Mind Mapping tools can go a long way towards helping students make the connections that lead to deeper learning
If thinking is about making connections between pieces of information, then creative thinking is making the connections that no one else has seen. However, when we tell students to find relationships between seemingly disparate ideas, we often get blank stares—why?
According to thinkers like Ken Robinson, it’s because our education system kills creativity. From the moment they lift a pen, students are taught to think linearly. They read books from start to finish, left to right and top to bottom. They practice their writing in lines. To a student, math boxes, test instructions, literature, the scientific method, histories and music all followed straight, predictable patterns, and the only way to get the ‘right’ answer is to check the boxes. Creativity is for the artsy kids.
It is no wonder that students can’t make connections between ideas when they reach college. They’ve been looking at problems and questions out of telescopes when they need to be surveying the entire landscape with their own two eyes.
We have strong evidence that Da Vinci, Descartes, Darwin and virtually every other iconic thinker traversed disciplines and distant plains of inquiry to reach powerful insights. Essentially, great thinkers have always been great mental cartographers, or mind mappers.
Teaching Mind Mapping?
Can we teach students to be mappers? After 13 years of being rewarded for linearity, can students learn to take the mental side streets or go off-roading?
I believe they can, particularly if they get access to helpful technology. In my psychology courses at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, my tool of choice for teaching creative thinking is mind mapping software.
Back in the 1980s, I became familiar with old fashioned mind-mapping back, and I used it to analyze and prioritize personal projects. When I entered grad school, I mind mapped textbook chapters, lectures and articles for journal club discussions. Today, as a lecturer speaker at psychology and learning events, mind maps help me be organized, yet flexible and spontaneous. It keeps my presentations fresh. Whether I’m teaching my students, planning research or drafting an article, I value being able to make connections between different facts and concepts.
And students value this too. When I was giving a guest presentation on mind mapping in a college-level software design class, one senior raised his hand and asked “Why didn’t we hear about mind mapping when we were freshmen?”
Enter the Digital Age
It wasn’t until years later that I began to use mind mapping software, thanks to a student who introduced me to ConceptDraw MINDMAP.
I was particularly attracted to digital mind mapping because it allows you to manipulate text. When you can move words around and see what goes together—without a scissors and glue stick—you have the potential to find new and unusual connections.
At one Text and Academic Authors Association conference, a speaker actually recommended cutting dissertation drafts into pieces. That way, students could move the pieces around until they find the best structure. The concept is the same: it’s difficult to see the ideal flow between ideas until we test multiple configurations.
Essentially, digital (and physical) mind mapping allows students to view the entire forest instead of a single tree. As they create a mind map, they capture the wider ecosystem of information by visually connecting short keywords and phrases rather than writing complete sentences.
Upon later review—for retention, exam preparation or papers—the mind map is like a CD. You jump right to the information that interests you. In contrast, linear notes are like audio tapes—you waste time wading line by line through the content in hopes of getting to what you want.
This more efficient use of space (and time) lets students see how normally unconnected ideas might fit together. Thus, the mind maps doubles as a store of information and an engine of creativity. Using it in the classroom and even giving mind mapping assignments forces students to break the linearity of their earlier education.
In my courses, mind mapping of textbook material constitutes a full third of students’ final grades. I encourage students to weave in notes, images and videos lectures, their thoughts on additional readings and even pictures or icons that help them remember information and the ideas that the information generates.
But Before You Start …
Before you tell students to start mind mapping everything, however, be ready to address one key problem: most students don’t know how to take good notes in the first place.
You don’t want your students simply copying sections directly into notebooks or mind mapping software, so first teach students how to take good notes. In particular, teach students that brevity is best, and that they will remember content from textbooks better when they convert it into their own words. They need to be able to capture the meaning of a key paragraph in three or four words instead of three or four sentences. It’s the equivalent of switching from sonnets to haikus. The former may be long and pretty, but the latter can pack just as content-rich.
Can the tools we use to teach lead to creative thinking? Or must students already be creative thinkers to make use of tools like mind mapping? In my opinion, this actually the wrong question. It’s far more useful to consider which habits can lead to creative thinking.
Reading retention tricks, good note taking, mind mapping, visualization, brainstorming methods are just processes that contribute to creative insights. By teaching these skills, making them habits and introducing technologies that make them more efficient and effective, I believe we can outmaneuver the linear education. We can instill habits of creative thinking.