By daveelf Flickr NC
By daveelf Flickr NC

Teaching for Durable Mental Models

Many years ago, I devised ways to have my students make their thinking explicit for all to see and to discuss! One technique I created was Watch Me Think! We dreamed up as many ways as we could to make this possible.

We tried public journal writing and collaborative idea mapping (as we called it then). I have written much about the former, and wish to address the latter here.

Idea mapping, in my view, comes in two varieties:

  • traditional outliners that are hierarchical & linear in nature (as you would find in any wordprocessor like MS Word or Pages—but not Google), and
  • graphic organizers which may be used hierarchically or in a web-based manner and are graphical in nature. Many graphic organizers also allow for the creation of mind-maps and concept-maps (which can show a relationship among the nodes of of the map).
    • In fact, may of these graphic organizers will also export to an outliner—often a handy feature!

Both categories of these tools are extremely useful—perhaps in different ways. Many excellent resources are available to support you in using them with your students.

Effects With versus Effects Of

However, I wish for deeper and more transferable understandings that students can learn when they are creating mind-maps, concept-maps or outlines. I want both effects with and effects of. It is wonderful that graphic organizers and outliners can improve the quality of students’ work as they use these tools (effects with), but it is as important for these tools to have a more robust impact on student thinking. If students develop mental models as a result of having used graphic organizers or outliners, they are able to apply these in other situations (effects of)—even when computers are not on hand. The model resides in the head.

…place thinking at the centre of the educational enterprise…

Placing thinking at the centre of the educational enterprise in classrooms is very much at the heart of the knowledge-building and visible thinking movement, and so, it makes a lot of sense to make these graphic organizers and outlines as visible as possible within your classroom. Sometimes this might be in your physical space. Other times, they may be, in fact, collaborative documents that are shared and discussable online.

Screen Shot 2014-12-04 at 1.05.20 PM
The outliner allows students to capture main and supporting ideas at the same time.


Does wordprocessing make students better writers?

Research has indicated that students write better whenever they use word processors. Their work is longer, better revised and edited, and so forth. This would constitute effects with.

But can they subsequently write better after having used word processors?

Can they write better without the use of a word processor?

Screen Shot 2014-12-04 at 1.05.45 PM
Shaded bullets allow students to understand organization at a glance.

The answer to these questions is likely dependent on both the connections teachers explicitly make in class as well as the types of activities in which students are engaged while using word processors.

For example, if they use an outlining tool within a word processor or presentation software, they would then have a functional mental structure to carry with them to other tasks.

…helps students develop portable mental models they can carry to other tasks…

How does using the outliner tool differ from just using indents and hard returns? The ability to expand and collapse the headings and subheadings provides, in my opinion, a significant mental model—a model that is durable and independent of the computer. It is what Gavriel Salomon would call a residual effect. How might this be implemented in a classroom? Look at two examples here.

Courtesy: Inspiration website

Graphic Organizers

Similarly, graphic organizers may provide students with the capacity to think differently even when they are not using a computer. They may have the capability to see webs of ideas, and relationships among ideas, as a graphical representation in their mind. This is a tool with which to think—an alternate way of representing knowledge that they may not have at their disposal if they hadn’t used graphic organizers.

In fact, if they move their knowledge from a graphic organizer to an outline for a different view and then back again, they will start to develop a schema of how information can be structured. This is a valuable mental model—a wonderful effect of having used the tools.

Caution: Be careful these activities don’t become yet another worksheet! 🙂

My own experience shows that if outlining and mapping become routinized—like yet another ‘worksheet’—they become ‘something to get done’ and they, therefore, are not done mindfully or intentionally and the intended benefits are lost. Once again we need to understand that learning is strongly affected by the predominant culture of the classroom. So, be sure to value the efforts through conversation and the public discussions related to the thinking involved.

Thinking needs to be a highly valued activity and that should be explicitly and implicitly understood by all in the classroom. John Seely Brown has eloquently stated that learning is often a product of the ambient culture rather than of explicit teaching.


NOTE for Ontario Teachers:

OSAPAC has announced the release of a new Mind Mapping tool, called Mindomo. Brenda Sherry gives some of her thoughts in NEW! Mindomo Mind Mapping for Ontario Learners.