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Rico Clusters: An Alternative to Mind Mapping

Rico Clusters: An Alternative to Mind Mapping
Rico Cluster

    I’m not a big fan of mind mapping, though I concede that it does have its uses. Recently, I learned of a different approach to brainstorming that seems both more practical and better grounded in the way the mind works than traditional, Buzan-style mind mapping. This approach, called the Rico Cluster after its developer, Dr. Gabrielle Rico, focuses on the creation of a “web” of related and interconnected ideas, rather than radiating out from a central concept, and is intended to leverage the brain’s normal processes of communication between the right and left hemispheres. The idea is to work towards a kind of “critical mass”, where the language- and process-oriented left brain takes over from the visual- and pattern-oriented left.

    What is a Rico Cluster?

    Rico clustering is a brainstorming tool that emphasizes the connection between left-brain openness and connection-making and right-brain verbalization and ordering. Although it is intended primarily as a writing tool, it can also be applied to teaching — and Rico herself has written about its use as a therapeutic tool, as well.
    Here’s the basic idea:

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    1. Write a word in the middle of a sheet of paper.
    2. Circle it.
    3. Write down the first word or phrase that comes to mind and circle it.
    4. Draw a line connecting the second circle to the first.
    5. Repeat. As you write and circle new words and phrases, draw lines back to the last word, the central word, or other words that seem connected. Don’t worry about how they’re connected — the goal is to let your right-brain do its thing, which is to see patterns; later, the left-brain will take over and put the nature of those relationships into words.
    6. When you’ve filled the page, or just feel like you’ve done enough (a sign of what Rico calls a “felt-shift”), go back through what you’ve written down. Cross out words and phrases that seem irrelevant, and begin to impose some order by numbering individual bubbles or clusters. Here is where your right-brain is working in tandem with your left-brain, producing what is essentially an outline. At this point, you can either transfer your numbered clusters to a proper outline or simply begin writing in the order you’ve numbered the clusters.

    By the time you’ve started reviewing your clusters, your brain has done much of the work of fleshing out your ideas; all that remains is to put these relationships into words, which is what your left-brain excels at.

    The Rico cluster grabbed my attention because I’ve lately been thinking a lot about how to brainstorm alone and this seems to fit the bill. I suppose “regular” mind mapping would do the trick, but I was pretty put off by the extravagant claims made by mind-mapping advocate Tony Buzan; clustering seems much more down-to-earth and homey than Buzan’s elaborate, multi-colored, goal-oriented mind maps. Maybe that’s just me, and I’ve bought into mind mapping under a different name; so be it.

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    Rico Clusters as a Teaching Tool

    While my interest is in clustering as a brainstorming-for-one tool, it is easily adapted to a group situation, where ideas are thrown out and jotted quickly on a whiteboard. What’s missing, though, is the patterning — someone needs to draw the lines that form the clusters.

    A teacher or facilitator could do this, using the role of pattern-maker to subtly guide the discussion, but another option would be to have a student or, in a business setting, one of the brainstormers, take on this role, perhaps rotating and having a series of people draw in connecting lines. When the ideas start drying up (or the board is full) begin the process of sorting out and numbering ideas, with input from the group.

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    There is some evidence that brainstorming as a group is actually less effective than several people brainstorming individually and just combining their results, so I’m not sure I advocate this as an idea-generating tool. Instead, I see it as a way of helping a class draw lessons from a body of work — a book or play, a movie, a trip, or an experience. In a business setting, this might be a way to draw lessons out of a strategic failure, or develop new ways of applying existing processes.

    Clustering as a Therapeutic Tool

    Rico’s book Pain and Possibility: Writing Your Way through Personal Crisis suggests another use for clustering: using them to draw out unconscious sources of pain in the context of recovery and healing. While this is exactly the kind of extravagant claim I generally reject, it might be useful for other people so it at least deserves consideration. A feeling or source of pain is listed as the “seed” and ideas free-associated off of that. The process is akin to automatic writing, where the mind starts calling forth language and concepts without conscious filtering; hopefully we surprise ourselves with connections we hadn’t been aware of, or conflicts that we had carefully concealed from our conscious awareness.

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    Like I said, this isn’t the kind of thing I think generally works, but for some people this kind of emotional work proves very uplifting, so who am I to judge? For myself, I think I’ll stick with trying clustering to deal with the more mundane problem of generating and capturing writing ideas. If nothing else, it’s at least worth a try, especially if you’re the kind of person for whom traditional outlining is a real chore.

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    Last Updated on August 20, 2019

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard. Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

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    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

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    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

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    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

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    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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