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Visual Note-Taking for Educators: A Teacher's Guide to Student Creativity Review by Melanie Reynolds

Wendi Pillars
W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
(212) 354-5500
500 Fifth Avenue
New York, New York 10110

How does true learning occur? How can a person learn new material, and then retain that knowledge over time?

I would say that true learning occurs when a person or child hears information, understands it, and converts it to permanent knowledge which resides firmly in his brain. However—getting from hearing information the first time to the place where that information is understood and remembered doesn’t generally happen overnight or just depend upon that very first auditory lesson. In fact, studies show that when a person hears material for the first time, he will only remember 10% of that material three days later.

That is a real problem for teachers; or for homeschoolers as well! Many of us teach by telling the story or presenting the information while students listen. But if that’s all we’re doing (unless some regular review is being added), then the statistics tell us that our students are losing 90% of what we have taught in a very short period of time. I’m sure that you’re as appalled at those numbers as I am.

Fortunately, there are scientists and researchers working on this very topic. National Board Certified teacher Wendi Pillars has brought a new way of teaching to life in her own classroom, and consequently in her book Visual Note-Taking for Educators.  Although I’d imagine that her chief audience is composed of professional teachers, home educators can benefit enormously with what she shares in this book. It’s a 6” x 9 ½” softcover book with both text and black and white illustrations which show the reader how powerful visual note-taking can be. It also helps teachers venture out on this journey of making their teaching more influential and their information stickier, so to speak, to the young minds under their own tutelage. The book is priced at $17.95.

Visual note-taking, or edu-sketching, is simply the process in which teachers sketch or draw the information (or summaries of it) as they teach; and then encourage students to do the same, so that note-taking becomes a series of drawings or doodles which express what’s being taught. For example, what if you were teaching about the Battle of Lexington and Concord, and wanted to create an edu-sketch of it instead of just talking about it? Ms. Pillars did just that in her book, and it provides a vivid picture (no pun intended) of how powerful this teaching and learning method is. Her edu-sketch was simply a series of line drawings, arrows, and labels, but she drew Boston Harbor, the colonial and British armies, Revere’s and his compatriots’ journey, the “shot heard round the world” and more, all on one piece of paper. The result was a dynamic tool which communicated much about that battle, while becoming a fantastic review sheet for later on. She actually used this as she taught, and students then created their own. This visual note-taking doesn’t only depend on the teacher’s sketching; primary sources, maps, photos, paintings, and other visual media can also be integrated into lessons. The key idea is to provide images that the brain can seize upon alongside the words being taught, which yields an end result of much greater retention of information.

Visual Note-Taking for Educators contains the following:

  • Chapter One: “What is Visual Note-Taking?” The edu-sketching process is introduced, illustrated, and described.
  • Chapter Two: “The Neuroscience of Visual Learning,” in which Ms. Pillars describes the brain and its functions, and why visual learning is such a potent and robust tool for the brain’s natural processes
  • Chapter Three: “All Hail the Visual,” where vision, actively engaging the ways our minds process pictures, memory, and language are discussed
  • Chapter Four: “You Know The Reason Why—Now Let’s Get Started” helps you actually jump into edu-sketching, where the author has even provided margins and space for you to practice
  • Chapter Five: “On the Path to Seeing and Understanding Differently” closes the book with lots of ideas for you, as well as ways that you can integrate this process into your own teaching and learning
  • There are also several appendices with additional information for the teacher.

This book was very interesting to me (although I must admit that I found Chapter Two, on neuroscience, somewhat daunting on the first read). I homeschool my high school-aged son, as well as teaching elementary students an art and history class at our local coop. I have pondered the question of learning and information retention in both those environments, as I’ve wondered how I can better teach so that students really do learn. I have found the concept of edu-sketching very exciting! And, I’ve even seen this concept illustrated powerfully in my own teaching, when one of my students went home and drew something for his family and then told them all about what it was and what it did. I’ve also found that, as Ms. Pillars recommends, that I can teach for a period of time, and then have my son illustrate in his notebook what he has just learned or heard; and that this is highly effective for him. Home educators have probably heard of or used the process of notebooking. This is just notebooking with a highly visual element, with the end result of the student really retaining what he is learning. 

Edu-sketching, or visual note-taking, really can be done by anyone. In fact, one of the first things Ms. Pillars reminds readers is that one doesn’t have to be an “artist” to effectively use this method! The important thing is not creating a beautiful work of art, but using the process to create an effective learning environment for your students. However, the process of integrating edu-sketching into your teaching won’t happen overnight; it will take time. I love the author’s “Favors I Ask of You” as readers embark on this new method:

  1. Keep a visual record of your own progress (like a journal, sketchbook, some way to keep your own drawings)
  2. Be patient, or “process over pretty.” Remember that you’re going to grow in mastery in this method over time, and the goal isn’t beauty but learning. 
  3. Risk failure. Be kind to yourself as you build these new skills and silence that internal critic! 
  4. Have fun. Find enjoyment in this…your students certainly will!
  5. Prepare your materials stash. Your pens, markers, whiteboard, journal, paper. That’s really all you need!

I recommend this book, most certainly, for the classroom teacher. But I also believe it’s a fantastic resource for homeschoolers. If you’d like to make your classes even more interesting, and help your students to really learn---try edu-sketching!

--Product review by Melanie Reynolds, The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, LLC, January, 2017