Monday, March 9, 2009

Reality, What a Concept (Map)!

Outwardly, Mindmaps and Concept Maps are quite similar. They both have:

  • Nodes, representing concepts, ideas, or topics,
  • Links between the nodes, and
  • They both begin with a central idea.
If we dig into the ideas behind them, however, differences begin to emerge. Last time, I briefly presented this information for Mindmaps. Today, I'll do the same for Concept Maps. Again, keep in mind that this post just skims the surface of the topic of Concept Maps. It is a large field of study, with plenty of literature to study on your own if you are interested.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Joseph D. Novak first developed Concept Maps as a tool for education. Since that time, it has developed into a powerful tool used in a wide array of fields. I stumbled upon a great Concept Map, created by Novak himself, for a simple case of a Concept Map explaining Concept Maps. It does such a wonderful job that there is really very little chance that I can add much of value to it, but I'll try to do it anyway.

In the simple case where the Concept Map is a stand-alone tool, it is often used to understand complex ideas. The user starts out with a Focus Question, and goes on to map out relationships to and within the Central Concept. There are several properties that describe a Concept Map:

  • It starts with a Central Concepts at the top and is read top-to-bottom, so it starts out looking like a tree,
  • The Map helps to answer a Focus Question,
  • A Concept Map represents organized knowledge which allows for better understanding,
  • Unlike in Mindmaps, concepts may have multiple parents in Concept Maps,
  • Nodes represent concepts,
  • There are both downward links and crosslinks,
  • Links are just as important as nodes,
  • Links are labeled and describe type of relationships between concepts,
  • Crosslinks can tie together different domains of knowledge in the Map, and
  • During the creation of the Concept Map, crosslinks can often represent creative leaps.
Often, instead of a stand-alone tool, it is part of a larger, automated system. The Concept Map is often the User Interface for a Knowledge Management System or a Computational Reasoning System. Knowledge can be input, or presented, through a Concept Map.

We can see how some simple computational reasoning might work. Structured knowledge enters a system using a Concept Map. If incomplete knowledge enters the system and matches the structure of the Map, then the system may be able to automatically infer missing relationships. As a simple example, we have a Concept Map representing the structure of a family, and knowledge enters the system saying Bob "is the son of" Lisa and Chuck "is the son of" Lisa. Based upon the knowledge input to the system through the "Family" Concept Map, the system can infer that Bob "is the brother of" Chuck, and that Chuck "is the brother of" Bob.

This Concept Map, from the same paper as the image above, represents the seasons. It presents all the information about how the seasons are determined and how they relate to each other. As you can see, a relatively small, simple Map is packed with a lot of knowledge. If you wanted to learn about seasons, this would be an effective way to do it. It would also be a good way for you to communicate what you know about seasons to someone else.

Now that I've introduced both Mindmaps and Concept Maps, next time I'll talk about when you might want to use a Mindmap rather than a Concept Map, and vice versa. If you have any questions, just post them as comments, and I'll respond to them as quickly as is possible.

N.B. Thanks to Joseph D. Novak and Alberto J. Cañas for the images used in this post, from their paper:
The Theory Underlying Concept Maps and How to Construct Them, J. D Novak & A. J. Cañas (2006), Technical Report IHMC CmapTools 2006-01, Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, 2006.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Mindmaps, and Bubble Diagrams, and Spidergrams, Oh My!!

I've had lots of queries about Mindmaps and about why I wasn't including other software packages, including Concept Mapping packages. In light of this response, I have decided to discuss Mindmaps and Concept Maps a bit before we really sink our teeth into the reviews. Please keep in mind that this is a very brief introduction to Mindmaps and Concept Maps, and it just barely scratches the surface of these topics. If there is interest, I could go into them in more detail in a future post, but now we'll stick to the essentials. If I had used a Mindmap from the start, I would have done this introduction before presenting the tools...

Since these reviews are about Mindmaps, I'll start with them. Although diagrams have been used as an aid to decision-making for millennia, modern Mindmapping was invented by Tony Buzan, in the 1960s. According to Buzan (my apologies to Tony Buzan if I do not represent his thoughts precisely during this explanation), the human brain works by using "Radiant Thinking," starting to address a problem by thinking about the main problem, then branching out from there to investigate related topics and associations during the thought process.

The big idea behind mindmapping is that a Mindmap is an external representation of the contents of the mindmapper's brain. Once the contents of the mindmapper's brain are represented on the Mindmap, then there is time to reflect, add branches to the map, and add associations to the map. The map may be rearranged as it becomes clearer how the concepts should be categorized, sub-categorized, and re-categorized. While looking at the map and reworking it, the solution to a problem, or the proper organization of a project or book can gel in your mind. An informal statement of the guidelines for creating a "Pure Mind Map" as defined by Buzan, is as follows:

  • In the center of a clean sheet of paper, draw a picture of your central idea,
  • Use colors for all parts of your map, because it stimulates certain areas of your brain necessary for the "whole-brain thinking" this technique is known for,
  • Connect main branches to the central picture and second-level branches to the first level, continuing in this manner until your thoughts on the subject are fully represented,
  • Make certain that your map is organic-looking, with curved branches, more central branches thicker than less-central ones, and the overall feeling that the map impresses upon you is that of flowing,
  • Use only one keyword per line/branch in order to provide more flexibility throughout,
  • Use images everywhere in the map, again to stimulate visual centers of your brain,
  • Make sure to use emphasis in appropriate places and represent associations

However, to the best of my knowledge, there is only one software package that sticks to these guidelines (except the one about a clean piece of paper), Tony Buzan's own iMindmap. I will review it along with the others, even though it takes a somewhat different approach.

The Mindmaps that most of us are used to seeing are "Common Mind Maps," Bubble Diagrams, or Spidergrams. Common Mindmaps still start out with a central idea, or topic, but it doesn't necessarily have to be a picture. The Mindmap is still made up of branches, but the branches do not necessarily have any sort of "organic" feel to them. Some of the branches are thin, straight or curved, lines. Others are lines ending in shapes, generally ovals, rectangles, or rectangles with rounded corners. In the cases where there are shapes, the information for the branch resides inside of the shape, and the line is simply a connector from the next lower level. Another of Buzan's guidelines that falls by the wayside in Common Mindmaps is the rule about having a single word per branch. Most Common Mindmaps have phrases or multi-word concepts on nearly every branch. Common Mindmaps can have many of the visual elements of Pure Mind Maps, but they are not required to. According the the original theory set down by Buzan, all of the visual elements are required in order to stimulate all of the necessary centers of the brain for whole-brain thinking. Your mileage may vary, but the approach is an interesting one that has had remarkable results for many people over the past four decades.

Whether you are using Pure Mind Maps or Common Mindmaps, the purpose is to stimulate the flow of your thoughts, allow associations to reveal themselves and to allow you to organize your thoughts. Once you follow this process, you should be able to solve your problem, pull a variety of ideas from a brainstorming session, or plan out anything from a conference, to a marketing project, to a book.

My thanks go out to WikIT, which is a great resource, for the Mindmap images.

My next post will be about Concept Maps, followed by a post about when it is best to use a Mindmap, and when it is best to use a Concept Map. After I finish with all the background information, I'll get back on track with the comparisons.