Mind Mapping vs. Tired Templates

I’ve been busily evaluating lesson plans turned in by my preservice TESOL teachers, and as always, I’m reflecting my own lessons, all with the goal of improving the quality of their coursework: How can I improve my delivery? Format? Modeling? Assignments? One mismatch I’ve found through my reflections is that, although I stress the notion that language teaching is a cycle of instruction, practice, and assessment, rather than a rigid trajectory with a starting point and end point, many lesson plan templates pose a linear format: first do this, then do this, then do that . . . and you’re done!

We know real-life in the classroom is not always like this, nor are human thought processes perfectly linear all the time. A popular cognitive strategy that we encourage teachers to use for English learners to help them explore and organize their thinking is a mind map—a method of graphically organizing content that is semantically related. This method produces a more categorical approach to thinking that more closely mimics the way our brain stores and accesses information schematically (see Rumelhart, 1980, for his discussion of schema theory). As such, teachers might consider using a mind mapping process for their lesson plans, rather than a template that is step-by-step-by-step. Using mind mapping also provides options for students who may not have grasped the content. If one instructional strategy does not work, the teacher has mapped out some other options rather than plunging ahead with the linear form whether students have grasped the content or not; it’s more of a flow chart with options than a fixed progression. Plus, if teachers become more comfortable with using mind maps for their own tasks, they may feel more comfortable using them with language learners in the classroom.

How to use a mind map for lesson planning:

  1. Select a lesson topic (perhaps a content concept, a language function, or a grammar point) and position it in the center of the map.
  2. Brainstorm key vocabulary, images, songs, media, texts, activities—anything related to the lesson topic.
  3. Add “nodes” to the map—these can be sub-topics or skills related to the lesson topic, or the actual phases of the lesson plan, but should be some way to begin organizing the lesson.
  4. Revisit the brainstorming list, moving items from the list to the appropriate node on the map.
  5. Notice any gaps on certain nodes. Can you add any more detail to fill out the stages of your lesson?
  6. If you may have generated more lesson content than you actually need, prioritize it. Scan your map and highlight the activities, texts, images, etc., that will be most appropriate for your current group of students and their English proficiency level. You can use all other content as alternate activities if one of the other activities is not successful, if you need a way to extend concepts for students, or to save for the next time you teach the lesson.

The great thing about mind mapping is that it can be done on paper or online. On paper, be sure to embellish your map with color and images drawn or cut from magazines, etc. If you choose to create a map on a computer or mobile device, take advantage of the library of images to promote visual learning and reinforce those conceptual connections.

Some mind-mapping programs worth a look are listed below; they offer mapping options as well as ways to collaborate, share, and present maps. Many of the options have free and paid versions, and the free versions are usually more than adequate for teachers and students. Most of these are also available as apps for mobile devices. Schools might consider purchasing a license for software such as Inspiration, or its kid-friendly counterpart, Kidspiration, so that teachers and students have access to visual learning and organization tools without needing an Internet connection.

If you have an example of a mind map that you’ve used for lesson planning, or know of any other resources that would work for TESOL educators, feel free to leave them in the comments. Happy mapping!

Rumelhart, D. E. (1980). Schemata: The building blocks of cognition. In R. J. Spiro, B. C. Bruce, & W. F. Brewer (Eds.), Theoretical issues in reading comprehension. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

About Kristen Lindahl

Kristen Lindahl
Kristen Lindahl holds a PhD in linguistics with a specialization in L2 teacher education from the University of Utah. She is currently assistant professor of bicultural-bilingual studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where she teaches pre-service ESL/TESOL educators at the undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral levels. Dr. Lindahl has taught K–12 and college ESL, and actively pursues consulting and coaching teachers of English learners in public and English language schools around the globe.
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8 Responses to Mind Mapping vs. Tired Templates

  1. Shalin says:

    I think creately should be in this list as well. Its an online diagramming and collaboration software to create mind maps and many other diagram types.

  2. Ekuwah Moses says:

    I have used Mind Mapping with teachers quite a bit and actually have them create one during the professional development. Take a look at the multiple examples…


    • Kristen Lindahl Kristen Lindahl says:

      Thanks for sharing your examples, Ekuwah! The teachers you worked with looked like they were doing some highly reflective work. I was impressed by their use of images and color. Super engaging!

  3. arulnehru says:

    It is an interesting argument. Mind map really enables us to be creative than being step by step. thank you Kristen Lindahl. This is P. Arul Nehru from India The English and Foreign Languages University, working on the area of Reading comprehension through digital mind mapping. I will be happy to see your reply.

    • Kristen Lindahl Kristen Lindahl says:

      Thanks for your comment, Arul. Your mention of reading comprehension and mind mapping is another great example of how easily the mind mapping strategy can be applied to many different cognitive tasks. I’ll keep an eye out for your work!

  4. Jesse Schaub says:

    Dr. Lindahl, Mind Mapping v Linear Planning. The change and your resources will do me well. Thanks.

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