It is a shame that perfectly good teaching tools are constantly being justified with hokum references to neuroscience, says Philip Beadle
Tuesday April 18, 2006 The Guardian
And they come with some grand claims: mind maps “help make your life easier and more successful”, says Buzan in How to Mind Map. You will immediately “think up brilliant ideas” and “gain control of your life”. It is a wonder the world managed to turn without them, really.
The popular science bit goes like this. Your brain has two hemispheres, left and right. The left is the organised swot who likes bright light, keeps his bedroom tidy and can tolerate sums. Your right hemisphere is your brain on drugs: the long-haired, creative type you don’t bring home to mother.
According to Buzan, orthodox forms of note-taking don’t stick in the head because they employ only the left brain, the swotty side, leaving our right brain, like many creative types, kicking its heels on the sofa, watching trash TV and waiting for a job offer that never comes. Ordinary note-taking, apparently, puts us into a “semi-hypnotic trance state”. Because it doesn’t fully reflect our patterns of thinking, it doesn’t aid recall efficiently. Buzan argues that using images taps into the brain’s key tool for storing memory, and that the process of creating a mind map uses both hemispheres.
The trouble is that lateralisation of brain function is scientific fallacy, and a lot of Buzan’s thoughts seem to rely on the old “we only use 10% of the neurons in our brain at one time” nonsense. He is selling to the bit of us that imagines we are potentially super-powered, probably psychic, hyper-intellectuals. There is a reason we only use 10% of our neurons at one time. If we used them all simultaneously we would not, in fact, be any cleverer. We would be dead, following a massive seizure.
Mind maps bring out the staffroom cynic in all of us. It is a shame that perfectly good teaching tools are constantly being justified with hokum references to neuroscience. Teachers want ideas with useful practical applications. If we wanted to be walking authorities on the hippocampus and cerebellum, we would have got better A-levels and worn slightly more conservative clothes.
The mind map is underused in schools because of its association with bad science and with Buzan, the emperor of self-promotion. But, providing you have access to a shipload of coloured pencils and a naughty boy to sharpen them, they are a good and valid classroom method with a variety of applications.
The educationist Ian Gilbert, in his book Essential Motivation in the Classroom, tells a possibly apocryphal story of a school in which revision notes were all in the form of mind maps. Come exam time, teachers erected a giant white screen and asked students to project their recollections of their revision notes on to it. Needless to say, everyone got an A* and world peace was finally achieved.
As visual tools, mind maps have brilliant applications for display work. They appear to be more cognitive than colouring in a poster. And I think it is beyond doubt that using images helps recall. If this is the technique used by the memory men who can remember 20,000 different digits in sequence while drunk to the gills, then it’s got to be of use to the year 8 bottom set.
The problem is that visual ignoramuses, such as this writer, can’t think of that many pictures and end up drawing question marks where a frog should be.
They are no good as planning tools for those with a linguistic bias, as the process of creating one is too bloody slow and, maybe because of all the left-brain-right-brain-cross-filtration-action, they can give you a headache. But they are a useful piece in any teachers’ repertoire, given the right circumstances.
I have always had a particular fondness for one of my father’s tools. It is called a podger, and it does just that: it podges. There comes a time, when you are burning off bolts, when it is the only thing that will do. It’s a useful tool, the podger, but, like the mind map, you shouldn’t mistake it for a universal screwdriver.