Wednesday, June 14, 2017

What if the Venn Diagram is not yet ready to rest in peace?

Forgive my diatribe. Relatively recently in the grand scheme of things, I was an elementary and high school student. I took a few education courses as an undergraduate, taught just a bit in a substitute capacity, and deal with educational issues to some degree whenever I'm assigned to medical departments that are in any way connected with pediatrics. I have just enough exposure to educational trends and issues to have formed a few very strong opinions on the trends and practices I see as they are coming and going. The only constant aspect of education is the constancy of change. The pendulum of education swings wildly back and forth. If you stay with education for long enough, I've been told, most trends you'll endure at least twice. 

People who are close in age to me were educated in early grades and to some degree even in later grades with a set of graphic organizing tools known collectively as "Thinking Maps."  I'm sure someone thought of them, copyrighted them, and is making lots of money from people using the ideas behind these tools for organizing one's thoughts, though I don't know how the person is continuing to collect and to build his wealth, as I doubt  the person still gets credit each time a teacher asks a class to devise Flow Maps to demonstrate the sequencing of events that led to World War I or asks a class to use Tree Maps to classify the leafs of tress they've collected from the playground.  

Money will still change hands, as each time an enterprising educator publishes another guide concerning how Thinking Maps might be better used in classrooms, not only is the author of the guide compensated (presuming that anyone actually shells out any cash for his or her book), but the originator of the concept presumably receives some sort of pay-out or royalties for the use of his original idea (which probably was never all that original in the first place; he was probably just the one who got his paperwork in order and submitted it for copyrighting before anyone else did).

While it may sound as though like I am disrespecting the entire concept, whoever came up with it, and every educator who uses the technique, in actuality I am not.  there is most definitely a place for thinking maps in our schools today. Today's children tend to be both visual and tactile/kinesthetic in terms of dominant learning modalities. It makes sense to ask them to organize content in a way that both makes sense to them and helps them to see relationships or to grasp concepts when they might otherwise lack the capability to do so.

Nevertheless, I do have two criticisms of the use of Thinking Maps, which I shall at this time share with anyone who is still bored enough with his or her surroundings to still be reading at this point.  In the cases of both criticisms, it's not a personal grievance against either the concept of Thinking Maps or any sort of vendetta against anyone who played a major role in introducing the concept to curriculum in the U.S. and, as such, significantly fattened his or her bank account by doing so. We live in a capitalistic society.  If there's a buyer for something, whatever enterprising soul who has the energy to market the product has every right to benefit from it as long as it's not being sold under fraudulent pretenses.  I wouldn't equate the development of Thinking Maps for educational use with the sale of snake oil to cure all sorts of ailments for which the product likely has no properties whatsoever that would remedy the conditions its proponents purport it has the power to cure.

Alexis' criticism #1 of Thinking Maps is that they were overused in the days of my education and probably are still being overused. Thinking Maps should be a vehicle for teaching concepts for which a particular graphic organizing tool facilitates acquisition of or understanding of the concept to be learned.  if the activity is being done primarily to perfect students' skills at using Thinking Maps, it's busy work and is not worth the time of the students being asked to complete the task.  As an example, when I was in first grade, a teacher asked all the students in our class to create a Tree Map and to place animals under various branches of the "tree" of the map according to how many legs each animal had.  She placed picture cards of the animals we would classify into a transparent pocket chart, with the names of the animals printed below the pictures. 

Doing this activity required no research and little thought, as the animals "cow, grasshopper, lizard, chicken, turkey, elephant, snake, fish, pig, dog, cat" and probably a few more I cannot remember that were familiar to first-graders. Had the animals been unfamiliar ones, it could have been considered a legitimate science research activity.  Had just the pictures of the animals been displayed, perhaps it could have been considered a spelling exercise of sorts. Had just the words and not also the pictures been used to identify the animals, the activity might have been considered a low-level basic reading skills activity
(low-level reading comprehension, word recognition, or decoding skills).  The assignment as presented to us accomplished no significant thinking skills. The only point to the activity was to devise a Tree Map.  It was, therefore, busy work. It kept us out of a teacher's hair but neither taught nor reinforced any standards-based concept.  The same could be said for various bubble maps, flow maps, circle maps, and others that my classmates and I were required to produce.

Alexis' Criticism #2 of Thinking Maps is more specific, and is directed at a specific Thinking Map: the Double Bubble. The Double Bubble is used for comparing, usually and most easily, two concepts or actual things.  The double bubble isn't inherently evil or even flawed. My beef with it is that it was used to replace another graphic that was already doing the job quite well. That graphic was and still is known as the Venn Diagram. We've all seen it and used it. It's two circles or elliptical shapes, usually transposed in part over one another so that  points unique to each item being compared may be written in the parts of the circles or ellipses that do not intersect, while points in common could be written in the intersecting parts of the shapes. The intersection could be made as large or as small as it needed to be, depending upon whether the items or ideas being compared and contrasted possessed more similarities or more dissimilarities.  Parents could help their children with homework involving Venn Diagrams because they and their parents before them had used Venn Diagrams to highlight similarities and differences.

The person who copyrighted Thinking Maps couldn't easily include the Venn Diagram in his copyrighted material as it wasn't original. Instead, the person invented the Double Bubble, in which each item or idea to be compared was written with a separate circle around it. Items or ideas  having both criteria written in both bubbles were written in the center of the two original bubbles, with lines from them extending to each bubble. Items or ideas matching just one of the two criteria were written on the far side of that bubble, with a line extending just to that bubble.  The Double Bubble accomplished, for all intents and purposes, what the Venn Diagram did. I personally believe that the Venn Diagram is clearer in conveying its intended meaning, but that is just my opinion. They're really two ways of accomplishing the same task.

My criticism is that many educational practitioners who advocate the use of Thinking Maps go to great lengths to discredit the efficacy of the Venn Diagram. 
Administrators who give their teachers quotas for numbers of Thinking Maps to be assigned weekly or monthly (a practice with which I vehemently disagree as I feel that it lends itself to use of Thinking Maps for the use of creating thinking Maps as opposed to teaching actual content standards, which, in my opinion, translates to the deservedly maligned busy work) often do not give credit in attainment of the quota to assignments featuring Venn Diagrams.  Other educators, who are sold on the Thinking Map concept to the extent that they cannot recognize  a naked emperor when they're standing directly in front of him, will argue until their faces turn purple that a Double Bubble is vastly superior to a Venn Diagram. Doing such is much like arguing that a square is a terrible, evil shape that must be eradicated from the world, but that an equilateral rectangle is a perfectly acceptable polygon in the eyes of God and of good people everywhere, and its inclusion in our world should be highly encouraged.

Beyond that, Thinking Map cultists: the Venn Diagram has been here for a very long time.  Theree is no reason to think it will go away at ny time in the immediate future.

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