Alternative Uses for Mind-Mapping in The Writing Classroom

I’m sure that a majority of those who teach writing at one point or another introduce students to the invention strategy called “mind mapping” — a form of brainstorming that supposedly draws the more artsy “right brain” (as opposed to the logical “left brain”) into the process. I think of mind mapping as a sort of unconscious flowcharting. Instead of listing ideas (thinking hierarchically and organizing ideas in a vertical order) or freewriting (thinking in a non-edited associational manner, capturing a stream-of-consciousness), the mind map invites students to draw relational connections between their ideas because they might not otherwise see those connections in a different sort of writing. It also is more organic and follows the natural tendency of the eye to scan the page (as we might a painting), rather than read from top to bottom (as we might a grocery list). And it encourages drawing associations between ideas that we might otherwise be blind to. (As Nick Duffill puts it, “there is more information in the lines of the map than in the words.”)

Generally, I’d say that a large number of my students tend to use this method. If they haven’t already adopted it, I suspect they find mind mapping more creative and flexible than the brainstorming methods they’ve been practicing (and since it encourages chaos to some degree, they love getting sloppy on the page).

Yesterday, I read about other types of mind maps at Duffill’s ‘Beyond Crayons’ blog, and — after consulting wikipedia’s entry on the topic — realized that perhaps there are ways I can tap into the student’s enjoyment of mind mapping for other areas of the writing process beyond just inventing, woolgathering, and brainstorming before they begin to write.

There are a variety of mind map types and mind maps uses. For example, Duffill mentions “tunnel timeline” mind maps, which focus on delivering an outcome of some kind. Traditionally, these are ways of mapping out the timeline for a project when various actions are required by different groups in an organization. But I could try to get students to plan their writing process in this way. Or, alternatively, I can have them use project outlines for their papers/stories using this method, whether already drafted or not, by thinking of their “outcome” as a thesis, or in fiction, a “single desired effect.” It also might get them to synthesize their ideas more tightly, inviting them to let go of the stiff outlining methods some of them emotionally cling to when they hold to the infamous “five paragraph paper” structure.

What if I had students outline an article or book using the mind map method? Or what if during a student peer editing session, I had the student who was reading the paper try to outline the writer’s essay using a mind map approach? Would they generate comments on the paper they might not otherwise make? Would they see connections or diagnose disorganization in a way that would assist the writer in revision? To see how a reader envisions the structure might be enlightening.

I’ll have to do some mind mapping myself, to come up steps in the student writing process where this method might be useful to perform as a class.
Innovation tools offers a Mind Map resource center, including links to various software methods available. If you’re into Palm-enabled teaching, I recommend PicoMap, which is a mindmap program for the handheld computer and is made with the educator and student in, well, in mind.

Published by

Michael Arnzen

Professor of English, Seton Hill University.

4 thoughts on “Alternative Uses for Mind-Mapping in The Writing Classroom”

  1. In our school, PreK-8th grade, we use “Thinking Maps.” Students begin in PreK with Circle Maps (brainstorming) and then progress. Here’s a great link with an explanation and examples I teach students to use the Flow Map for plot development and the Tree Map for developing characterization (writing “Thoughts,” “Feelings,” and “Actions” in each column.) During reading I use the MultiFlow Map to help students understand causal relationships. This year, 4th and 5th grade students decided to petition the principal for a room change and they spontaneously used Thinking Maps to organize their thoughts and compose a surprisingly well written letter. Thinking Maps are excellent and I use them myself to organize my own thinking and writing.

  2. Thank you, John, and Happy Thanksgiving to all!
    Thanks, as well, Nancy, for the link to those Thinking Maps. I can see the usefulness of these designs immediately! Good suggestion.

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