Mighty Sandbox

Educational Technology Simplified

Why You Should Use Concept Maps Instead of Mind Maps

I was fortunate enough to revisit concept maps in a recent MA course.  I'm writing here from the point of view of a second language teacher, but concept maps are also very useful tools for content courses. In this post I'm going to talk about why concept mapping is often better than mind mapping and give one example from a course I'm teaching about how to use a good mind mapping app.

First, what is the difference between a concept map and a mind map?  Wikipedia gives a good overview: "A Mind map reflects what you think about a single topic, which can focus group brainstorming. A Concept map can be a map, a system view, of a real (abstract) system or set of concepts. Concept maps are more free form, as multiple hubs and clusters can be created, unlike mind maps, which fix on a single conceptual center."

The first advantage of concept maps is that they can capture how our brains store information more effectively.  Most mapping tools follow a branching pattern: there is one central node to which you can attach child nodes ad infinitum.  This may be useful in certain contexts, but it doesn't really reflect how our brains store knowledge. Concepts and language don't hang neatly on individual, separate branches; they overlap and intersect in a complex network of relationships.  

The second problem is that in many mind mapping apps it's difficult to show the relationships between items on the map.  Good concept mapping software allows you to easily label the relationships and connections between the nodes.  It's difficult to show complex relationships purely by their position on individual branches.  I realize these are pretty abstract concepts, but the example that follows should clarify things.

Let's start with an example of a good concept mapping app.  There are good PC based tools that allow students to visually represent these complex relationships, but I only recently discovered a great app for the iPad that included the same features.  Available for free in the App Store, Mental is a great example of what good ed tech software should be.  The interface is simple and straightforward and it's a great concept mapping tool.

The first thing you can do on a map is add concepts.  Pressing on a concept gives you three simple choices: edit, connect and delete.  Selecting connect lets you choose the destination of your connection and then immediately creates an arrow which you can label with a description of the relationship.  

Here is an example map with some vocabulary words from an English course I'm teaching:



As you can see it is possible to show complex relationships.  "Father", "a liar", and "honest" all share the same connection: Father is not a liar, and a liar is not honest.  "Neighborhood", "Relatives" and "Company" are central hubs in an overlapping network of verbs, nouns and adjectives. It is the ability to add these kinds of deep connections that lets students reflect on the complexity of language and the concepts it represents.

The beauty of the Mental app is that the interface intuitively guides you to create these kinds of conceptual networks and there is little to get in the way of doing this work.  No account sign up is required and sharing is done by simply emailing a .pdf file of your map.  To be fair, there are a few areas where the app is too simple, for example, you cannot use multiple colors on the map if you want to color code different groups or types of concepts.

Let's now move to the example of mind mapping software that in my opinion is less effective for supporting complex learning.  Here is a screen shot of Mind Meister:




At first glance, it looks like it does everything I'm looking for in a concept mapping app.  However, the first limitation you'll find is that everything must branch from one central node.  So if you're trying to add a concept to this  map that doesn't fall under "Action" you're out of luck - it's not possible to put anything unrelated to the central node on the map.  Secondly, you can show relationships, but the process is very "busy".  You first must add the connection and then go through a second dialogue to add the label.  You also must sort through an unnecessary and complex set of controls for changing the color and angles of the curve for the connecting line.

Even worse, before you're allowed to create a map you must create a user account which adds some time to the initial set up.  Now if the ability to work collaboratively with a partner in a remote location is something you need, you might consider this app.  In my case my students are working the same location so it's possible for them to collaborate in person by physically sharing an iPad.

To summarize here are a few suggestions for using a good mind map app such as Mental in your class:

  • Reward complex, deep relationships between concepts.  The more connections there are on the map, the more evidence you have that students are really engaging with the words.
  • Show students models of what a good map looks like.  They may not have prior experience with this kind of task so you must guide them with a clear example.  
  • You may need to provide a starter list of linking words.  Since my course focuses on basic English it's okay for the relationships to be simple, but for more challenging topics you may want to specify more sophisticated relationships.
  • For vocabulary review, have students add new words incrementally during the class.  Trying to add too many words at once can be overwhelming and stifle their motivation to work on the map.
  • If words don't have an apparent relationship, it's okay to leave them unconnected if more words or concepts will be added later.  Ideally they will be able to connect them to words and concepts that are added later.