A few years ago, I was introduced to mind mapping, a concept created by Tony Buzan. I was instantly struck by the notion that this was something I had been searching for for awhile. In the past, I had asked students to create a visual representation of some piece of literature. This had mostly resulted in collages or posters of some sort. While some students have artistic or visual ability, I felt that other than an aesthetic experience, these projects showed little learning or thought. Mind maps combine the visual and at the same time demonstrate the depth of their learning. It’s a simple concept but it is flexible and and can be used for many purposes.
Mind maps can be used for all stages of learning. As a pre-reading or pre-writing tool, a mind map can be used as brainstorming or demonstrating background knowledge. During the reading of a text, it can be used to explore ideas, make connections etc. After reading a text, a mind map can be a summative task which the student uses to show her thinking and knowledge. I cannot think of any other type of evaluation that can show as much of a student’s learning and understanding of a text. Essays are limited by topic. Tests could be made large enough to encompass everything but a test has to have questions and questions by their very nature tell the student what to look at or how to think about a topic. Mind maps on the other hand are open-ended and because they don’t use traditional sentences, they can contain a great deal of information. You could say to a student in an essay or test topic: write everything you have learned about Hamlet However, the student is limited by the constraints of sentences and the organizational patterns that are required in writing. A student would be able to make connections but he would have to present them logically in context. In a mind map, the organization is visual and multiple connections can be demonstrated by simply drawing lines. Mind maps are now used frequently in university in subject areas like science because of their capacity for flexibility and creativity. You will find an example of a university and a grade 8 mind map here; this is from the book Beyond Monet: the artful science of instructional integration by Barrie Bennett and Carol Rolheiser. One thing that I have discovered in using mind maps is that some students, often those who are proficient essay writers, don’t like doing them because they are challenging and they have to think spatially. I believe that we spend too much time in school teaching students what they already know. In English, we ask the same type of questions, do similar tasks, we just do this with different books. Some of the best students are locked into one type of thinking e.g telling the teacher what she wants to hear, so something that is uncomfortable or challenging is obviously worthwhile.
I will always step the students into the process. They will do group ones in class first or I will have them mind map something small like a short story. This is a useful way to show what they understand about a text while we are studying it e.g. what have we learned so far about the people of Maycomb in To Kill a Mockingbird. They will mind map this topic as a group and afterwards, I will place them around the room and ask them to rank the top 3 based on criteria they create. My best mind maps have been about Hamlet or The Kite Runner. My assignment has been open-ended: make a mind map that covers major topics from the play or novel; be sure to incorporate quotes as part of your proof. Or I have been more specific: you must include themes, character development, questions about the play and quotes. Either way, the students have given me some great examples that really demonstrate their thinking and knowledge. A lot of planning has to go into their maps and they have to show hierarchical organization and make connections among the topics. What you end up with is a large visual essay.
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