The Power of Mind Mapping

'When my teacher uses mind maps it helps me to see how it all fits together. We learned the story of Macbeth using a mind map. We thought it was really exciting. I thought, "If I were Macbeth, would I be so bad?" I hope not! Maybe the king would have just died anyway, and Macbeth needn't have killed him. The witches are exciting because they just stir things up and disappear. It made me go all tingly to think about it. Some people say Macbeth is boring, but I think that is just because they don't understand the story. Mind maps help because you can see the whole thing on the board and draw pictures to help you remember it.'Ellen, age 10

We are all natural mappers. The brain responds to stimuli by creating complex electro-chemical activity. In each new situation, the pattern of complex connections will be different. For example, when Harry plays in the water tray with a big blue funnel, he will recall that the water splashes, that his sleeves may get wet, and that if he lets go of the funnel, Marco may take it. The next time that he plays in the water tray, he may well make a connection about the seaside, because someone naughty put some sand in the water! He may also decide to try to tie the big blue funnel to his apron strings, because at the weekend he watched Mommy attach the dog's leash to her belt as she rushed to answer the phone. Harry may also, at the same time, be wondering if he should try to fit the sand under the shells, because the teacher may blame him for putting the sand in the water. Yet he knows that the sand will not stay under the shells, because he's tried that before, the last time that he put sand in the water tray! Maybe, he thinks, it would be better to play with the play-dough, after all. But then again, how would the play-dough feel if he put it in the water tray?

In Harry's mind a complex map is forming as he plays. Connections are being made between concepts from a wide variety of experiences. He is not aware of the origin of most of his thoughts, but he is connecting continually. We all map, all the time. No two maps are the same, not even the maps of the same person in the same situation, as the connections that we make are complex and incredibly detailed. Using mapping techniques with children in the classroom utilizes the fact that we naturally make connections. Creating a map draws the learner's attention to the connections that otherwise may remain subconscious. It also gives the teacher the opportunity to engage with the thinker, to add more connections, to draw attention to new ideas, and to assess the understanding of the child.

There are five key steps for mind mapping

  • Write the key concept in the middle
  • Branch off with ideas as children suggest them
  • Write only key words and use lots of symbols
  • Begin to group and organize as ideas start to flow
  • Use arrows and colors to connect ideas

Practitioners working with very young children can create 3D mind maps, using real items along with pictures and key words. This comes naturally to children, and while children build and add to their map, adults can help by offering the language needed to support the connections that the children are making. Children can be gathered onto the carpet area and a card with a word like 'Wood' can be laid in the center. Everyone can then take turns to fetch items that create the map - a chair, a ruler, a pencil, a wooden toy, for example. These items can be connected with paper strips, ribbon, or even, for the brave, by unraveling lengths of toilet paper across the room to connect items!

As the map expands, the adult can ask questions such as, "Do we have other writing tools that are not made from wood?" Suddenly, a new category of 'non-wood' items can be included. Or, she might ask, "Is this toy made only of wood, or are there other materials, and what is used to hold it together?" Now a child might decide to fetch a bottle of glue, to show how wood can be often fixed together by glue, and an investigation can be instigated into which adhesives work best on different materials. If the adults relax and let the children be creative, there are endless places that a simple mind map might lead!

Sometimes the adult might have a specific purpose in creating a mind map, which is fine as long as she is also prepared to listen and let the children share the control and decision making about where the map leads. She might have brought some items to the carpet with her. This is an excellent way to expand thinking and introduce new concepts. Maybe she has brought a wooden dreidel, or a tank with some stick insects living on a log, or photographs of a forest. There are endless possibilities for mapping as a method for making connections in our thinking and supporting children as they encounter new ideas and language.

After the map is complete, it can be dismantled, or it can be recorded in several ways. An adult can transfer the information onto a large piece of paper, or take a photograph of the map, or photographs of each group of items, to be enlarged and pinned on the wall. Or, the photographs of separate parts of the mind map can be laminated and left out on a table for children to play with at a later stage.

Mind Map example

On the left is shown a simple mind map, sometimes called a memory map, created by a group of young children who were learning about doctors. The teacher worked with the class to map their knowledge before the topic started, and again at the end. This activity enabled her to assess how much the children had learned, and how successful her teaching had been. A few months later, she mind mapped again, to assess how much had been retained. This gave her the information she needed to plan her next topic. By grouping children to map, she could assess individual progress and depth of understanding. In this way, an alternative new system of assessment is created. Where other systems of assessment can suppress creativity and learning, mapping is an active, positive, ongoing process that encourages creativity and independent thought.

Teachers of older children often ask individuals to map their understanding of a topic, then add to the map at the end of each session. This gives children a clear idea of their own progress. Many teachers find it useful to display mind maps on the classroom walls, using them for reference during lessons and to make connections between one lesson and the next. Once children have learned how to map, they can usually do so independently, and devise their own ways to record their thinking. By teaching children to mind map when they are young they are gaining a skill that they will be able to utilize in many different situations as adults.

Mind mapping can be an individual or a collaborative process. For example, many teachers find that mind mapping can prevent individual lesson plans from becoming routine or stale. Mapping is an ideal way for colleagues to work together on curriculum planning, or for whole teams to organize and collect thoughts about wider school issues. By putting emphasis on developing these skills, the process of mapping can form a basis for teamwork and cooperation among all members of the community for any project or task.

Mind mapping opens the power of the mind and removes the stress about being 'right'. There is no one way to map, and each map is as individual as the people who created it. Mapping is not just a tool for teaching, or a skill to impart to children. Mind mapping is a skill for life.