"We're teaching kids the wrong way to study," says the creator of mind-mapping.
Tony Buzan's life's work started with a simple observation. When Buzan was attending school in England in the 1960s, some of his friends were considered "stupid." Buzan knew they were bright, but realized their intelligence was outside what schools measured.
Years later, Buzan would go on to examine the patterns of some of the world's greatest minds to try to better understand how the brain learns. He devised the process that has become known as mind mapping, using diagrams with words, images, and colors to represent important ideas.
Eighty-four books later, 250 million people worldwide now use this process. His theories about intelligence and how we learn have been called "the Swiss Army knife of the brain." Now 68, Buzan continues to consult with schools to try to improve the way they teach children. He recently spoke with Administrator about advances in brain research, why traditional note-taking is wrong, and how educators should teach how the brain learns best.
Q You've been involved with brain research and mind mapping for decades now. Are you seeing interest in the topic growing among the general public?
A I'm delighted the world is becoming more mentally literate. A few decades ago, if you mentioned the word brain, no one was interested. Now nearly every magazine on the planet is featuring the brain. One of my original goals, on one level, was to make myself unnecessary.
Q One of your biggest criticisms of schools today is how most teach students to take notes. What's wrong and how can they fix it?
A Normal note-taking-black pen, lined paper, monochrome—doesn't really work in terms of memory. We're unwittingly training our children to forget [what they are learning]. Field research has showed using images and making connections helps people remember more. The great thinkers, including Da Vinci and Montessori, always drew images and arrows and lines in their notes. When I started using keyword notes, bigger letters, with color and arrows, it allowed my brain to speak to myself with a lot less clutter. It was as if I'd been driving all my life with my windscreen caked in mud, and suddenly I could see clearly.
Q How should memory and study techniques fit into education today?
A Memory and creativity are essential to education, but if you teach memory incorrectly, it is a total waste of time and it will inhibit learning. Many think of memory as rote learning, a linear stuffing of the brain with facts, where understanding is irrelevant. When you teach it properly, with imagination and association, understanding becomes a part of it.
Q It seems to me that a lot of this talk of 21st-century learning really harkens back to Dewey and project-based learning. Do we have to go backward to go forward?
A What we have to do is reexamine the roots [of education] with the single goal of making sure the curriculum is taught and presented in such a way to facilitate the accelerated learning of the student. I'm arguing that there should be more to learn. When people talk of advanced children coming back to the pack [of their peers], that's because we slowly strip them of the tools of their intelligence, then say, ‘See, I told you so.' The brain has a phenomenal capacity to it. We are becoming aware that the brain we are teaching is a lot more powerful than we ever thought.
Q Does today's faster pace of life, from smartphones to Twitter to YouTube, harm intelligence?
A All these new machines, new processes, and games can be likened to a hand. Is a hand good or bad? It can kill, steal, destroy, give, embrace, support. It depends on how you use it. The same with all these modern appliances and systems. The world isn't fast-paced, it's frenetic. People have to be managers of themselves. Time has been managing itself for 15 billion years; we have to manage ourselves in the context of time.
Find out more at thinkbuzan.com.