Teaching: Visual Note-taking

Want visual notes? Make visual notes.

Back in August 2009, Dave Gray showed me that drawing was a secret superpower. I’ve written about his Semigram and other drawing tools on numerous occasions before, from teaching a lesson on design, to building a geometry notebook to teaching students about Zentangle.  And the goal of all this work was noble — it really was.  I was trying to help integrate drawing into my students’ experience, so that they recognized the power and opportunities that drawing afforded them as students to be transformative.

Didn’t work.

At least not entirely. Sure: kids in my classes worked with drawings and doodles that helped them understand Latin a little better. And kids in my computer classes learned quite a bit about making infographics and developing good graphic design. But that’s more or less where it stopped.  There’s an upper limit to how much information you can provide students in a class about Latin or about computer science before your kids shut down.  And if it doesn’t get picked up in other classes, they’re done.

More, there wasn’t much time or energy placed on how to develop pictures.  Sure, I showed the kids the semigram, Dave’s system for teaching adults some basic drawing skills in ten minutes at the start of a workshop.  Sure, later on I taught Mike Rohde’s method of five course shapes (see @left in the photo, and below in the sample drawings).  But knowing shapes isn’t the same thing as knowing how to draw. There’s a disconnect between knowing how to draw shapes, and how to create pictures.

Flash cards.  Duh.  That’s the idea I got from Mike’s new book, the Sketchnote WorkbookI think of it as the advanced practitioner’s manual, rather than the initial grimoire.

You do realize these books about drawing are grimoires, right? Even though they’re not officially about magic, Gordon is right:  All of the how-to books of ancient times, be they books about science or books about mathematics, are in a real sense also books about magic.  And knowing how to draw — even if it’s just a silly picture of a guy made out of a five pointed star, is a superpower in a world where most people only know how to read and write and do math.

VisThink drawings don’t have to be complicated…

Which is what most of the world’s students, and most of the world’s teachers, think is what you’re in school to learn how to do.  I’m pushing uphill against some particularly heavy stones, here.  Which is sort of the reason why I veered off into magic for a while, in public and as an adult, on this blog.  Reality has mass, and if you intend to move it, you’d better have some pretty heavy lifting tools on your side.  I thought I’d hit an important ball out of the part with my post on modeling creativity, for example, but it’s been a non-starter.  And there was another post on working with creativity within rules, right?  And for the magicians and teachers, too, I wrote this piece about working the Great Work within different modalities.  Yep, you guessed it: more or less un-read by anyone.

But Flash Cards, yo.

I mean, how did I not think of this before? We know — and by “we”, I mean that teachers have collated more than a century of data that shows that we learn language not from associating words with other words, at least initially, but words with pictures.  So why not have students write out flash cards with pictures as well as words? Why not have students engage their visual thinking skills at the same time that they engage their foreign-language acquisition skills? Why not have students build up a vocabulary of visual images to complement their Latin vocabulary?

Mike Rohde says that this is how you build your skills as a visual thinker!

I’m sure I’ll be doing more small versions of these posters that show students how to build a new visual palette of symbols and ideas that tell stories, that give them pictures to hang vocabulary on, and that have the capacity to help students, young people, go from simply knowing how to draw shapes, to how to create elaborate designs.

In other words, I think that Mike Rohde has found the right bridge to get my students over the chasm from knowing Dave Gray’s icons, to being fully-capable graphic artists.  And I think that this has real potential moving on from here, for helping to awaken the latent superpowers in us all.

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