Visual notetaking and focusing on big ideas

Ed Tech

Ed Tech | Thursday, June 5, 2014

Visual notetaking and focusing on big ideas

thoreau quote

Visual notetaking can make connections to content that traditional teaching can’t. It also lets us focus on the big-picture lessons we want students to learn. (Art by Matt Miller) (Wow, I never thought I would write that in a caption!)

Where do blogs and online media outlets go to present information?


They’re visually stimulating. They’re accessible to almost anyone. And they don’t overkill with too much information.

I’ve had a couple encounters with these ideas in the last couple weeks that have me thinking about how I could teach better and differently.

Some of Amy Burvall's work at My-conography (

Some of Amy Burvall’s work at My-conography (

Amy Burvall, part of my professional learning network on Twitter, creates some amazing, stunning visuals at her Tumblr site, My-conography.

Out of curiosity, I asked her what tool she used to create them.

The answer: the Paper iPad app by FiftyThree. I downloaded it right away and began playing.

Right away, I realized something: It made me look like a MUCH better artist than I really am. (I’m not much of an artist at all. Think modified, augmented stick figures.)

The first drawing I created was for my school’s graduation: a basic graduation cap with tassel and confetti including time and date of the graduation ceremony. I shared it on Facebook with friends and family, and it got more attention than I expected.

A speaker at graduation quoted Henry David Thoreau and it inspired me to draw another one (the top image in this post). My wife told me I should send it to Hallmark because it should be on a greeting card.

(No one ever says that about art I create. Ever.)

dave burgess experiences

Visual notes from a keynote speech by Dave Burgess (Art by Matt Miller)

Since then, I’ve been to a few educational technology conferences since then. Instead of taking copious notes during keynote speeches in Evernote (like I usually do), I’ve picked a couple main takeaway messages and made visual representations of them.

Again, they’re not great art. And again, they’re mostly like modified stick figures.

But they do solidify some of the most important lessons from my conference experiences, and I think I’m more likely to remember those lessons when school starts back up. There’s even some brain research that backs it up.

This has me pondering two things about how we teach:

1. What if we did more of this in class? These types of notes could be huge for visual learners, and fellow classmates’ representations of the day’s lesson could be huge for a learner who is struggling with a particular topic.

2. What if we put more emphasis on the big take-away lessons? So often, we have our list of content to cover in a unit or a school year. At times, we lay the lessons out wide and shallow instead of digging deep to emphasize the most important ideas. Sometimes, those key take-away lessons can get lost in a sea of lesser facts.

Right now, I’m really liking this idea — lots of emphasis on a few key lessons instead of cursory attention to lots of smaller things.

And I love that this app has brought out a little bit of artistic talent that I never thought I had. (Thanks, Amy, for your help with that!)

What do you think of that idea — more emphasis on the big ideas? Have you ever tried visual notes like this with students (or something like it)? I’d love to hear about it. Share with us in a comment below!

RELATED POST: Sketchnoting is a way to learn in ways we never could before technology. Here are 10 other ways to redefine education using technology. 

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  • Deb says:

    Matt, is there anything like that for schools that don’t use Apple products? Our kids have Chromebooks.

    • Matt Miller says:

      If your Chromebooks have touch screens, I’ve come across a few drawing apps in a search: Open Office Draw, Microsoft Paint for Chromebook, Sumo Paint and Touch Drawing App. I haven’t tried these yet, but that could be a good place to start.

      If your Chromebooks don’t have touch screens, I’d think you could potentially do this (maybe with a mouse? It would be hard drawing with the touchpad.) … Maybe they could use something like Lucidchart or Gliffy for text/lines/icons/etc., which wouldn’t be in their own handwriting/drawing, but it could be an alternative.

      Good question. Glad you asked it. 🙂

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