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Program Design, Vacation Planning and Concept Mapping
Candice Rettie, PhD
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Program Design, Vacation Planning and Concept Mapping

Visualizing Concepts

In a couple of days, I’m leaving for a long awaited family reunion and vacation in Maine.  We’re combining beach, mountains and remote northern woods.  It will be a year since we’ve last been together.  There will be little to no connectivity, lots of lobster and ice cream, sharing stories and escapades, pine trees scenting the air, loons calling across the lake, and the warmth of wood fires as we savor crisp night skies filled with the brilliance of the Milky Way, edged by the aurora borealis.  It will be wonderful. 

We spent many cross-country phone calls figuring it out… Lots of discussion about how to spend our time, what we could give up and what we couldn’t give up.  Over the months, we worked out the broad strokes and then the details fell into place.  Just this past weekend we were still tweaking the final plans. 

Today, it occurred to me that next year we should use concept mapping to facilitate the planning process.  Concept mapping (also called mind mapping) is an approach used in education, design, engineering, business development and technical writing to visualize knowledge and concepts.  Concept mapping is a wonderful tool for understanding complex concepts and exploring (and discovering) the relationship between concepts.  It is a powerful technique for brainstorming and problem solving that is often used in the design phase of projects, whether designing programs, curriculum or evaluation, administration or operations.  It is also used to design research, to identify the components of a clinical rotation, or the topics to be covered in a didactic session.

Stating it a bit differently, concept mapping is a graphical method for defining components and capturing relationships. Basically, concept mapping consists of a core idea whose components are captured in circles or boxes of related concepts and associated information.  Nodes representing information are drawn and then connected.  Directional arrows are drawn between the boxes or circles to indicate relationships.  

There are great concept mapping resources available on the internet, such as Kathy Schrock’s free, very easy to use, and informative website.  For those of you interested in the theory and a rigorous approach to concept mapping, check out the manuscript and illustrative concept maps created by Joseph Novak of Cornell University.  A very well-designed proprietary, fee-based program for developing and presenting concept maps is offered by Lucidchart.

So let’s run through an example of a concept map for my vacation next year.  It would begin with the focus question: “What should we do for our family reunion?”  This leads to the main idea or core concept of “vacation” – the central circle.  There are the various ideas of what vacation “looks like”, as depicted below, the quarters of the main circle.  There are logistical arrangements—yet another set of circles/boxes.  By creating a map of the various components and the relationships between the components, complex concepts can be visualized, holes in the relationships identified, and solutions created.

So this is what our vacation map might look like at the beginning of the conversation:

With the different components identified, we could then have a conversation about accommodating active vs relaxing activities, allocation of expenses, transportation arrangements, etc.  By “designing backwards and delivering forwards” we could design a vacation plan that met the needs of our family and deliver a thoughtful and rewarding experience for everyone.  In designing an experience, it is important to always have in mind where you want to end up – design backwards.  And then deliver forwards, be it a luxury hotel at the beach or a charming B&B on a mountain lake.

The same holds true for program design, whether it is curriculum development, evaluation planning, administrative support or operational implementation.  Concept mapping is a wonderful tool to make sure that all the important components and the relationships between the components have been identified. Below is an example of a concept map for a patient care plan from Matchware, a group that creates concept mapping software for nursing.

Give it a try.  Map out a new clinical rotation with preceptors, clinic space, administrative support, IT requirements, patient flow, evaluation, etc.  See how it works for you and your team as a mechanism to design backwards and deliver forwards.  

In closing, consider this thought from Mother Teresa: “Reach high, for the stars lie hidden in your soul.  Dream deep, for every dream precedes the goal.”

Until next time,


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