How sketchnoting has changed my thinking as a teacher


Teaching | Monday, September 8, 2014

How sketchnoting has changed my thinking as a teacher

How sketchnoting has changed my thinking as a teacher
How sketchnoting has changed my thinking as a teacher

Since I started sketchnoting (aka visual notetaking) last spring, I’ve started to view teaching in a different light. Being more visual in the classroom can have great rewards for student achievement. (Flickr / AIGA Wisconsin)

Last spring, I started sketchnoting. (You know, visual notetaking … where you gather ideas visually on a sheet of paper or, in my case, a blank iPad screen.)

It’s been a great experience. I’ve been able to grab ideas from several great keynote speeches I heard at conferences over the summer. I can pull together a sketchnote of something I read or an idea I hear and it’s a more visual, memorable representation than jotting it down in standard notes.

(FYI — I’ve posted many of them on my Sketchnotes page and my Ditch That Textbook Flickr account.)

Paper, an iPad app by FiftyThree, has been my go-to tool for creating them. I don’t get paid a dime by them for writing this, but this app has earned my recommendation as one of the best iOS apps at taking advantage of what the iPad is good at. It makes the digital art creation experience as good or better (for me, at least) when compared to the real thing with paper, pencil and other art tools. The calligraphy pen, the one tool in the app that’s free, is far and away my favorite. Others can be purchased, and despite being a huge cheapskate and rarely paying for apps, I bought all of the Paper tools and have been happy to have them.

Since I started sketching, it has changed how I view what I do as a teacher. As we become more and more inundated with messages and marketing via various media, it becomes harder to connect with any audience — students included. I believe that this media-rich culture has made us more visual people, and I’m now finding new ways to be more visual in my teaching.

For one, sketchnoting has encouraged me to do more with less. This sounds like the general direction that education is headed — more responsibilities with less time to satisfy them — but I’m talking about “more with less” in a different sense. In the past, when I attended conferences or listened to speeches, I took standard notes on standard notepaper. I wrote in short sentences and bulleted lists, but the notes were all word-based and very linear.

In my post-sketchnoting approach, I’m focusing more on big ideas, the important take-away messages in these presentations. I’ve found that I can’t process too much information all at once during presentations, and if I stick to the main points, I end up really internalizing more than if I try to get everything.

As soon as that hit me, I had a realization.

Why are my students any different?

In fact, they’re probably more like this than I am, and it’s not because they’re worse people or lazier or anything like that. The human brain, in my experience at least, just can’t store and recall huge amounts of information at once. When I present at conferences, I often ask people if they feel like their brain is full from all the new ideas and information they’ve gotten. (The answer is usually “yes.”)

I think about my own education and the tons and tons of information I was exposed to in classrooms, from kindergarten to college and beyond into professional development. The percentage of that huge body of knowledge that I remembered at the time was much smaller, and the percentage I still can recall from memory now is pretty minuscule.

My students are going to hit brain overload like I do. They’re only going to really keep a fraction of what I teach them in mind. In that case, I should devote myself to emphasizing the most important points and doing whatever I can to reinforce them.

(Is it sad that it took sketchnoting for that realization to really hit me?)

A recent example: during church today, instead of sitting passively and listening to the sermon, I sketchnoted it. I am convinced that if you asked me about the message at church today, I would remember much more compared to previous Sundays. (I just hope the pastor didn’t think I was drawing and totally ignoring him. If he did, I’ll just show him this blog post!) It’s not beautiful art, and I’m still very much a rookie sketchnoter, but it fulfilled its mission — it helped me learn!

Click to see full-size version.

My sketch from church. Click to see full-size version.

I’m also trying to find ways to present and engage in content in a more visual manner. I’ve learned some great lessons from reading Mike Rohde’s book, The Sketchnote Handbook. For instance, he says that readers (maybe “viewers” is a better term) of sketchnotes can organize information easier if certain icons are placed with them. Numbered icons, warning icons (like an exclamation point in a circle) and little simple pictures can do wonders for explaining ideas in a short amount of time.

You don’t have to be a great artist to sketchnote, Rhode writes, and you definitely don’t have to be a great artist to use sketches in teaching! Storytelling to practice new content has been a staple in my classroom for several years. I’ve started drawing the stories on the whiteboard in front of my class, and it’s added a new layer of student engagement. At the beginning of the year, when I asked students what they wanted to see in the class, several of my returning kids said the story drawings were one of their favorite parts of Spanish class. Easy decision — I’ll do more of them!

For so many of us, our minds work in pictures. A picture is worth a thousand words. Anything we can do to tune into that part of our brains is worth trying, if you ask me.

How do you make your instruction visual? Do you use any of the techniques mentioned here? Is there anything you’d like to try after reading this? Share your ideas for us to read in a comment below!

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  • I could not agree with you more!!! I love to sketchnote. My daughter calls me story doodles. I love to take me drawings and doodles and surround them with stories of my week or life. I have yet to find a way to incorporate it into my classroom yet, but I too am realizing the great power it has and know that it has a place. I love Mike Rhodes work too and I have found a fantastic community of doodlers on line. Just great people. You should also check out what Natalia Talkowska is doing with Doodle-Le-Do (shhhh I’m starting one in Chicago…geeee…details not released yet). Oh and Wednesday my daughter came home with her own story doodle of a Science lesson she had in class. I asked her, “Why she did it and she said because mommy you said it would be a great way to take notes, so I tried.” LOVE it!!!

  • Will Fanguy says:

    Great post! This is so true! When I was teaching, I let my students doodle or sketch during lecture because I felt like it kept them more engaged and learning. Combining words and pictures increases comprehension and retention, and it’s more appealing to everyone! And sketchnoting? ???? Mike is a great teacher in his own right. If you ever get a chance to go to one of his workshops, do it!

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