them how to fit the whole city on one piece of paper...the state...the country...and finally: “Would you believe I could fit the whole world on one piece of paper? Well, here it is!” We would not expect kindergarteners to calculate specific ratios, but by introducing the idea of scale in this concrete way, we provide the experience, the schema for more complex mathematical applications.

The most effective strategy to encourage engagement and deeper quality work is having an authentic audience. With our kindergartners, we asked them, “Is there anyone who comes to the school who doesn’t know where to go?” They responded that new students, parents and visitors might come to the school and not know where to go. So they need a map!

“Who will make a map for them?” we asked.

“WE WILL” they shouted.

The experience with these kindergartners showed that deeper learning isn’t just about the project of making a map, but of using the process of making a map to introduce important concepts, vocabulary and meaning that can grow with the children as they mature. To read more about Presumpscot’s kindergarten map-making expedition click here. Do you have examples of using maps or other ways to introduce deeper learning concepts in the classroom?

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.