Day in and day out, we teachers enter our classrooms hoping that today we can make a difference. Often we hope that we can lift the lid to a child’s brain and find out how it is really functioning. If only we can match our teaching styles to the learning patterns our students need.

Looking at a regular classroom, there are those who are very linear, organizing their thoughts as the curriculum unfolds, filing information in their expansive file-drawers with information readily available and easily found. Then there are those who have impulsive, creative minds that wander from pillar to post. Organization is a mystery, partial understanding leads to misinformation, and sequencing comes erratically as one is thinking without order. ADHD brains on impulse scatter and dump ideas as they come their way. Storytelling is a circular affair, overrun with details, lacking sequence, and often jumping off track to tell another story.

Is there an antidote for those whose brains seem scrambled and disorganized?

Mindmapping was created by Tony Buzan in the mid 1980s and clearly explained in his workbook, The Mind Map Book: How to Use Radiant Thinking to Maximize Your Brain’s Untapped Potential (Plume, 1996). The process at its core is very simple. I found that students from fourth grade on readily adapt to the system, and when they are comfortable with the process, they automatically use it for notetaking and brainstorming for written assignments, increasing memory and understanding. No, this is really not a miracle cure, but from the time I heard Tony speak in 1988, I have continued to use this technique on an ongoing and reliable basis.

Well, what exactly is mindmapping and how does it work?

A mindmap is a diagram used to represent works, ideas, tasks, or other facts linked and arranged a central key word or idea. Mindmaps are used to generate, visualize, structure, and classify ideas. Mindmapping is an aid in studying and organizing information, problem solving and decisionmaking.

Characteristics of mindmapping include drawings, color, clustering, symbols, and arrows or trails to indicate relationships, leaving a pictorial approach to the subject. Relying on the concept that a picture is worth a thousand words, one mindmap may help a cluster of ideas, enhancing relationships and factual knowledge. Rehearsal is a vital part of the memory process, as is sleep.

One of the easiest ways to understand mindmapping is through Gabriele Rico’s Writing the Natural Way (Tarcher, 2000). As our learners with ADHD are hands-on folks, they are eager to be involved. Learners who are numb to learning take on a new spark.

Let’s begin with a simple writing exercise. Each child in the classroom has a large piece of drawing paper, and an assortment of colored Pentel markers with a fine point, as well as lined writing paper and a pen or pencil. Write a simple word like green in the middle of the whiteboard. Circle the word as a focus. Jump around the room encouraging students to give words or ideas that pop into their minds when hearing the word green. Cluster the ideas that fit together, writing them in the same or similar color. After the bustle dies down, have the students write a story about green. There is no right or wrong approach; therefore, everyone is a winner. Continue by allowing the students to volunteer to read their stories.

Next use a well-liked word like ice cream. Students write “ice cream” in the center of the drawing paper and add whatever they like. I would tell the students that when the ideas began to rush like a train they were ready to write their stories. I encouraged them to use symbols instead of words to help them remember ideas, to draw or express themselves in any way that had meaning to them. It was a task of sanctioned doodling and creative expression.

The student wrote:
It’s a warm sunny day and I’m at the beach. It is so hot I bought an ice cream cone. It had chocolate, vanilla and strawberry ice cream and it was yummy. Oh golly I have to eat fast it’s dripping all over my fingers.

An earlier version from this student was:
 I ate ice cream at the beach and it dripped.

I continually found that with the brainstorming of words in front of them, the student wrote more fluidly, and had a richer story full of descriptors and often humor.

The rules are simple:
1. Start at the center.
2. Use pictures and more pictures.
3. Use colors.
4. Connect everything on the map that you want to use.
5. Use key words or phrases, don’t write too much.

The student now has a tool to reinforce his or her own creativity, a visual to follow and tracking of ideas. Many soon add to their stories and feel much more successful then when asked to write from a starter sentence, such as I ate an ice cream cone and…

As students with ADHD often have trouble adjusting to new ideas and shifting gears to a new way of working, many repetitions will be needed to make the student comfortable with this new process.

How else can we use mindmapping?

Classroom lectures and other repetitive processes are often met with little or no reaction. Students sit, sometimes listen, and engage very little in what is being presented. This is a perfect time to introduce mindmapping as a hands-on intervention that encourages the doodling so often seen, but with style and purpose.

History is a prime example of subject matter that is hard to remember. Facts and situations are often muddled in the student’s cranial storehouse. Often students are not even aware that history is a story of people who lived before them, and that events relate to who they are and what they have now. Let’s change that. Using the mindmapping skills begun in story writing, turn the process toward notetaking and factual recall.

Begin again by writing the focus title in the center of the paper. As information is collected, draw and note critical information, and add embellishments and comments as the story progresses. When the story has been told, the students then rehearse the story immediately at the end of the mindmapping. This process is critical to short-term memory. Students then have a chance to add information they daydreamed through or failed to enter.

Homework is to rehearse the frame once more in the evening, get a good night’s sleep, and read it again at breakfast. As many students do not carry through on assignments and fail to see the value of this exercise, a class rehearsal is held at the beginning of the next history class. In this way you are ensuring better success in memory.

An example of a student’s mindmap after hearing the Paul Revere video follows.

If everyone in the class is encouraged to mindmap their responses, all will be focusing on what they know. While often mindmapping is a technique forced on a few students because they are learning differently, it is my philosophy that all students can benefit from this strategy. It is a win/win situation. For notetaking the list of activities should include:

1. Outline the issue
2. Brainstorm what you know about the issue
     a. Color code to show relationships
3. Q and A
     a. What do we know
     b. What don’t we know
4. Rehearsal
     a. At the end of the exercise
     b. Before and after sleep
5. Chart the student’s progress as to the volume of information retained

Students affected by ADHD will often be silent, as they are reticent to participate due to fear of failing or trying something new. Have patience. Encourage the sharing of mindmaps until they are a more comfortable response method. Mindmaps are the backbone of graphic organizers, and students may move on to these more structured response sheets. Technology supports the technique using Inspiration and its derivatives; FreeMind is a free software.

However, the freedom to initiate and involve the student in a more active learning through interaction and visualization is often the key to concept development. I like the hands-on approach first. The technology adds bells and whistles that need to be learned in order to produce a map. On the positive side, the software can lead the student directly to an outline of the material.

Is this the answer to all your problems? Definitely not! However, the results seen by others include:
1. The super learner gets it right off the bat, is on target and enjoys this new learning style.
2. The moderate learner may not get it at first but when the “aha” comes, they find it a comfortable prop to explain concepts and ideas.
3. The struggling learner finds the idea a release from the struggle of getting ideas onto paper, has a reference to help, and is in the trenches gaining concepts despite their reluctance to learn.

Yes, the ADHD brain’s style of learning is a puzzle to some. We do appear to learn differently. We’re not broken, just focused in another direction, or off to explore something new. Visual reinforcement is vital, as many of us rely upon it to supplement the muddle our brains get into when trying to search for facts or issues.

I believe that I found mindmapping valuable because it spoke to my learning style. After I met Tony Buzan and took his workshop, I instantly recalled why his methods made so much sense to me. It was the way I operated. I immediately recalled a world history exam in high school. I don’t remember the question, but I do remember my answer: Page 237, Paragraph 3, second line. I think the teacher wanted to know some general’s name and year… needless to say, I did poorly on the exam and was berated before the class for my obstinate and belligerent response to the question. It sounded okay to me at the time, and still does today.

We all learn differently, act differently, and retain information differently. For me, learning definitely includes a need for visualization. So, I leave you with my story and hope you can benefit from theses experiences.

Until next month,

Joan