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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 September 18, 2019

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

    I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

    One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

    Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

    The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

    And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

    What to Write Down

    Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

    Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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    Dates of Events

    Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

    For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

    Names of People

    Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

    Theories or Frameworks

    Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

    Definitions

    Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

    Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

    Arguments and Debates

    Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

    This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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    Images

    Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

    Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

    Other Stuff

    Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

    I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

    Your Own Questions

    Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

    3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

    1. Outlining

    Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

    Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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    For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

    2. Mind-Mapping

    For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

    Here’s the idea:

    In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

    The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

    If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

    You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

    3. The Cornell System

    The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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    About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

    You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

    In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

    You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

    The Bottom Line

    I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

    I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

    More About Note-Taking

    Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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