Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Mind-mapping What?

Will Richardson's blog reminded me to share some thoughts I've been ruminating over for several years. Will does an outstanding job of spotting and sharing new software tools, particularly those of the Web 2.0 variety. Some of these tools demonstrate human ingenuity, many make a small improvement on existing software and one or two may even make a real splash, in either social impact or as a commercial product. Will's recent blog posting, Mind Mapping Love, discussed new online tools for brainstorming, mapping and planning.

Upon reflection I felt compelled to ask, "After all of this mapping, brainstorming and planning, what do the students actually do? Is it better than what they wrote, filmed, acted, composed or constructed before such tools existed? What's the point?"

I began asking such questions a few years ago when I keynoted a national educational technology conference overseas. The walls of the convention center corridors were lined with display boards containing student work. One would assume that this work exemplified the most extraordinary efforts from this nation's classroms. However, upon further inspection I saw walls covered in three bubble Inspiration maps. Plants need... Water, Sunlight, Cool-Whip... That sort of stuff.

I was horrified. Why would we display such crap on the walls of a national conference?

This is like publishing an outline of a novel, without the novel, except it is worse than that. What I routinely see in schools is the equivalent of publishing the first three words of the outline of a novel without ever writing the novel. It's then printed in fancy fonts and framed by brightly colored construction paper before affixing to a bulletin board. I've seen it a zillion times in classrooms all over the world. The pride educators gain from such incomplete work is an acute example of what Seymour Papert calls verbal inflation.

Again, what's the point?

I have no reason to doubt that Will Richardson was an amazing teacher who inspired his students to express themselves with a clarity and fluency beyond their years. With Will's guidance mind-mapping, brainstorming or outlining resulted in exceptional writing or journalism. But what about his protegés? Do the students of Will's many followers produce work they can be proud of? Do their efforts justify the investment in hardware and software? Based on my observations, I fear not.

I often wonder why the package, Inspiration, has been such a runaway success. Almost every school with a computer owns a copy, while countless schools have it installed on every computer. One would think that all of this planning would lead to an explosion in creativity and dramatic improvements in student communication abilities, but aside from small anecodotal examples, no such evidence exists. Admittedly, my inner cynic gets curious whenever large numbers of educators are suddenly excited about anything. I like to know why.

Perhaps the enthusiasm for pre-writing tools, such as the Inspiration and the ones Will writes about, is based on the fact that schools hate process. Pre-writing/planning/brain-storming represents the first stage of a four or five part writing process. In order to gain benefit from this process, each stage must be completed. No step of the process is more important than another. They are equally critical. Well, at last that's the theory.

The reality of school is that teachers routinely cherry-pick the part of the process which best suits them or fits within their time constraints. This has a lot to do with why "whole language" was vilified. Teachers embraced the invented spelling aspect of the pre-writing and writing stages, but never got around to actual editing or publishing. Putting invented spelling on the wall or in publications that leave the classroom is asking for trouble.

Some teachers focus on an essay's cover, word count or fonts used while others brainstorm, but never get around to having the children write anything of substance.

This might be because writing is so hard and teachers are insecure about their own writing. An even more likely hypothesis for why the writing process rarely leaves the starting gate is time. It takes a wizard or decathelete to edit 150-200 pieces of student writing, so why require it? Even orchestrating effective peer-editing procedures takes time few teachers enjoy between the bells and other structural distractions of the modern school day. So, we skip a few steps. Favoring one step over the others tends to undermine the entire process.

We all had at least one teacher who required that an outline be turned in, even if it was written after the essay. Such requirements are profoundly indifferent and disrespectful to each distinct learner. With modern outlining tools the curriculum is too often on identifying the form of brainstorming or the shape of a mind-map, rather than on what should be the product resulting from the tool's use. Too many teachers focus on the mechanics of these tools at the expense of developing articulate creative students. Not every writer requires an outline and most "real" writing results from a much more fluid process.

Another potential reason for the emphasis on brainstorming and mind-mapping is that the activity lends itself to being teacher-centric. I've seen countless demonstrations of pre-writing in which the teacher solicits ideas from the class (with differing degrees of coercion) and then creates the visual representation on the board or computer via projection. The locus of control shifts away from the learner to the teacher. The proliferation of expensive "interactive" white boards ensures that the teacher will never relinquish control or stop dominating the life of the classroom.

Writing is inherently learner-centered. Great writers know that writing may only really ever be taught mano a mano. Effective teachers use a bag of tricks to distract the rest of the class or create peer editing situations, but writing is a recursive process of continual writing and revision. That's MUCH harder to do than make a diagram, print it out and stick it on a wall (or web page).

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  • Hi Gary,

    First, glad you started a blog. Look forward to reading what you have to contribute to the conversation.

    Second, thanks for the kind words about my teaching, though I have to tell you that in my 18 years of teaching exposition, nary a mind map passed through my class. Personally, I agree with your general assessment of Inspiration et al. My own use of mind maps has little to do with actual writing, which as you point out, requires much more sweat equity. But I am a visual "learner" and like to organize ideas and patterns in that way.

    By Anonymous Will, At August 7, 2007 4:43 AM  

  • This entire post is based on your assessment of the student work, specifically:

    > One would assume that this work exemplified the most extraordinary efforts from this nation's classroms. However, upon further inspection I saw walls covered in three bubble Inspiration maps. Plants need... Water, Sunlight, Cool-Whip... That sort of stuff.

    This is the only evidence you offer for your assertions, and yet it didn't occur to you to take a photograph or find some online examples or anything that would allow us to judge for ourselves?

    You have neither shown that the students' work is bad, nor that ood writing doesn't not follow from that work (assuming that was the intent of the work at all). Which makes this post nothing but pure rhetoric, attacking for no purpose, raising the question, why?

    By Anonymous Downes, At August 7, 2007 6:30 AM  

  • I think anyone who's visited a classroom in the past 30 years can see the evidence pretty quickly. It's not just Inspiration, it's flashy powerpoints, it's posters and dioramas created by students, it's basically 'show and tell' things teachers make students create to show the principal and the parents that the teachers are getting students to do things. I wouldn't blame the teachers though, it is how they are judged too often by parents and principals.

    By Anonymous Doug Holton, At August 7, 2007 8:12 AM  

  • Gary,
    I also agree with your general cautions about misusing this tool... the same cautions are warranted for any learning too. I don't think most users of Inspiration or other semantic mapping tools in school really use them as semantic mapping tools... mostly because most do not and rarely or never have had their students create true semantic maps of anything. This does not negate the power of the semantic map. Just as writing is a recursive, the authoring of a good semantic map requires revisions and edits until it is accurate. This process can really help the learner clarify for him/herself the concept being worked on... and it does give the teacher a picture of current schema.

    But, I must say, that there is power in a piece of software that for the first time can motivate students to plan prior to writing. If you can get students to WANT to prewrite or plan out a project of any sort, such pieces of software are wonderful - even if they are not being used as semantic mapping tools. The bottom line of course is always in the pudding, or product, to be sure. A flashy "map" certainly does not guarantee a quality final product and is not always "evidence" of learning. If one acknowledges this, isn't that okay?

    The final goal does not change... Let's help teachers help students. Criticism is a good thing when viable solutions and resources are offered.

    By Anonymous Stephen, At August 7, 2007 2:01 PM  

  • Stephen,

    I do not believe that I needed to offer specific solutions in this case, as you suggest, for the simple reason that I advocated good students writing well. Part of writing well is spending the time and effort involved in the writing process.

    My criticism of "School's" embrace of these tools is that teachers use them for the purpose of teaching the tool or for short-changing the writing process. Semantic mapping is often an end-in-itself and teacher-centered.

    By Anonymous Gary, At August 11, 2007 3:26 PM  

  • Gary,
    I guess I see no problem with semantic mapping being an end [product] in itself. A great deal of critical thinking (and sometimes writing) goes into making a good semantic map. The problem that you are referring to is the one discussed earlier that too many "maps" are made with very little critical thinking - analysis, synthesis, evaluation... They are just cute graphics with literal, verbatim information... the obvious. Semantic maps do not always have to lead to prose writing.

    I don't see teaching centeredness as an attribute of semantic mapping. There is a deeper issue at play here, I think we can both agree.

    Excellent topic in need of discussion. Thanks!

    By Anonymous Stephen, At August 13, 2007 4:15 PM  

  • The role of teacher in any learning ecology is to help students use tools to solve problems. Some folks hate this instrumental approach to learning, but my experience is that students do best when confronted with a problem and given a toolset to solve it.

    I think this means that a teacher needs to learn how to help students reach for the right tool when and where he or she needs it. In my university classes some tools are useful for almost everything. For example, I teach a research methods class in which Firefox and several of its extensions (Zotero especially) are handier than a pocket on a shirt. In this case the tech tool is ancillary to the larger issue--how do I get this research done?

    I also regularly show them what is becoming available on the net, I show them what I use and why it is valuable to me, and I show them how I accept and reject new technology. This means that if mindmapping is valuable to students, I teach them the tool both in class and outside of it using other tools like podcasts, vodcasts, screencasts, slidecasts, and all the other paraphernalia of a tech-enabled life.

    But in the end all of this talk about what is appropriate tech for the classroom is utter bullshit. Every tool is fair game. We could argue about the few tools must be taught to all, but mostly students have to become confident that they are quite able to learn to learn for themselves.

    As far as teaching a tool for its own sake--I think this is fine at some point and I think students need to see someone in their schools embracing curiosity as an end in itself, that are not pressed into service to solve real problems will be relegated to the bottom tray of your number 2 toolbox and forgotten. Considering how few tools many of my students come to me with, that is a criminal waste of everybody's time.

    Given its proper classroom context, it might be totally appropriate to teach mindmapping software, so please don't try to convince me I can't do that. I find that this job increasingly is to evaluate and make considered choices about sharing all forms of technology. Perhaps what we should be asking is how do we develop ways to decide which forms of tech to use and which to leave aside for the present. I guarangoddamntee you that isn't being taught in ed schools. It pisses me off that this isn't hopelessly obvious.

    By Anonymous tellio, At August 17, 2007 5:37 AM  

  • While I am not a huge Inspiration fan even though I have used it and find it somewhat cool, I do agree with Stephen. It is great if this helps motivate students. Shoot, I will stand on my head if that would work. Pre-writing and brainstorming IS only one part, but it is the first part. We have to get them started.

    By Anonymous SherryC, At August 17, 2007 10:22 PM  

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