Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Doodling and Visual Note-Taking

As far back as your blogger can remember, drawing in class has been a big no-no, often resulting in a stern “talking to” after class. Even today, kids often have to get special permission from the school psychologist or learning specialist to be allowed to scribble away during lessons. What that special permission has taught us, though, is that allowing a child (or adult) to make pictures while attending to a lecture can help her focus and stay tuned in. So why not harness that power and take it up a notch? That’s exactly what Sunni Brown and Rachel Smith, two TED speakers, are hoping we’ll all start asking ourselves next time we’re sitting in history class or attending a board meeting. 

Brown and Smith, in separate TED and TEDx speeches, described and demonstrated the practice of visual note-taking, or doodling with purpose. For the most part, we’ve always relied on using the alphabet to take notes. Unfortunately, even the fastest young writers can’t capture everything a teacher says, nor should they. A previous blog post has already explored the ways in which verbatim note-taking cuts out the requirement for comprehension and synthesis during class, allowing students to record their instructors without absorbing what is being said. For many, taking notes by hand, using the alphabet, is a great system that gets them where they need to be. For others, though, it just doesn’t cut it. That’s where doodling can help.

Brown defines doodling as the process of making spontaneous marks to help yourself think. She heralds it as a preemptive measure to stop yourself from losing focus. Lots of us have small habits that help keep us focused – tapping our feet, twisting a rubber band, or doodling, for example. By expanding our doodles into basic iconography, we can use the habit to increase our comprehension and retention of lectures or meetings. According to Brown, the reason doodling works so well is because it combines visual, auditory, reading/writing, and kinesthesia, the four modalities of sensory input in school, with emotion and context. That key piece – adding context with personal significance – is what leads to good learning.

                                                                          Illustration by Austin Kleon via flickr cc
Smith gets more into the nitty-gritty of how we can adapt doodles into note-taking. Doodling is freer than writing, and allows you to see the big picture displayed across a page. By looking at the page as a canvas rather than a series of sequential lines, we can draw-quite literally-connections between pieces of information that come up at different times. Most importantly, drawing what you hear requires you to listen to and to understand what’s being said, so that you can translate it into your own system of icons. Doodling allows you to capture what you’re hearing in a way that’s relevant to you, and Smith advocates doing so with a personal set of icons that can be tweaked depending on the circumstance.

There are three steps to start your doodling-as-note-taking endeavor. First, pick a tool. This may be a notebook, a pencil, a thin marker, a set of colored pens, or a tablet with a drawing app. Second, develop a few basic icons. Trying to come up with your icons while you’re doodling during a lecture is like trying to develop a new language while writing – it takes 100% of your attention. It’s best to figure a few out beforehand and practice using and adjusting them over time. Third, focus on capturing the speaker’s main points. You can always add details later to capture the smaller pieces of information, and seeing your icons will aid your recall of these details. Smith’s final piece of advice – don’t get sucked into the drawing. Focus on listening and using your icons. Nobody needs to understand your drawings except you.

I took a shot at some visual note-taking based on these two TED talks, using the starter icon Smith taught her audience. My drawing skills have always been wanting, but when I look back at the notes I took, the pieces fit together. The doodles I made do a good job reminding me of the information because I had to really engage myself in the process of creating them.

For more information about visual note-taking, check out these websites:

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