18th June 2004 at 01:00
Drawing models of the way we think has givena major boost to teachers and pupils. Jack Kenny explores how technology has taken the process a step further

It's totally mental

"The Swiss army knife of the brain," is one description of mind-mapping in education. I'm not sure whether Maureen Cain would agree with that. Maureen was responsible for an interesting survey of the use of mind-mapping that took place a couple of years ago in Newchurch Community primary school, Culcheth, Warrington.

Maureen, the headteacher, became convinced that mind-mapping could yield substantial benefits. After a meticulously planned course, the research seemed to indicate that pupils benefited in the following areas: improved concentration; the ability to stay on task for longer periods of time; improved questioning and answering during class discussions; increased self-reliance on their own resources. Their independence as learners improved, as did their self-esteem.

The initial aims were to raise standards in literacy, improve pupils'

confidence and encourage positive attitudes towards learning. Another important dimension was to develop a visual and kinaesthetic approach to teaching and learning.

Now Maureen is even more enthusiastic: "It is so good to have the communication and interaction," she says. "Teachers use mind-mapping by brainstorming everything that children know about a certain topic. This emphasises the kinaesthetic, auditory and visual aspects of learning. The children are communicating and negotiating. You will hear them arguing about where to place things on the map. It is a vehicle that encompasses a lot of good learning practice.

"Children with low self-esteem will say: 'I know nothing about that,' but then, when they start mind-mapping, they can come up with all sorts of ideas. It shows them they can do it and then they become optimistic about their own ability. One boy a couple of weeks ago did, on his own at home, a mind-map on gases. There was no way he would have done a piece of writing.

He came in the next day proud of what he had done. He was thrilled."

All the children at Newchurch primary use mind-maps and are comfortable with them. Often mind-mapping is a social occasion, an opportunity for sharing. The teachers have to model the process the first time round, and then they have to facilitate the children's learning. After that the children have ownership of the mind map.

"The message from the teacher has to be, 'This is your mind map - you put down what you remember,' she says.

So what happened to the children - they were not chosen for their submissiveness - who did the original project?

"They have gone to secondary school," says Maureen. "They are all in top sets. Before they started the project they were demotivated - they were just not responding to the traditional ways of recording. It changed them.

It did make a difference."

In secondary education, mind-mapping can assist with Critical Thinking, an increasingly popular AS subject that concerns itself with reasoning evaluation and presentation of argument and the construction and deconstruction of linear text, dialogue and debate.

Mind-mapping can also help in detecting flawed arguments, irrelevance, inadequacy and circular argument because of the clarity of the visual representation. The structure on the screen has to make sense and the arguments add up.

Rob Clarke is an independent learning co-ordinator at Holland Park school in London. He has been using TAG Learning's Inspiration (see right) for five or six years, initially to structure his own planning. "I use it for brainstorming and for developing students' understanding of abstract concepts," he says. "How do you structure an argument? You can see the structure clearly. It is used in Damp;T, in IT and in English. You can use it anywhere. I use it for planning strategy and for website planning. Breaking down tasks is one of the major uses. That also aids understanding.

"The software is motivating, user-friendly, fun and easy. You start with a central idea and then radiate from that to the main categories, then the sub-categories, and it is particularly powerful when you use it on a big screen."

Rob argues that mind-mapping with a software program has much more to offer than simply drawing the map.

"The software brings the ability to tie in with other technologies," he says. "You can save it for later. It can go into other programs such as Word or PowerPoint. You can even use it to make your own websites if you want. You can make the links between different ideas. You can have sound, pictures and words. In analogue, you cannot do that. The software is quicker, easier and more powerful."

Finally, the software has proved its worth in university education. Arthur McKeown at Ulster University has found that you can also use mind-mapping to think more creatively, to structure and absorb information more easily, see key relationships which might not otherwise be apparent, analyse complex problems and break them down into logical components, make better decisions, see the "bigger picture" more clearly and the relationships between contributing factors. It also helps to focus your attention and aid concentration on the main issues, improve your memory and retention of critical facts, plan and manage your time, work successfully and productively in teams, manage meetings effectively, create drafts of business reports and drafts of websites.

Cortical clobber

The hype says that mind-mapping "harnesses the full range of cortical skills - word, image, number, logic, rhythm, colour and spatial awareness - in a single, uniquely powerful manner. In so doing, it gives you the freedom to roam the infinite expanses of your brain." Wow!

Tony Buzan, who devised the concept, describes mind maps as consisting "of a central word or concept. Around the central word you draw the 5 to 10 main ideas (child words) that relate to that word. You then take each of those child words and again draw the 5 to 10 main ideas that relate to each of those words".

In theory, this helps students to learn, organise and store as much information as they want, and to classify it in natural ways that will give them fast access when they need it. The supporters of the technique say that it uses all of the ways the brain manages information, so that users are using more brain power.

Buzan wrote: "All mind maps have some things in common. They all use colour. They all have a natural structure that radiates from the centre.

And they all use lines, symbols, words and images according to a set of simple, basic, natural and brain-friendly rules. With a mind map, a long list of boring information can be turned into a colourful, memorable, highly organised diagram that works in line with your brain's natural way of doing things."

When Buzan originally developed the concept, the computer was not a consideration and he worked with diagrams. Some of them can look beautiful and undoubtedly appeal to visual thinkers. Since then, the idea has moved to the computer and, depending on which software you use, there can be other benefits, even if the hand-tooled beauty is lost to a certain extent.

Mind-mapping, or concept-mapping, programs make you think about learning across all curriculum areas. Left to ourselves we can start to run on the mental equivalents of tramlines. How do you write? Do you open a new file and just blaze away and then build a structure in afterwards, or do you work out the structure first, and explore possibilities?

TAG Learning offers two programs, Inspiration and Kidspiration. Both work with visual ideas so that students can see how ideas fit together. Both programs are based on the same idea of co-operative brainstorming. Both would work well with a whole class on a whiteboard. Teacher and class could develop a structure and then it could be given to the students so that they could develop that construction in their own ways.

Based on a spider chart, but with the flexibility and fluidity of the screen, both programs can make ideas flow and jolt minds into new pathways.

Inspiration, like all mind maps, focuses on the essence of the information, giving a good overview of a topic.

Scotland has realised the potency of this approach - every school can have a specified number of centrally funded licences for Kidspiration and Inspiration software.

MindManager, from M-Urge and Mindjet, is approved by Buzan. It aims to organise ideas and structures and to communicate them. From notes and ideas, a document or a website can rapidly be developed, refined and integrated with other information.

A project using MindManager has been run in schools in Birmingham and the West Midlands. Schools received the software free. Steve Horsfield, programme manager of the West Midlands Regional Broadband Consortium, says the software in the areas and schools where it has been taken up has stimulated thinking about learning and teaching styles. He notes that it does make children more aware of their own thought processes.

OpenMind is very similar to MindManager and is approved by Buzan, who is said to use it. It includes wizards to help you save to HTML and into another of the firm's programs, Mediator. It also includes methods of saving to PowerPoint and Word. The manual is lucid and gives a great many indicators for use, not just in business but also in education.

OpenMind, MindManager and Inspiration all answer the often-repeated criticism that it is just as good to do a mind map by hand. See what you can attach to a MindManager mind map - graphs, web pages, URLs, videos, documents. You can also re-present the mind map as a Word document, a PowerPoint presentation or a website for the internet or your intranet.

Should you try mind-mapping? Yes. Which is best? You decide according to your needs. There are demos of the programs featured (and other similar programs) available on websites for free downloads (see right). Try them.

On routes and branches

"The Mind Map has four essential characteristics. The subject of attention is crystallised in a central image. The main themes of the subject radiate from the central image as branches.

Branches comprise a key image or key word printed on an associated line.

Topics of lesser importance are also represented as branches attached to higher-level branches. The branches form a connected nodal structure."

Tony Buzan, The Mind Map Book, BBC Books 1995, p59


* Birmingham Mind Maps


* Thinking Skills


* Mind-mapping Overview


* Suggested reading:

Tony Buzan How to Mind Map (Thorsons 2002)

Lex McKee The Accelerated Trainer (Gower 2004) www.learnfast.co.uk

* Richard Marsden's Museum Mind Map www.walsallgfl.org.ukAvoncroft Pupil feedback

* "You can remember what you did just by looking at it."

* "It helped me to remember more."

* "If you put stuff in the wrong place you can easily rub it out."

* "All you have to do is look at the branches and you learn more."

* "It looks good and I have writtena lot."

* "You can read it and remember stuff."

* "I close my eyes and had the thoughts I wanted to write."

* "You get to see all the stuff you did."

* "It was good because sometimes I get mixed up when I do stories - it would take ages to do a story."

* "When we didn't write about it for ages, I could see this and it all came back to me."

Cortical clobber


* Inspiration www.inspiration.com

Single user: pound;59.95 30-day trial from www.taglearning.com

* Kidspiration Single user: pound;59.95 30-day trial from www.taglearning.comindex.asp

* Mind Manager Single user: pound;59 5-user licence: pound;166 10-user licence: pound;233 25-user licence: pound;579 www.m-urge.com (education reseller) www.mindmanager.co.uk

* OpenMind 20-users: pound;379 Site licence: pound;995 Trial version: projects can be used for seven days.


* Mindmapper Pro Single user: (pound;36) Mindmapper Junior (pound;12) Trial versions from http:www.mindmapperusa.comdownload.htm

* Visual Mind Single user: pound;77 Site license: pound;415 Trial version from www.visual-mind.com MindMapdownload.htm

* Ygnius Single user: pound;112 20-hit trial version from www.ygnius.comsite2_download?lang=en

* SMART Ideas 3.1 Concept-mapping software (no SMART board required) Single user: pound;49 www.smartboard.co.uk


* Buzan Centers www.mind-map.com index.htm

* How to make a mind map in eight easy steps Some basic instructions www.mapyourmind.comhowto.htm

* Free mind-mapping http:freemind.sourceforge.net

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