A hearty exchange with the masterminds behind Science is Fun with Mind Maps

(This exclusive interview first appeared here on Domain of Singapore Tutoring Experts on 10 October 2017.)

The benefits of employing a mind map in one's learning are plentiful-it provides a condensed yet structured visual screenshot of essential concepts in bite-sized formats while cutting out the fluff. Whether you are in a hurry to internalize a boatload of topics or planning a last minute recapitulation prior to an important examination, mind maps will certainly go some way in providing both informational retention and reinforcement.

That said, not all mind maps are created equal. Inferior ones serve to confuse and fuzzy things up at best, while properly thoughtful versions can make a world of difference. Mother and educator pair Goh Meiling and Ruchika Maxwell should know, as they spent nearly six months crafting their masterpiece titled "Science is Fun with Mind Maps". The book includes a collection of 17 hand-drawn mind maps, covering Primary 3 and Primary 4 Science content and are presented with a list of keywords for each one so that students can either use those provided to revise or make their own. An introductory section is also included to help students understand what mind maps are and how to go about constructing one. In their own words: "We wanted to create something that kids would want to pick up and read - something that would stimulate their thinking and get them going on their own learning journey in Science. Mind maps have been shown to be an effective memory and note-making tool for both children and adults alike."

We managed to get steal them away for a bit from their busy schedules to find out more about their motivations for authoring the book, and solicit their perspectives on the local education landscape.

QN: Firstly, our heartiest congratulations to both of you on the publication of your book. Before getting started, kindly grant us a moment to properly establish identities. Mummy please raise your hand, and educator is? A further question for the educator-might you be a private tutor or a teacher in a mainstream school?

ANS: Meiling - I’m the mummy. Mother of 3 school-going kids!

Ruchika - I’m an educator and I had previously been teaching in a local primary school here.

QN: Why write a book that deals specifically with mind maps? Were there unique personal circumstances involved that compelled both of you to come together & create "Science is Fun With Mind Maps" ?

ANS: Ruchika - Where Science learning and revision is concerned, I think students are often overwhelmed by the content and don’t know where to begin. I would see only a minority of students in my classes making their own notes for Science to revise for exams. While reading the textbook and going through your school worksheets is great and should be done, that, in itself, may not be enough.

Kids have to take their learning further than that. To fully internalise concepts and keywords, you have to be able to make connections to things that will help you remember them and be able to recall and articulate them in your own words again. That’s the only way things really stick with you, sometimes for life!

That was basically how “Science is Fun with Mind Maps” was born. We felt that there was a need to get kids to see how note-making is an important process and mind maps are a great and effective tool for that.

QN: You ladies spent almost half a year from start to completion of this project, which is definitely no mean feat in itself. What was the creative process like, and what were some of the difficulties endured along the way? Were there any significant differences in opinion as to how things should be done, and how were they reconciled?

ANS: Meiling - Over this journey of writing this book together, we have come to realise that we are really good partners and help prod each other along. There were times when one of us wasn’t sure if the book would work and whether kids or parents would find it useful, but then the other one came along and nudged us back to work. It was very fulfilling to see the mind maps come to life almost, over the many iterations we did. It is most satisfying to hear how kids who are using the book feel about it - many parents have written to us to say that their child is really enjoying the book and is not able to put the book down.

Ruchika - Actually, that is what is most rewarding for us to hear! That was why we wanted to do this book in the first place - bring out the joy of learning in kids.

QN: How does "Science is Fun With Mind Maps" figure in the general scheme of things, ie an infinite collection of assessment books and guides already on sale at major bookstores? Another mere drop in the ocean purchase or something more?

ANS: Ruchika: Our book is neither a revision guide book nor an assessment book. We are the only book in Singapore that shows how Science topics could be condensed into bite-sized topical mind maps capturing all the relevant keywords and key concepts.

Our approach of encouraging students to learn is totally different from what most of the other revision guide books and assessment books offer. The idea in using “Science is Fun with Mind Maps” is to get kids to go about with making their own mind maps and taking ownership of their learning rather than relying on what someone else has written in great extensive detail and is something that will hardly remember the next day, let alone much later for exams!

QN: Both of you stated that "Science is Fun With Mind Maps" covers the Primary 3 and 4 Science syllabus, yet emphasized that it is not meant to be a typical revision guidebook nor a mere inventory of facts. Pray tell, how then should the contents be consumed?

ANS: Meiling - We would like parents to encourage their kids to make their own mind maps on the activity sheet after each mind map in the book. We hope that parents and kids alike would find the mind maps provided in the book useful in their revision for a particular topic. However, we hope that kids go about with making their own versions of the mind maps, rather than simply memorising the ones we have provided in the book.

Ruchika - The idea is to move away from mere memorisation of facts to finding effective and reliable tools to help our students strengthen their long-term memory by crafting ideas and concepts in their own thoughts and words so it is more natural and they remember those things better.

QN: Obviously "Science is Fun With Mind Maps" is meant for use by science learners, but might some of the mind map making techniques demonstrated within the book be extrapolated to, say, the acquisition of knowledge related to other subjects?

ANS: Ruchika - Definitely! Ideally, this gets the ball rolling for a child to basically embark on his or her own learning and discovers that through mind mapping, he or she is able to translate their learning into their own ideas and articulate it in a visual form so it stays with them for a long time. And that can be extrapolated to any other subject too.

Meiling - We know students in secondary schools who use mind maps for summarising their History or Geography lessons as well as adults who use mind maps for conducting their Marketing department meetings at work! So, we really hope it’s a life-long skill that stays with them beyond Primary School!

QN: It has also been indicated that the book's targeted audience includes educators-might you provide pointers on how best they can embrace this as a lesson tool, and consequently derive maximum utility from it?

ANS: Ruchika - As an educator myself, I would definitely be getting a copy of the book. It’s such a quick and easy way to see a topic in a single mind map summary. I would say that it can be used as a teaching resource in different ways.

When doing revision before exams, teachers could use mind mapping as a fun group or individual activity and get kids to make their own mind maps for a particular topic. In my classroom, I used to get my students to make mind maps in groups on big white sheets of paper that I would later use to display in the classroom so they can view what they have done for that entire week. It was such a great exercise in getting to see how students synthesise the information that have amassed and condense it into a single sheet of paper. This is especially useful for Upper Primary levels where the kids are older but not necessarily limited to them.

The book could also be used to introduce kids to the world of mind maps, by walking them through the mind mapping process (shared on the first few pages of the book) and then getting them to try making a mind map for one Science topic for a start. This could be great for a Primary 3 or Primary 4 class to get started on their mind mapping journey in Science.

Teachers no longer need to reinvent the wheel by coming up with their own mind maps the day before, given how time-strapped we often are! They have a handy resource at their disposal now, which adapts the latest Science syllabus.

QN: Might you be able to provide our readers with actual samples of your works for a better understanding of what actually goes on in "Science is Fun With Mind Maps" ? How has public reception to the book been thus far?

ANS: Ruchika - We are happy to share that we have received very positive feedback from the parents who have bought the book. We are humbled by the support of these parents who have found the book to be very engaging and useful. They periodically message us to share how they have been finding the book and its relevance to their child’s learning and then they go on to recommend it to their friends and family.

Meiling - So far, most of the parents who have bought the book have been coming to us through our facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/sciencemindmaps/) and place their order with us there. It has been a great journey so far, getting to meet this different sets of parents and hearing their journey about teaching Science to their kids and how they sometimes struggle with it for various reasons. It’s interesting to hear that now, the children are asking their parents to buy the book rather than the parents buying it and forcing the kids to read it. Kids get drawn to colours, images and how the whole mind map weaves together into one big picture - and learning happens amidst all this fun!

My own kids have been mind mapping as well for the upcoming SA2 exams, using the book as a reference! So, I’m benefiting from the creation of the book as a mummy myself!

QN: On a somewhat related note, parents these days are enrolling their kids in endless tuition and enrichment classes. Do both of you reckon it is a case of plain foolish, kiasu mindsets with fat wallets taken for a spin, or a necessary precautionary measure to stay ahead in the rat race?

Meiling - I think I’ll take this one since I am a parent who does send her kids to tuition classes. I often wonder how we coped in our time and how things are in the present day. It is not as simple as being kiasu or ignorant and simply taking shortcuts by outsourcing things to tuition centres. I held back from sending my 3 kids to tuition classes for a long time until they would come back home to share what was taught in school and how much their peers knew already about the subject matter.

It threw me off, I guess. Had I been a negligent parent in depriving them of extra enrichment classes to prepare them for primary school when their peers seemed to be all set for Primary 1? I guess there is no simple answer to this - the fact is that we are in a fairly competitive environment in Singapore and excelling academically is taken very seriously here. And we, as parents, only want the best for our children whom we work hard for.

QN: Looking forward, what are your plans for the foreseeable future? Perhaps a sequel to "Science is Fun With Mind Maps" is on the cards?

ANS: Both - Yes, we are already starting to work on the Primary 5 and Primary 6 years as a sequel to this first book, so we complete the entire Primary School syllabus. Many parents have showed interest in the later years and it seems natural for them to want to have the complete set to use as a form of revision as well as to get their kids started on making mind maps for all their Science topics in the PSLE exams!

QN: Before we end the session, some final words for our readers?

ANS: Meiling - Our educational system is pretty demanding and students at this young age are required to learn much more than we did in the past. We need children to enjoy learning and to develop this intrinsic motivation to learn. We hope this book will teach them a lifelong skill to synthesise chunks of information and to creatively group the massive information given. This visual mind mapping skill will help them realise they aren’t passive learners but engaged in accelerated learning.

Ruchika - We hope that this book offers a respite for parents who are bogged down with thick books and files and files of worksheets and don’t know where to begin guiding their kids in their science revision. Let “Science is Fun with Mind Maps” get your child started on his own learning journey!

From the bottom of our hearts, we are extremely grateful to both of you ladies for your sincere sharing , and may "Science is Fun With Mind Maps" achieve phenomenal sales! :)