The following piece was later published as: Roth, W.-M., & Verechaka, G. (1993, January). Plotting a course with vee maps: Direct your students on the road to inquiry science. Science & Children, 30(4), 24-27.

Plotting a course with vee maps

WE ALL KNOW THAT it's important to help students develop scientific thinking skills. Since the 1960s, educators have composed curricula to aid in this quest (Tamir and Lunetta, 1981). Programs such as SAPA and SCIS provided children with an openinquiry environment in which to practice such process skills as experimental design, variable control, and data analysis. These curricula, however, failed to take root because teachers encountered too many difficulties in classroom management. Today, educators continue to call for manageable programs that give students and teachers the freedom to explore essential questions within the bounds of a central concept (Wiggins, 1989).

When students pursue questions of their own asking, they feel in control of their activities. They interact with the setting to define the problem, and they search for their own solutions. These students are preparing for a time in life when they'll face situations that must be structured as problems in order to be solved, and they are learning how to cope when solutions are elusive (Tobin, 1990).

Unfortunately, in most school learning situations students deal only with very narrowly defined problems over which they have no control, and they do not have the freedom to choose their problem-solving processes (Lave, 1988).

A science curriculum should offer students opportunities that relate to life outside the classroom; it should provide students with situations in which they can frame and solve problems of their own making; and it should be supportive of students' initial forays into unfamiliar territory. Teachers should serve as seasoned guides who bring students to new levels of inquiry skills (Hawkins and Pea, 1987; Schön, 1987).

Yet even the best learning environment cannot succeed until students understand how to learn. To help students gain this knowledge, consider trying an effective teaching / learning strategy called the Vee map.


What's a Vee Map?

The Vee-map strategy helps students better understand the nature and purpose of laboratory activities (Novak and Gowin, 1984); that is, it helps students to understand how new knowledge is attained in an experimental situation. The Vee-map strategy begins by focusing students' attention on what they know before the inquiry. Students then generate research questions, design and conduct experiments, and interpret the data. Through interpretation, they arrive at new knowledge that must be integrated with their prior knowledge.

A Vee map has two sides, a conceptual (knowing) one and a methodological (doing) one, that are in continuous interplay (see Figure 1). What we know at any one moment determines the questions we ask, the way we find answers to our questions, and the way we interpret our data. On the other hand, what we do determines what we will know, and thus changes what we knew before the experiment.

[Click for Figure 1]

For example, consider a child who has never seen a snowfall and an Inuit child, who knows at least 20 words that describe different kinds of snow. It is unlikely that the child who has never seen snow would ask productive questions or design reasonable experiments concerning the phenomenon of snow. On the other hand, the Inuit child would be able to design rather complex inquiries based on her experience. In such cases, however,

the experiments will change the understanding of both children, whether drastically or subtly. The Vee map guides students in their quest for new knowledge and helps them interpret what they discover.

Think of a Vee map as a road map showing a route from prior knowledge to new and future knowledge. Conceptualize this road map in terms of the general questions listed below.

Although students would ask these questions in sequential order, a Vee map visually identifies the complex relationships between the various parts. In one glance at a Vee map, a student can identify why she did what she did, how she did it, what she concluded, and how the inquiry affected her prior knowledge. Vee maps also allow students to bring individuality to the laboratory. Figures 2 and 3 are examples of two students' Vee maps for an inquiry describing the properties of reflected light rays.

[Click for Figure 2]

[Click for Figure 3]

Student-owned Inquiry

Quite appropriately, the knowing and the doing sides of the Vee map are separated by the focus question and by the events, which form the link between old and new knowledge. Some students or student groups come up with their own questions; others may generate ideas in a class discussion. Then, selecting from these ideas, students frame a focus question and decide how they want to observe and measure the phenomena of interest. By choosing the question on their own, the students take ownership of the problem and feel a responsibility for its outcome. Students will ask themselves questions: "How do we set up the experiment?" "What do we have to do to get the answer to the question?" "What kind of data do we have to collect?"

At this point, students should consider their prior knowledge of the subject. The Vee map provides a space for them to list associated words and phrases that they knew before beginning the inquiry. Prior knowledge plays an important role in determining what students will do, observe, and learn.

After describing the objects and events of their inquiry, and listing the associated words, students then proceed to collect data. Encourage students to describe what they see, not just to collect numerical data. These data fit on the Vee map in the "data and transformations" section. Transformations are sets of information presented in an orderly fashion, such as a table or a graph. Have students ask themselves, "Can the data be presented in a graph?" "Is there a better way of graphing the data?" and "What trends are apparent?" In addition to a transformation, students must provide a verbal description of their data.

Once students have completed their data collection, let them reflect on the meaning of their observations and data. Ask, "What can we make of this experiment?" On the Vee map, have students describe their thoughts under the heading "claims." Ask them to consider such questions as, "Based on the data, what is the answer to our focus question?" "How can we work with this knowledge?" and "Do the data suggest any new questions?" Discuss the ways in which their findings apply to practical situations.

In one glance at a Vee map, a student can identify why she did what she did, how she did it, what she concluded, and how the inqui affected her prior knowledge. Vee maps allow students to bring individuality to the laboratoy.

In the final step of the Vee-map strategy, students create a concept map that integrates both prior and new knowledge. They ask themselves such questions as, "Do we have a central idea?" "How do all the words and ideas relate?" and "What else can we do?" In this way, students must reflect on what they have learned through the inquiry.


Lots of Comments

When grading students' Vee maps, comment on the strengths and weaknesses of each report. Alter your marking standard to keep pace with students' developing abilities as they become familiar with Vee maps and inquiry science.

The Vee-map approach can work wonders. In the three years since our school began working with the Vee-map strategy, sixth-grade science fair projects have dramatically improved. Students really like getting involved and finding things out on their own. Try Vee-map exercises with your students and you'll soon discover the enormous benefits of this approach to inquiry.



Hawkins, J., and Pea, R. (1987). Tools for bridging the culture of everyday and scientific thinking. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 24(4), 291-307.

Lave, J. (1988). Cognition in practice. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Novak, J.D., and Gowin, D.B. (1984). Learning how to learn. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University.

Roth, W. (1992, January). Getting the most out of your labs: Vee mapping in high school science. The
Crucible, 22(6), 22-27.

Schon, D.A. (1987). Educating the reflective practitioner. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Tamir, P., and Lunetta, V.N. (1981). Inquiry-related tasks in high school science laboratory handbooks. Science Education, 65(5), 477484.

Tobin, K. (1990). Research on science laboratory activities: In pursuit of better questions and answers to improve learning. School Science and Mathematics, 90(5), 403418.

Wiggins, G. (1989, November). The futility of trying to teach everything of importance. Educational Leadership, 46(9), 4448, 57-59.


WOLFF-MICHAEL ROTH is an assistant professor of education at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada. GUENNADI VERECHAKA is a doctoral student in physics at the University of Toronto in Ontario, Canada.