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Mindscaping: A Learning and Thinking Skill for All Students

by Nancy Margulies


When students doodle on their papers or draw while listening, it seems they aren't paying attention. However, for many learners, creating images can become a powerful tool for recording ideas and making meaning of what they hear in class. Rather than thwarting this impulse, we can build upon it. Systems for using color, images, drawings, cartoons and symbols as well as words and phrases for recording ideas is now used by many educators as well as business and community leaders. I will use the term mindscape here to refer to these visual maps. The same system works well for communicating ideas to others. The process encourages students to be aware of the meaning of what they are recording as well as the relationships among ideas.

As teachers, we can build upon our students' natural inclination to draw and doodle by incorporating drawing and symbolic representation into any subject matter. Students can learn to create visual maps while listening and participating in discussions in class. This form of note-taking engages the learner in recording ideas and grouping them instead of hastily writing sentences or letting their attention wander. As a result they are able to focus on learning in an active, rather than passive manner.

Mindscape for the concept of studying and learning by Nancy Margulies

Regardless of your own comfort with drawing, you can easily learn and teach the basics of Mindscaping, thus enabling your students to apply more of their intelligence while recording ideas.

Here is how it works:

1. Set up for creating a visual map:

Provide students with larger sheets of paper than usual. Working on desks, on a chalkboard or on paper taped to the wall are all options. If possible each student should have several colored water-based markers, if not markers, crayons will suffice.

2. Encourage students to take time to consider a symbolic way of representing the topic they will record. This can be a simple image such as those on the maps shown here.

mindscape for the idea of symbol by Nancy Margulies

3. As key ideas are mentioned, students write them on lines that branch from the central image. Entire sentences are not necessary. The size of the words, the associated images and shapes that surround the words can be used for emphasis.

4. As new ideas are presented or discussed, students add new branches. Once topic has been represented, additional details can be added to that branch. In this manner the information is organized as it is being recorded.

5. This process can be practiced in advance of classroom note-taking by suggesting that students create a review Mindscape of a topic that has been covered in class. Mindscapes that reflect the student's special interests are also a good place to begin.

6. Eventually you and your students will discover that Mindscapes can be used for everything from planning a curriculum, presenting it to the class, note-taking, reflecting, cooperative learning, reviewing for tests, preparing for writing reports, presenting reports for peer review and self appraisal.

sample mindscape by Nancy Margulies

When introducing Mindscaping I often ask the group to think together about symbols that might be used to represent important concepts or everyday activities. Take a look at the symbols in the illustration below. A search of the internet for symbols and clip art will produce many more possibilities.

sample symbols to use in mindscaping by Nancy Margulies

As the basic process becomes second nature, students will begin to see new possibilities for Mindscaping. They might decide create a class presentation with an image that looks like a landscape, a race track or a building under construction. This visual metaphor can contain all the key elements in their presentation. For example, a report on democratic process could be shown by drawing and labeling the foundational blocks and supporting walls of a house. Areas of weakness or potential flaws in the system might show up as cracks in the foundation or poor grade construction materials.

mindscape metaphor by Nancy Margulies

There are few restrictions when creating a Mindscape. The important points to remember are:

  • The images need to remain meaningful to the person who created the Mindscape. If there's a chance a symbol will be unclear when viewed a month later, words should be added to the image.
  • Before recording ideas notice what the key elements are and select words that convey each idea. The number of words necessary is less than most note-takers imagine.
  • After the ideas are recorded look for connections among them. Patterns and relationships that were not apparent at first, can be shown by adding arrows, connecting lines or encircling an entire section of the Mindscape.

Suggested Resources

Most books on Multiple Intelligences for teachers include portions on how to incorporate the visual intelligence into lesson planning. You may wish to skim several for additional ideas for Mindscaping applications.

"Mind Mapping" is another specific form of visual note-taking that is also useful in classroom settings. It is a system with more specific rules (such as only one word per branch) and for some students may feel more comfortable as a first step away from linear note-taking. This system was developed by Tony Buzan. website:, also see: Buzan, T. The Mind Map Book. Reprint Edition. New York: Plume, 1996.

Campbell, B. The Multiple Intelligences Handbook. Stanwood, WA: Campbell and Assoc, 1994.

Horn, R. Visual Language. Bainbridge Island, Wash.: MacroVU, Inc., 1999. website:

Kaufeldt, M. Begin with the Brain. Tucson, Ariz.: Zephyr Press, 1999.

Margulies, Nancy with Maal, Nusa. Mapping Inner Space , Tucson, Ariz.: Zephyr Press, 2001(Second Edition available October 2001)

Margulies, N. Inside Brian's Brain. Tucson, Ariz.: Zephyr Press. 1995.

Margulies, N. Map It!. Tucson, Ariz.: Zephyr Press. [comic book] 1993.

Margulies, N. Maps, Mindscapes, and More. Tucson, Ariz.: Zephyr Press. [video] 1991.

Margulies, N. Yes, You Can Draw! Aylesbury, Bucks, UK: Accelerated Learning Systems.

McCloud, S. Reinventing Comics. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2000. (Any book by Scott McCloud is an adventure in visual creativity! --author)

Root-Bernstein, R, and M. Root-Bernstein. Sparks of Genius. Boston, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin, 1999.

Senge, P.Schools That Learn. New York: Doubleday, 2000.

Sonneman, M. R. Beyond Words. Berkeley, Calif.: Ten Speed Press, 1997.

About the Author

Nancy Margulies, M.A., is the author of many books, videos, and comics in the field of education. She also works with educational groups and corporations worldwide. Her unique form of graphic representation, mindscaping, enables learners and business people to take notes and present ideas in a form that clearly conveys essential concepts, relationships, and patterns.

If you wish to explore this topic further you can visit the web site of the author, Nancy Margulies: and that of Nusa Maal Nancy's site contains sample maps and a list that includes a video, comic book and newly revised edition of Mapping Inner Space. These resources will provide many examples and methodologies for teaching visual note-taking.

Copyright © Sept. 2001

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