Engage the brain

23rd June 2006 at 01:00
Robert Bullard explores at the development of mind maps and visual learning. Opposite, he finds out how the technique has been adapted in the classroom

According to Tony Buzan, creator and promoter of mind maps, they are "the Swiss Army knife of the brain". But having cut into the education sector 10-15 years ago, the diagrams that once enthused us all have today diverged into different, disputing devotees. The maps were popularised in the early 1970s, and were developed out of Buzan's own experiences of trying to memorise things as a child and university student. For him, the traditional way of recording ideas in linear note form did not match the way the brain worked, whereas his proposed more dynamic method of mind mapping - also known as spider or bubble diagrams - mirrored and took advantage of the brain's thinking processes. "The young child's brain is a natural mind-mapper," says the typical literature. "Using them makes the teaching more enjoyable and effective, and the learning more successful and fun.

It's an educational win-win."

However, 30 years on from the original Mind Maps (a term copyrighted by Buzan) various techniques have emerged. But as well as their differences they also share common characteristics - the main topic is summarised by a word or phrase (or an image), related themes and sub-themes radiate out from this, and together they form a connected overall structure. The advantages of such visual learning techniques, whatever their precise approach, are obvious: * They allow a large number of ideas to be presented on a single page.

* They offer a lot of flexibility, allowing links between items and new ideas to be easily added.

* Their visual format is easier to memorise and recall than when using linear lists.

* They give an insight into other people's way of thinking, which allows different perspectives to be appreciated.

Several buzz words immediately come to mind. The techniques are inclusive and encourage diversity by allowing the development of different ideas; they are creative in the way that solutions are developed; and they are practical as they give people ownership of their ideas. They can be used in a whole range of situations (well beyond education), in learning and note-taking - allowing issues to be easily assimilated by the brain; memorising - ideas can be quickly noted and structured in an organised manner which are then easier to recall; creative thinking - ideas flow more freely than under linear thinking; problem-solving - you can see all the issues, how they relate to one another, and different people's viewpoints; and planning - allowing the organisation of information in one place.

But the similarities between today's techniques end the moment you pick up your paper, pencil or pen. To help you get started Tony Buzan has 10 laws on "How to Mind Map", covering details such as how many colours to use (three), where to place the words (on a line of the same length), and what the lines should look like (thick, organic and flowing at the centre, and thinner as they radiate outwards). Precise and prescriptive you might well feel, but distilled from years of experience - as Caroline Shott, director of Buzan Plus, is quick to remind me.

But Oliver Caviglioli, a director of visual-learning training company Model Learning, says he has no time for what he calls the "strident laws" and "aesthetic hang-ups" of Buzan's Mind Maps - even though he admits he was once an enthusiastic fan. And his criticism goes deeper. For Caviglioli, the display of key words connected by branches, albeit decorated by colour and images, is merely a form of brainstorming, but no more. Crucially for Caviglioli, it does not develop someone's thinking. Furthermore, he continues, far from Mind Maps being, as they might seem, simple and easy to do, it assumes that people can do the necessary categorisation for identifying the map's branches and sub-branches. Caviglioli believes, from his own experience, that many of us do not understand the theory of Mind Maps, or how to do them, and sometimes therefore use the wrong visual tools.

In defence of his views he points to the experiences of Oban High School, Argyll, where Linda Kirkwood, rector and geography teacher, says some staff struggled with Mind Maps, feeling that they suited the "more arty"

teachers, and classifying the information presented additional problems for some pupils. Caviglioli's approach, however, albeit taking more time, was found to be more structured and easier to implement in the classroom. In it he teaches people the four main types of thinking (conceptual, comparative, ordinal and causal) and then their corresponding sets of visual tools. "The most successful learners," he says, "are those that are highly efficient at organising their thoughts." And that means knowing the correct visual tool to use.

A third approach, from a relative newcomer to mind mapping, is that of Logovisual Thinking (LVT), whose distinctive hexagons were first introduced to schools in 2000. Today they are most commonly used with key stage 3, but, like the other techniques, are also now spreading to primary schools.

"You don't need expensive bits of plastic," says Oliver Caviglioli, "and using a hexagon limits the number of connections that can be made." Which may be pedantically true, but ignores the tools' evident popularity.

"The results have been amazing," confirms Dan Lyndon, a new staffroom convert at the Henry Compton School in Hammersmith and Fulham. The head of history - not a conventional subject for mind mapping - used the technique when inviting children to transport themselves to 1649 and decide how they would run Cromwell's new Commonwealth. "The kids loved the hexagons and moving them around," he says, "Being able to visualise, link and spell out their thoughts resulted in them being more engaged, and greater clarity in their thinking."

So, while Buzan stresses the scope for unleashing children's creative potential, and Caviglioli the prior need to re-learn how we categorise things, LVT emphasises the creative process that results from participants having to listen and learn from one another, as they physically share and re-order their ideas. One of LVT's proponents, Dan Varney, head of the education unit at the Centre for Management Creativity, resists being drawn into comparisons between today's techniques, preferring instead a more altruistic concluding comment. "Anything that helps student engage in learning, and make learning more accessible and beneficial, has to be a good thing."

* www.buzanpluseducation.com

* www.modellearning.com

* www.logovisual.com

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