Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Mind Mapping for Teachers, Part 3: Improving Student Writing

This is the third part of a week-long series of guest posts on mind mapping by Hobie Swan, a professional writer from Boise, ID. Mr. Swan is interested in helping teachers find ways to incorporate this strategy into the classroom. This part focuses on improving student writing.

Students swim in media-rich waters
One of the keys to good writing is good preparation. But rare is the student who loves to dig into that most important of preparatory documents: the outline. I tend to think of it more as a “pre-writing document.” When most people think of outlines, they imagine line upon line of text. A pre-writing document is something more befitting the resources students have at their disposal these days.

Kids live in a media- and information-soaked culture. To require them to work in a landscape dominated by text may seem to some akin to carving their thoughts on the tusk of a whale. More appropriate--at least for the pre-writing phase--may be to give them the tools to create rich, multimedia aggregations of insights, images, and information. As I will explain, this may require no more than giving them access to a single mind-mapping application.

Start with divergent thinking
Creation of the standard outline may well be a prime cause of the dreaded blank page syndrome. Even the most seasoned writer can falter when faced with the gaping maw of a blank screen. What, the emptiness taunts, is that one very first thing you want to address. It’s too much pressure. Who know what they want to think of first, then second, then third.

A new mind map, while still nearly blank, offers one small, lifeboat-shaped haven. In the center is a small shape into which you can enter a word or two to describe the purpose of the map.

Let’s call this map: Memoir. For this writing assignment, you have asked your students to write something about a memorable event in their lives.

This might still seem intimidating until the student realizes that they don’t have to start a numbered list of their thoughts, with the first one on tope, followed by the second, third, etc.—proceeding in a relentlessly linear way until they reach The End.

Instead, your first suggestion to your students can be for them to think of some memorable event and just start brainstorming: jotting down ideas as they pop up in their brains:

Many students I’ve talked to say that the ability to add images helps make the assignment for fun, more engaging. Being able to just quickly jot down ideas makes the process more open and creative. And that can lead to new insights. See how in the next map the student has begun to interact with his or her idea.

Move on to convergent thinking
Mind mapping is a great way to get students’ minds thinking. By first being able to just think random thoughts, they can feel less constrained. They can let their minds wander as they please in and around the topic at hand.

Usually, this allows a main thesis to emerge—and for less important or unrelated ideas to depart. In this example, seeing all of the ideas on one screen has given the student insight into what exactly he or she is thinking about. In this case, the student seems most interested in the teacher, and how he or she made the year so memorable:
The student has dragged and dropped the branches from his first use of the map, added some new ideas and, in the process, and converged their thoughts on one main idea.

Mind mapping methodology allows room for this kind of divergent-to-convergent thinking that is often missing in student writing.

Now to form an organized whole
Once some ideas have been captured and perhaps an inkling of insight gained, it is time to leave the free thought behind and start creating a logical structure for the ideas and information that will make up the final writing. Some mind mapping products (and again, ConceptDraw is one such product) allow users to see or to export the map contents in more traditional outline form:

If the student so chooses, he or she can simply push a button to export the map as a traditional outline, and continue the writing process:
It is fair to say, though, that once your students (or you yourself) get used to working in this more concise, visual way, they may be more inclined to continue to flesh out their ideas right in the map:

… knowing that at any point they can export what they’ve written as a working outline:

One example among many
I’ve used a creative writing assignment as the topic. Regardless of the topic and hand, mind mapping’s ability to integrate multimedia and interactivity allow students to work much more quickly, intuitively and, I would argue, more creatively.

As I noted in the first article in this series, ConceptDraw MINDMAP enables users to embed hyperlinks, images, multimedia, and graphics into a pre-writing document. Students can browse the Internet, link to research resources, and then combine online information with information from other sources—including their own ideas—to enable them to do the kind of preparation that can lead to more reasoned arguments and less head-scratching on the part of teachers.

And again, mind mapping enables students to work in a very information-rich way, with access to all the many forms that information comes in these days. That includes everything from websites, to images and icons, to YouTube videos and information clipped from Facebook or Twitter. Most important of all, mind mapping is designed to help people collect all of this rich information—and then add to it their own insights, reactions, and observations of that information.

It is in delivering a true 21st century mixture of pre-existing information and new ideas that mind mapping shines.

Read the other entries in the series:
Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: The Chunking of Language
Part 4: Improving Research