How to Explore Ideas Through Clustering

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In composition, a discovery strategy in which the writer groups ideas in a nonlinear fashion, using lines and circles to indicate relationships.

What Is Clustering?

  • "Clustering (sometimes also known as 'branching' or 'mapping') is a structured technique based on the same associative principles as brainstorming and listing. Clustering is distinct, however, because it involves a slightly more developed heuristic (Buzan & Buzan, 1993; Glenn et al., 2003; Sharples, 1999; Soven, 1999). Clustering procedures vary considerably, although the fundamental objective is to equip students with tools for arranging words, phrases, concepts, memories, and propositions triggered by a single stimulus (i.e., a piece of information, a topic, a provocative question, a metaphor, a visual image). As with other [invention] techniques . . ., clustering should first be modeled and practiced in class so students can eventually incorporate the tool into their own repertoire of invention and planning strategies."
    (Dana Ferris and John Hedgcock, Teaching ESL Composition: Purpose, Process, and Practice, 2nd ed. Lawrence Erlbaum, 2005)

    Guidelines for Teaching the Clustering Process

    • What instructions should you give to begin this prewriting process? I have found the following both appropriate and effective:

      (Gabriele Lusser Rico, "Clustering: A Prewriting Process," in Practical Ideas for Teaching Writing As a Process, ed. by Carol B. Olson. Diane, 1996)
      1. Tell students that they are going to use a tool that will enable them to write more easily and more powerfully, a tool similar to brainstorming.
      2. Encircle a word on the board--for example, energy--and ask students, "What do you think of when you see that word?" Encourage all responses. Cluster these responses, radiating outward. When they have finished giving their responses, say, "See how many ideas there are floating around in your heads?" Now, if you cluster all by yourself, you will have a set of connections as unique to your own mind as a thumbprint is to your thumb.
      3. Now ask students to cluster a second word for themselves. Before they begin, tell them that the clustering process should take no more than one or two minutes and that the paragraph they will write should take about eight minutes. Ask them to keep clustering until the "Aha!" shift, signaling that their mind is holding something they can shape into a whole. In writing, the only constraint is that they "come full circle": i.e., that they do not leave the writing unfinished. Some excellent words are afraid or try or help.
      4. After they finish writing, ask students to give a title to what they have written that is suggestive of the whole.


      • "Mind-mapping is a colorful and creative method of generating, organizing, and remembering ideas. To mind-map, write your topic in the center of a blank page within a visual representation of your topic, such as a giant musical note, a sailboat, or scuba gear. If no central image comes to mind, use a box, heart, circle, or other shape. Then use various colors of ink to color-code related ideas. From the central figure draw radiating lines like the rays of the sun or branches and roots of a tree. Then, as you think of parts of the subject you wish to discuss, jot down pictures, key words, or phrases on or near these lines. Also add examples and subparts using branching lines and more images and words. If you do not already have a central focus for your essay, watch for a key phrase or image as you complete your exploration."
        (Diana Hacker and Betty Renshaw, Writing With a Voice, 2nd ed. Scott, Foresman, 1989)

        Also Known As: branching, mapping