March 22, 2005

Concept Mapping – an agile presentation and thinking tool

Writing about ETech day 1: Passionate users from Autology: John Dale's blog

Concept-mapping is really good. I've used it in a way similar to that described by John, basing a presentation around a map. There is a very good reason for doing so. It is a technique of thinking, writing and presenting that provides a significant cognitive advantage. As John notes, it doesn't force you into an overly linear discourse in the explication of an argument.

Why is such linearity bad? The form of the argument often becomes more important than the argument itself. The need to keep the text on track, moving along, linear, over-rides the content that it is trying to develop. This leads to:

  1. A suppression of subtle details, which when considered properly, turn out to be much more important;
  2. A suppression of connections and their implications. For example, if strand A of the argument relies upon strand B (which has already been introduced, or which is to be explicated later), the implications of accepting strand B in the service of strand A are not necessarily clear. It should be easy for the presenter or the audience to understand what is at risk by implication when accepting or rejecting part of an argument;
  3. A suppression of feedback. The audience or the presenter may identify a weakness or previously unknown aspect of one strand of an argument. It may be the case that the new point is trivial, or belongs somewhere else in the argument. It can therefore be passed over. However, without being able to see the connections, implications and weightings, the judgement concerning the triviality of the new issue is made without proper consideration. The tendency is to ignore the new point, to avoid the possibility that its consideration might de-rail the linear progression of the argument, consequently leaving a big scarey hole.

I have seen this happen in many philosophy presentations. You can even see it in the texts of many good philosophers, although one suspects that they are well-aware of the power of the linear form, and use it cunningly. Ironically, many texts that are written about the philosophers of non-linearity, principally Deleuze and Guattari, are horribly linear and just
downright oppressive. Their own works are famously not linear. In fact I suspect that they used some kind of methodology akin to concept-mapping (the consistency of their very complex conceptual assemblages over 40 years of work suggests that they had some kind of system other than text).

The result of linearity dominating is often merely a sense of disatisfaction amongst the audience. But occassionally someone decides that contriving with the presenter to keep things on track would result in having to accept just too many significantly wrong assumptions. Things then turn nasty.

More seriously, in arguments that are used to support projects, policies and expenditures, the linear form may result in expensive and disruptive mistakes.

So what is the alternative? A technique that MindManager supports is as follows:

  1. Create a map that records everything you know about the topic, starting with a top level set of nodes, and drilling down into the detail through several levels. Nodes can easily be moved around, edited, deleted and added, so develpoment is rapid and responsive;
  2. In the presentation, start with only the top level nodes open, the lower level nodes are all closed (easy with MindManager). Either this top-level is uncontroversial, or provides some work for the more detailed levels to do in justifying the top-level carve-up of the topic (remember, its easy to move or edit nodes, so you don't have to be too concerned about getting things wrong and having to respond to feedback as the presentation progresses).
  3. Do a high-level pass through the top nodes, giving an understanding of the basic distinctions uppon which the presentation is based – look for problems at the top level! Don't gloss over them – if you do, the audience won't be with you;
  4. If there is an issue with the top level nodes, open up the next level and see if the detail contained in them can be used to resolve the top level problem. Keep drilling down into detail if necessary. Jump across nodes to show how different components at the different levels are connected transversally;
  5. If no problem is found at the top level, do a pass through the second level of nodes, again looking for problems.
  6. Keep going lower until you run out of time or everyone is satisfied.

This should result in thoroughness, bringing the audience along more succesfully. It also allows for the presentation to flexibly and genuinely respond to problems and new ideas, without the possibility of it being entirely waisted by an unforeseen issue (remember, you can re-draw the map as you go along). The presentation can, in this way, be much more productive. In fact we could say that with this approach there aren't problems or difficulties, only opportunities (as Ted Simon would say, "interuptions are the journey").


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  1. MindManager is a great piece of software. It's brought me through many exams since GCSEs and is great for planning projects and essays. The lastest release, with its integration with Microsoft Office increases its value. Linear notes just don't cut it anymore.

    22 Mar 2005, 11:57


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