Joseph Novak, pioneer of education theory, dies at 92

Joseph Novak, who invented the now-ubiquitous “concept maps” as a way to organize and represent knowledge, died Sept. 22 in Lakewood Ranch, Florida. He was 92.

Novak was a professor emeritus in the Department of Education (which has since been dissolved). His initial work focused on understanding how children learn science concepts, but broadened to encompass understanding how people learn in general. Novak wrote or co-wrote 29 books and more than 100 journal articles.

Novak was born Dec. 2, 1930 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Minnesota, and taught at Purdue University before coming to Cornell as an assistant professor in 1967.

“Joe Novak’s work has had an impact on educational systems all over the world,” said Alberto Cañas, a longtime research partner of Novak’s and scientist emeritus at the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition. “Whether students, educators, professionals or scientists, anybody who heard him or reads his books will clearly understand how they can become better learners. Through over 25 years of working together, I was able to see how his ideas kept on extending among people of all ages and all countries, and this impact will continue to grow.”

By 1972, he and his research team published their first work on concept maps, which Novak described as “graphical tools for organizing and representing knowledge.” In 1977, Cornell University Press published his “A Theory of Education,” which sought to develop concrete methods to guide research and instruction on education. The book has been translated into multiple languages, and the fourth edition was printed in 2022.

In 1984, Novak co-wrote with fellow education professor D. Bob Gowin the foundational book “Learning How to Learn,” which, among other things, helped popularize concept maps as a useful tool for assessing and organizing knowledge for verbal learners of any age. They are now used throughout schools, government and industry. Novak consulted with numerous institutions to implement his theories of education, including Proctor and Gamble, NASA and the U.S. Navy.

In his last publication, the 2022 book “Helping People Learn,” Novak described his motivation in developing more concrete scientific theories of education.

“As an undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota, I was struck by the contrast between the validity of the knowledge presented in the science courses that I had taken and the unsupported claims so often made in education courses,” he wrote. “The sciences presented a body of knowledge comprising concepts, principles and theories that explain how and why things in the universe behave as they do. There was almost nothing comparable to this in the courses I took in education. Nevertheless, education is a phenomenon conducted by people and there is no inherent reason why it could not also be guided by a body of concepts, principles and theories.”

Novak earned multiple awards for his contributions, including honorary doctorates from the University of Comahue, Neuquén, Argentina; the Public University of Navarra, Pamplona, Spain; and the University of Urbino, Italy. He also received the first award for contributions to science education from the Council of Scientific Society Presidents.

He retired in 1995, but continued researching and writing through the Florida Institute for Human & Machine Cognition. He is survived by three children, two grandchildren and extended family members.

Krisy Gashler is a writer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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