As I’ve written about before, (many-a-time, in fact. See: this, this, and this), I believe that really gaining a clear understanding of historical concepts, events, sequence, themes, etc. comes from actively reshaping the information in some manner. History lends itself well to this because it forces one to think chronologically (timelines), comparatively (comparison charts or Venn diagrams, for those who like to write in tiny oblong spaces), or thematically (color coding major categories).
Personally, I’m a big fan of mind mapping, as the process of putting down terms, events, places, etc. and then linking them up and figuring out why they’re important can be a really effective way to understand the material in terms that resonate personally. Moreover, this approach doesn’t require a set formula, end result, or appearance; instead, it can go wherever a student wants to take it. And perhaps most importantly, it helps students understand that history isn’t a memorization challenge – one simply cannot do the analytical work necessary of a historian (or anything that requires critical thinking, for that matter) if rote memory is the lone approach to understanding the material.
In fact, I used this technique a fair amount early in my teaching career to help me figure out how to sequence material within a unit, what major themes I wanted to emphasize, and how I could make effective transitions between the content. But I had first learned about mind mapping during my own sophomore year of high school and found it to be a really valuable way of making sense of the material we were studying. When I was early in my teaching career I scoured through my old high school papers (what I aspirationally like to call the “Presidential Archives”), and discovered this mind mapping artifact from my past:
I’ve redacted both my name and the grade, but I’ll let you all know that it was quite well received.
This past week I introduced the concept and approach of mind mapping to some of my classes and thought I’d pass along my general guidelines here:
Mind Mapping Guidelines
Reorganize information → breaking from pure memorization.
Articulate and understand connections between key terms in your own words.
Identify the dominant themes and patterns in the material we’re studying.
Start with a list of ID terms and pick any one of them to begin and put it on your sheet of notebook paper.
Add other terms (one at a time) that connect to that initial term and link them with arrows.
**On the lines of the arrow EXPLAIN the connection between these terms by writing a description of that link ON THE LINE.** ← This is the most important part of mind mapping and is vital in terms of accomplishing the above goals.
- OPTIONAL – you can add colors/highlighting to indicate major categories of information (e.g. Social, Political, Religious, Intellectual, Technological, Economic).
These are (as with all things posted here) a continual work in progress, so if anyone has suggestions about how they introduce this concept or present other ways of getting students to meaningfully reorganize information, I’d be thrilled to hear about those in the comments.