Exploring the Unknown

Exploring the Unknown
Representing the 99%!

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Markers, MindMaps and Me By Jennifer Fawcett

Pony up & Make A Difference!
Sometimes it's worth spending the $7 on a package of 50 different coloured markers, and bringing them to class. It's only fair to say that if you ask your students to bring in coloured pens, you will be lucky if a couple of them do. The rest will be relying on a motley collection of highlighters and stubs of pencil crayons. I say this without judgment, after all, rainbow coloured markers are not normally a required item of stationery at college or university level. In fact, note taking is at times a dying art. There are those of us who remember blotchy acetates (and grumpy professors who refused to move their big arm out the way of the projector's light, so we could barely read the acetate), and it's easy for us to declare today's youth "spoiled" by the variety of technologies that eliminate the need for note taking.

Do the Doodle!
However, all bitterness aside, I think it is fair to say that most students have some way of recording notes, and the preparatory motions of taking out a pen and paper are still very common, even if the student doesn't actually write anything down. But more interestingly, I notice often that moving a pen or pencil is a very common way of trying to focus while someone is speaking. My first impression was that the doodling student was very distracted and not paying attention to me, but when I considered my coping mechanism for 'remaining in the room' during a long meeting is to make all kinds of doodling marks around the notes I am taking, I took a step back and realized that perhaps we aren't so different, students and teachers....

 Photo © Baldvin Georgsson
This also led me to notice that some of the doodles that students make are extremely intricate, and they may sport equally intricate tattoo work, or carefully chosen colour combinations of clothing, or have bright nails or stripy socks. But again, I remind you, colour and pattern has no place in the serious world of academia, of social science research methodologies, of 101 classes designed to introduce you to a sepia world of old bearded men. Or at least this is what I am starting to think my students believe. When I ask them what they think, they ask me what I want them to think. What will be the answer that gets the highest grade? Which most closely resembles the textbook answer?

Free Radical

When we consider that the battle cry of C.W. Mills was to use our sociological imagination (which is obviously a multicoloured mythical phenomenon), this seems a sad state of affairs. How to give students the courage to think on their own two feet, to cast around their own world to find something to research, to speak about what it is that they see, notice and wonder about, to want to find out more?  To want to question their own preconceptions, to test the safe and tepid waters they have grown up in and seek the stormier ocean of "real Life" whatever that may be? Surely this should be the teacher's challenge.

Born To MindMap
When I was in university, I had the luck to come across Tony Buzan's How to Mind Map book and it changed my essay planning, studying and note taking dramatically for the better.  Not because I was a bad note taker before, but because I got to use colours and creativity and lightheartedness mixed in with all the serious study I had to get accomplished.  Ironically, Tony Buzan has pretty strict rules about how to create a MindMap but his argument is that simplifying the structure of the MindMap actually allows more creativity and brain connections to flourish. And the sad fact is that many of our regimented, factory processed study styles have left our students unable to sit down at a blank page and "produce" with no guidelines. So for me, this is in reality a bonus and makes the MindMap method more usable in a classroom situation. There is even MindMap software available now.  At first I was skeptical about it, but after playing around with the free trial, I can attest that it is extremely user friendly, intuitive, colourful and fun. Also - it's great for making presentations, because you can import the final map into a powerpoint and beam it around the classroom for all to marvel at. Here's one I made with the free trial...

Now, of course you don't have to use these techniques or this method of MindMapping. I am also wary  of "computerising" everything.  It's even more fun and dare I say relaxing to make your own MindMap with those aforementioned markers...

I used this technique with research methodology students who were in the stage of trying to come up with a research question. Saying it was an unmitigated success would be a mistake. Many were afraid to "do it wrong", some took out rulers to draw the "branches" (Tony Buzan says No! Wavy and organic please...) and many students were very resistant to the idea. They would tell me they were finished, and I would force them to add one more branch or one more image.

However, out of the corner of my eye, I could see one or two taking real pleasure in picking the colours they would use or decorating a branch. I call this the "Lego sensation", it's the thrill of pleasure grown human beings get when they get their hands on some Lego blocks. Crayola markers have the same effect on some. It is also a useful tool for group work - maybe for the sole reason it unites the group against the oddball teacher, but I did notice a certain freedom that comes from being able to draw and doodle to your heart's content. It also does away with questions such as "How many words should we do?" or "single spaced or double spaced" which makes my blood run cold...

When teaching about coming up with a conceptual hypothesis for a research project, we tell our students that concepts are multi-dimensional, we have to think creatively about what we are trying to measure, that different concepts mean different things to different people. Then we give them *no tools* to talk about these things, to use their imagination, to record their observations, to say "what if...?". For me, there is nothing sadder than a class of social science students asking their teacher to tell them what to research. Given free choice of topic, they would prefer I told them what I wanted them to do so they got the highest grade possible. And that's a post for another day.

Some might argue that an activity like this is hard to evaluate because what is produced is more style over substance. In fact, many students worried that I would give them a lower grade because they were "bad at art." In response, I posit that there is plenty of substance to any method which turns what we know on its head. Or so says my little sociologist heart anyway...

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