The ultimate graphic organizer: the mind map

Our tools are supposed to serve us. Not we the tools.

And it is the conceptual understandings of what underlies knowledge—not apps and facts—that should guide learning and our planning and delivering of instruction.

Graphic organizers are one set of tools that can help students organize information in a variety of formats. Just do a Pinterest search for them and you’ll be presented with thousands of visually attractive and printable options.

What I want to suggest is that the humble mind map can quite easily replace the fast majority of these organizers, notably excepting the mighty Venn Diagram. Students are not limited to thinking according to a single use photocopied graphic organizer handout, though teachers could improvise with these, too. The mind map is easy to f027ea7069f211e8929bd1c03a4fe658.map_teach, supremely malleable, and digital versions are an excellent example of where technology actually enhances the pen and paper versions.

Mind maps mimic the way the brain works

Our brains are individually made up of 100 billion neurons and a 100 trillion neural connections. They are quite likely the most complex things in the entire universe. Every sight we see, song we hear, fragrance we remember, everything, is stored in our minds in these connections. Mind maps can replicate this interconnectedness but on a much less complex level.

Mind maps force us to make connections

While the ability to imitate the brain is not a sufficient argument to show the relevance of mind maps, our being able to make clear the connections between our thoughts is. We need to make sense of all the data that comes in through our senses. We also need to organize information before we are able to communicate it effectively. Mind maps force us to make these connections to show the unity of our points. This in turn makes it more likely that we will able to reveal those connections to our audience.

Mind maps help us organize our information

I love doing brainstorming sessions with my students where I’ll have them shout out all the reasons and points in support of a topic. A simple example from elementary might be the reasons against having school uniforms. Students will blurt out their answers and I’ll add connections to the central node where the topic is written. The next step is to organize those. I’ll ask the students to group them into different categories and ask why they made that decision. For example, “uniforms are hot” can be joined with “uniforms are too loose” to create the category “uncomfortable”. It’s easy for them to see the relatedness of those two ideas under a larger idea.

By doing this process with a simple topic, students can easily see how to organize their information after brainstorming. Using mind mapping software, it’s just a question of clicking and moving.

Mind maps allow us to more easily brainstorm in detail

Sometimes students needs to research a topic at school, such as deforestation. It can be difficult to know where to start if they don’t know much about the topic. Often, I’ll suggest they write the topic in the central node and then add the 6 “W” questions around it: who, what, where, when, why, how. I’ll help them ask some questions and show them how easy it is to generate questions from which they can start their research. They can paste the links they find to the questions themselves, such as in the image below.

ee55e89069fd11e8b7d7dbc65e624983.mapMind mapping works on paper but is enhanced through digital technology

Digital technologies allow concept mapping to be more fluid and collaborative. Digital mind maps can have nodes add, removed, copied, pasted, linked, attached with, images, labeled, etc. very easily. You can see the evolution of your thinking through the undo history. You can organize ideas using colour codes, shapes, or by placing nodes on different parts of the page.

Some online mind maps allow for easy collaboration. Get your students to brainstorm on their own and then join a shared map to share their ideas. Organizing and sorting information is one of the most foundational things our minds need to be able to do in order to thrive in life.

How do we show the nuance of different ideas when constrained by straight lines? What are the interconnections between my ideas? What is being excluded when I organize information in this way? Students need to practice making these kinds of decisions from an early age. And so a mind map is scalable, from a simple concept map with three subpoints in a Grade 1 classroom to the horrific complexity of a PhD dissertation diagram.

Mind maps in the classroom

Like I’ve said, it doesn’t take much to introduce a student to mind maps and how to make them on a computer. As with many things tech-related I find that most students can figure out the technology with little direct teaching. And there is always one student in the classroom who seems to grasp these things especially quickly.

As an EAL teacher, I sometimes see my students in their homeroom classes and am always pleased to see them open up an online mind map to do brainstorming or organizing.

I also find that if the whole class is accustomed to using mind mapping software, I can sometimes use body language to accompany what I’m saying by pointing out imaginary central nodes and dependent nodes. “Topic here. Who, what, where, when, why, and how, go all around it on the outside. Got it?”

Betty Garner in her book Getting to Got It shows how many students that struggle in school have underdeveloped cognitive structures, that is ways to organize the world. What often gets mistaken for a learning disability is in fact a misconception about the way the world is organized and can be expressed. Weak students will slop together very disparate types of information without anything to hang that information on. I’ve found that mind mapping can be a simple step forward in helping weaker students develop these cognitive structures.

Mind mapping software

I currently use Mindmup 2 as my main mind mapping software. It has basic functionality and can be linked with a Google Drive account. There are no limits to the number of maps you make and you are allowed to collaborate with it. There is no mobile phone app to go with it, however.

Below is a table with a simple summary of the features offered from a variety of services. Note that “free (limited)” generally means you can only make three maps at a time, reduced file size, and there is usually no collaborative features. But this is often enough for students. After they’ve created their maps, they can download, or even screenshot them to free up a spot for a new one.

Name Cost iOS/Android Web Desktop
Mindmup 2 free/paid yes no no
Mindomo free (limited)/paid teacher rate yes yes yes
Simplemind free (limited)/paid yes no yes
Coggle free (limited)/paid no yes no free (limited)/paid no yes no
MindMeister free (limited)/paid educational rate yes yes no

Garner, Betty K. Getting to “got It!”: Helping Struggling Students Learn How to Learn. Victoria, AT: Hawker Brownlow Education, 2008.

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