Using Mind Maps to Think Through Complex Concepts

My tenth-graders are working on an essay in response to the question, “Is democracy the best form of government?” I gave them the essential question at the outset of the unit, and our class time has largely been spent discussing and making sense of evidence and arguments that the students will need to weigh when it comes time to write about their own position.

Throughout the unit, the students not only have to keep track of a lot of information from a diverse array of sources, they also have to keep track of their own thinking as they try to form an argument.

In service of teaching students how to simultaneously take in, keep track of, and reflect on information, I’m using a tool called Mindomo (you can use a version for free, and the teacher license is something like $100/year). I use regular old notebook-and-pen mind maps pretty frequently. Mind-mapping allows students to draw connections between themes and complex concepts, which in turn helps them to make sense of chronology and how things fit together. Turning a mind map into a linear outline helps the students to sort through their conclusions, connections, and ideas, and to translate abstract thoughts into a cohesive and logical argument.

Mind mapping does those things in its traditional form, but the online tool has a pretty cool functionality: I can watch the students create the mind maps and add in sources, and then I can comment on their maps in real time. Today in class, as my students were reading and annotating Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, I could watch as they added in quotations and analysis, and then give them written comments. They can save those comments for later and refer back to them as they’re creating outlines. They can also link to websites we’ve read, PDFs I’ve saved to Google Docs, and videos we’ve watched. Again, teachers can obviously do this the old-fashioned way, but I like that with the digital version the students can link to all of the assigned sources, and that I can comment on what they’re doing as they’re doing it. Here’s a screenshot of what this looks like:


On the lefthand side, the student is taking notes on the Allegory. The blue bubbles are her mind map, and the righthand side shows where I’m commenting on her work.

I often find that educational technology tools take a bit more time to figure out how to integrate than they’re worth. Most of the time it seems like teachers can get the same amount of value through traditional pen-and-paper exercises. But this made a pretty solitary activity (reading and annotating) more interactive, and allowed me to watch and give feedback on their process, and it didn’t take much more effort than just setting up student accounts.



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