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NAESP: A Case Study on Moving Toward Concept Mapping

by Valencia Wilson, ResultsLab


The National Association of Elementary School Principals (NAESP) advocates for principals and assistant principals and supports educational leaders to provide well-rounded education for students. In June, NAESP found itself in a challenging yet exciting opportunity – they needed a creative way to organize a meetup at their annual conference in National Harbor for the Principals of Color Network in July. The Principals of Color Network is a professional affinity group that focuses on bringing together principals, assistant principals, and other educational leaders who could benefit from networking and learning from each other in a safe space.  


NAESP had a focus on equity and growing skills as an equity leader, but recently the team saw an emerging need: providing tailored and targeted support and resources leaders of color need as they lead with an equity mindset. NAESP created a layered experience in response that was meaningful and fun and that reflected their overarching learning question: How can we best support our members and better understand what support looks like for school leaders of color? This learning question reflected the both developing equity leadership across the network and on supporting principals of color.


Participatory Activity - Concept Mapping


Strategy & Planning

One way NAESP was able to incorporate learning was through a participatory activity.  Participatory activities  involve active movement and highly engaged participation from individuals or groups, and NAESP wanted to use one to understand a variety of perspectives to inform their approach on how to best support principals of color. After much reflection about a variety of ways to collect information at the inaugural Principals of Color Network meetup in July 2023, NAESP chose an activity that would enable them to interact with their members and be actively involved in learning and collaboration. The organization believed it would use the meetup to exchange and reflect on the information provided to them by their members. NAESP spent 23 hours creating a concept mapping activity, outlining steps on how to implement the activity, meeting with an advisory committee to determine initial topics of discussion, and selecting meetup facilitators.


Implementing and Facilitating the Concept Mapping Activity

The purpose of the activity was to capture collective thoughts from each table during a luncheon that NAESP would use to inform how they would move forward to best support their members. The participants arrived at their respective tables and each table designated a facilitator and a note-taker to ensure all of the thoughts and ideas of participants at each table were being elevated and documented accordingly. The participants were assigned one of three discussion topics—Networking, Leadership Development, and Mental Health and Wellness Supports—and a few questions they needed to respond to related to the topics.


Figure 1: Themes of the concept mapping included: Networking Leadership Development Mental Health and Wellness


How did the concept mapping activity help NAESP, and what were the constraints?

Due to NAESP’s time and dedication, 125 people attended the meetup and took part in the concept mapping activity. Participating in this activity brough benefits such as enhanced learning, improved critical thinking and problem-solving skills, strengthened collaboration, and increased creativity and innovation among the group.


The challenges NAESP faced were resource and time constraints, along with potentially having unequal participation within the group. Despite these constraints, NAESP believed that the concept mapping exercise would allow them to best support its members and school leaders in the Person of Color Network. Three months later, NAESP uses this data they collected from the concept mapping activity as part of the foundation of the monthly virtual network meetings, which include up to 35 people per call. They have successfully leveraged their advisory committee to help shape the subsequent meetings and ensure that each member felt ownership as they continue moving forward.


Paths Forward: Key Considerations and Advice from NAESP


Before any organization decides to use a concept mapping activity, consider whether your organization has time to dedicate to it. The lack of experience in implementing participatory activities contributed to needing 23 hours to plan the activity. Prior to undergoing an activity like this, be sure to:

  • Leverage examples from other communities and organizations to help build a foundation.  

  • Be open to continuously evolving in how you engage your members and give them the opportunity to tell you what they want. This helped drive NAESP engagement with their advisory committee. As organizations evolve, new challenges arise.

  • Swiftly adapt and continuously rethink your approach. Initially, NAESP grappled with a shortage of volunteers. Some expressed their willingness to contribute, but ultimately their busy schedules hindered their active involvement.


Challenges still exist for NAESP, but they are motivated to be more responsive to their members' needs and creating a way to maximize collective efforts and contributions. According to NAESP, the challenges they encountered were worth it because engaging members in this way has helped them develop offerings that are relevant and build a sense of ownership in the network among members. NAESP has key recommendations to other organizations: (1) Make sure you allot time for participants and drill down on the questions that you want to ask them, and (2) Have a plan of what you want to move forward and use the activity to inform your planning meetings.

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