Conceptual Modeling










The How’s and Why’s of Conceptual Modeling

The practice of Conceptual Modeling was developed by two high school teachers, now widely adopted across all subject areas.

By Doris Wells-Papanek, MEd

Director, Design Learning Network

The practice of Conceptual Modeling was first pioneered by Physics teacher, Matt Greenwolfe, and then refined by History teacher, Robert Coven and English teacher, Carole Hamilton at the Cary Academy in North Carolina – their approach is now widely adopted in all subject areas across the nation. This highly effective visual-spatial method invites students to investigate many ideas, draw diagrams of what they see in their mind, gather and analyze new information, as well as make sense of data.

High School Students at the Cary Academy Engaging a Conceptual Modeling “Board Meeting”


The Visualization of Analogies and Metaphors are at the Heart of Conceptual Modeling

After exploring a problem set and brainstorming ideas for suitable analogies or metaphors, teams consider their options, select final analogy or metaphor to then frame key concepts via visualizations of corresponding attributes – which in turn, serves as a meaningful framework to communicate, store, and recall information. If a series of images are required, teams often photograph whiteboard representations as the imagery develops over time. When complete, teams present their final story on a single 18”x24” whiteboard or by using technology such as PowerPoint, Keynote, Prezi, etc.



Self-Discovery of Misconception is Critical to the Learning Process

The learning process concludes by preparing for a debate (also referred to as a “board meeting”) – where teams present persuasive arguments and explanations of their findings to the class. Peers are responsible for asking questions and making observations. It is important to remember to allow students to discover their own errors without teacher interventions, such as asking leading questions. Insightful collaborative self-discovery of misconception is critical to the learning process.

High School Students at the Cary Academy Engaging a Conceptual Modeling “Board Meeting”



Conceptual Modeling Takeaways
Students work in groups of 3 as they take responsibility for their approach to learning:

  • Learners create concept maps (a diagram made up of drawings with brief annotative comments) to explain a theory they are developing and then present their findings to the class.

  • Teams use elements of design (color, shape, line…) and design principles (unity/harmony, balance, hierarchy…) to optimize communication – students often create a visual language.

Teams arrange their ideas on a large erasable whiteboard so they can revise or even start over:

  • Embracing a democratic approach, each team is provided one eraser that can be used by any teammate throughout the process.

  • Students must reach a consensus on their theory, which requires discussion and defending their ideas until they overcome their misconceptions and agree.

Adapted from the work of Cary Academy Teachers: Carole Hamilton and Robert Coven, 2016.