Monday, October 23, 2006

My introduction to concept mapping......

Sometime in high school, I began to construct bubble maps by accident, as I doodled and assembled random pieces of information for essays or reports. These were crude assemblages of sentence fragments and I didn’t associate this activity with the learning process. I was simply trying to put a few sentences or paragraphs together in an order that would make sense in the least amount of time.

First Concept Maps
My first exposure to well-organized concept maps was in my engineering courses, although they were not called concept maps. These were flowchart and circuit diagrams. Later, as a computer systems engineer in industry, much of my time was spent drawing hardware and software systems maps and programming flowcharts, i.e., concept maps, although again they weren’t identified as such.

Later, when I returned to university to complete degrees in biology and toxicology, concept maps were a common occurrence in textbooks. Anyone who has taken courses in these disciplines will recall growth cycle maps, food webs and chains, biogeochemical cycle maps, energetic flow diagrams, biochemistry process diagrams, etc. Eugene Odum’s book, Fundamental’s of Ecology (1971) is packed with examples of such diagrams. And while studying for my final exams in biochemistry, the wall of my study was covered with biochemical concept diagrams.

First Mind Maps
It was following my engineering degree, however, that I also became aware of a kind of mind mapping, but it wasn’t called by that name at the time. I attended an Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics Course and what might now be referred to as modified mind maps were presented as Recall Styles, used to improve the recall of material recently read. These recall styles consisted of various diagrammatic templates for recording information, appropriately named:

  • spider
  • pictorial
  • random
  • radial
  • slash
  • linear
  • and fishbone
Later on, while rummaging about in a book store, I picked up Tony Buzan’s 1974 book, Use Your Head. The book was published by the British Broadcasting Corporation to accompany a series of 10 BBC-TV programmes of the same name. This book not only re-affirmed what I had learned in the Reading Dynamics course about how to read and recall, but expanded on the technique of mind mapping as the foundation for a total learning process, called the Organic Study Method.

A little trivia……..

I don’t believe the terms, mind map and mind mapping, appear anywhere in that first edition of Use Your Head (I still have it). Rather, terms such as Brain Pattern and Knowledge Pattern are used. The 1974 version of the book was reprinted eight times between 1974 and 1977. The 1974 edition was also revised twice (1982 and 1989) by which time, according to later books, the terms Mind Maps and, apparently, Mind Mapping had been coined and trademarked.

According to the U.S. Trademark Application and Registration Retrieval system, The Buzan Organisation, Ltd. filed for registration of “Mind Maps” as a trademark in 1989 and registration was granted in 1990. It was also registered with the U.K. Patent Office about the same time. The submission also indicates that the first use of the term was in 1974, which means that the use of this term occurred shortly after the first edition of Use Your Head was published.

I have been unable to find a registration for “Mind Mapping” in the U.S., Canada, or the U.K. Does anyone know where and when this term was trademarked?

Regardless, I don’t think anyone can realistically dispute the claim that Buzan created or invented both terms.

I have been unable to find any trademark registration for the term, Concept Map, although one was attempted several years ago and was withdrawn or rejected. It’s likely that this term and its counterpart, “Concept Mapping”, are so imbedded in our everyday language that they cannot be trademarked.

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Learning Style......

My initial experience with knowledge maps was no different than Dick and Jane's, even though it may have been a different era. And, in general, it began in elementary school drawing simplified cartographic maps for studying history and geography. I created many of those maps; however, there was never any attempt by our teachers to integrate class notes into them or to create new maps for the notes themselves.

Art, history and geography were favourite subjects of mine and I spent a lot of time at home, studying maps and drawing my own. This might have been a clue to someone about my preferred learning style. But my interest in graphics really didn't fit with the system of teaching at the time.

If asked today about my early school years, I tell'em I was taught in 19th century England, although really it was North America and only the primary school was 19th century. Auditory/linguistic predominant methodology, rote transcriptions and memorization were the only way to learn, and God help those who couldn't regurgitate at exam time.

My parents nixed the school's recommendation for acceleration a couple of times in primary school. I had no difficulty grasping concepts and easily took to mathematics and science--a quick study as they say. I was not a poor reader, but I was definitely slow, although this was apparently not evident to anyone. But I hated to re-read anything, including my notes on any subject......too boring. Consequently, my performance on exams was inconsistent.

My teachers thought a move up might be the challenge I needed; my parents, however, thought I must be learning disabled. How could I understand so much and still manage to struggle on exams? If I had really lived in the 19th century, I have little doubt that I would have ended up in the coal mines by the time I had reached 12 years of age.

Note-taking, note-making, copying, outlining and underlining eventually became 'standard practice' in almost every course in school. By high school, any electives, requiring intensive reading and memorization were dropped. History, geography, Latin--gone; I would have dropped English, but society insists that one must communicate in at least one language. And the university I wanted to attend required that I have one other language, so French remained. I concentrated on the maths and sciences.

I knew nothing about knowledge mapping, concept mapping or any other 'mapping' as a learning tool, or its value as it is used today; and it seems very few people, if any, did during my grade school years. We acquired our learning techniques by osmosis, watching and copying our teachers' performances. The actual teaching of good note-making, outlining and underlining did not exist. And so, I continued using the standard practice through university and into the work environment.

As I moved up in school, I was finding that detailed outlining was consuming too much time and I had to resort to paring down what I recorded. And even though outlining and underlining by the end of high school were so ingrained in my psyche that I did them automatically, I knew I was adopting some very bad habits. While I might retain some detail of the overall subject matter, short-term retention of details was elusive.

The situation was aggravated by my tendency to avoid studying material that I had already covered; I already knew it, so I thought. Why waste time going over material that I already knew? I knew very little about short- and long-term memory.

Eventually, I realized some changes were necessary to my study techniques because trying to do more of what was my usual routine, just put my mind sleep. The explosion of self-help publications was only just about to begin. It was around 1971 that I began to discover some of the alternative learning techniques that I still use today.

Come to think of it, that's about the same time that highlighters came on the market!

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Thursday, October 19, 2006

1956 and all that.......

So what's so special about 1956?

Well for starters:

  • That was the year Elvis recorded his first hit, Heartbreak Hotel, followed quickly by Don't Be Cruel and Hound Dog.

  • It was the year Lennon and McCartney first met.

  • The '56 and '57 Chevys would forever vie for America's top nostalgic car spot.

  • In God We Trust became the US National who did 'we' trust before 1956?

A lot of interesting things happened in 1956 that can be checked out at the link; however, none of this has anything to do with the story......but:

  • George Miller, in the journal, Psychological Review, wrote of being persecuted by the number 7, of the limitations of processing information, and of the span of immediate memory.

  • It was mid-career of the primary reader series, Dick and Jane (and don't forget Spot), which was used in schools from the '30s to mid-'70s. "See Dick Run", "Run Dick Run".......
    (I considered Jack and Jill, but that was too political, they didn't have a dog called Spot, and "Let them eat cake!" didn't seem to have any relevance whatsoever.)

  • Ball-point pens were not permitted in primary school (That's funny because the much messier student's fountain pen was permitted). The ball-point pen became a status symbol: it meant you had moved on up to secondary school where the ball-point was to become the predominant writing tool to this day.

  • Highlighters had not yet been invented.

1956, Dick and Jane are simply symbols, representing an era when teaching and learning styles did not change very much. I probably could have chosen any year within a decade or more of it.

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Saturday, October 14, 2006

Underlining: Introducing another bad habit......

There was another method introduced to students at school, so they could avoid all that copying and outlining; it was called underlining. Of course, this was only practical for textbooks that one owned, but Dick and Jane owned their high school textbooks back then.

Picture a typical day in senior year of history. The teacher would wade through several pages of text each period and tell the class what to underline in the book because it would be important to know for the exams. Dick and Jane would use ball-point pen and a ruler to make sure the lines were neat and straight. And to give the underlined text some semblance of an outline, the teacher would suggest that Dick and Jane number sequences of underlined sentences by circling a number above the beginning of each sentence. By the end of a class period these pages would be covered with ballpoint ink underlining (no highlighters back then).

But the curious thing was that little of the text would ever be left bare. After a semester of this exercise, the book would be virtually useless for re-sale to others, as the ink would eventually bleed through the pages. But some students did buy these books, no doubt thinking, “Hey, the works all done for me!”

This exercise also left Dick and Jane with notes that were harder to study than if the text pages had been left alone in the first place. Transferring the underlined information into outlines in a notebook would help a little, but not much because they hadn't learned how to outline properly.

These techniques, outlining and underlining, eventually resulted in automaton behaviour, a robotic exercise without much recognition of what was actually being underlined or copied.

With the advent of highlighters in the '70s, one would think the process would be improved; at least then, the book could become as uniquely psychedelic as the student chose. But students would use the highlighter in exactly the same manner as underlining; used as a study tool in this manner, it had similar limitations to outlining and underlining.

Dick and Jane probably learned something from these methods of note-making, and some memory retention would be achieved, at least long enough to get through a 2 or 3 hour exam. Compound this situation by multiplying the effort by 8-10, to account for every course taken during a semester, and it should not be difficult to understand why most information was quickly forgotten.

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Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Outlining: a proper method of note-taking......?

By about 1958, Dick and Jane are in their last years of primary school. Note-taking continued to consist primarily of copying whatever was on the teacher’s chalkboard, and study techniques using this information remained pretty rudimentary. However, sometime around late primary school, students were exposed to the “proper” methodology of note-taking for studying a subject: outlining. This wonderful new discovery was to prepare them for high school and beyond.

Outlining was applied to every subject in secondary school and university: obviously it was “the” method—it was universally applied and apparently still is. But in school in the '50s and '60s, it had the uncanny ability to reduce a voluminous amount of text in paragraph format to, well, a voluminous amount of script text, consisting of a series of indented statements. Sure, large amounts of superfluous text, whole paragraphs sometimes, could be excised from reading material; but in general, one was left with a series of statements, each missing perhaps a few modifiers, articles, pronouns, but essentially the original sentences remained intact.

Unfortunately, not all students developed good script writing techniques; trying to study from poorly-scripted outline notes was difficult and boring.

By the end of a semester or year, students had 32-page booklets, volumes 1-xx, on each subject jammed with outlined notes. From high school on in that era, students were required to purchase, at the beginning of each year, not only their own writing materials, but their textbooks as well. Dick and Jane found that the standard notebook for high school was 8.5” x 11”, so more information could be stored on a page. And since their mechanical writing skills now produced more compact and smaller script, they could purchase the narrow-ruled booklets, thereby increasing the amount of information that could be stored on a page by about 50%. What a bargain!

Sometime in high school, many students found that the notebooks were too restricting and opted to use loose-leaved notepaper. For some reason, this decision also freed the student from the cram-filled pages habit and more free-flowing note-taking took place.

Teachers in high school didn’t usually provide complete notes for students. Some outlines might have been handed out or provided on the blackboard, but the majority of notes were expected to be created by the students themselves. Now that Dick and Jane have had a few years of learning how it is done, outlining on their own should be easy. And it was sort of. It was amazing how quickly they could fill up pages and pages of notepaper by copying out of textbooks or transcribing what the teacher may have written on the chalkboard.

And then began the drudgery of final review of all this material before exams.

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