Part 2: How to Teach Creativity Through Note-Taking
My father used to come up with an invention a day (more like once a week, but he’d call it “invention of the day” usually shouted out—often in an accent). Most of them were absurd, but a few were quite feasible. He’d write them all down anyway. Ideas would come to him seemingly spontaneously throughout the day doing menial tasks. He’d often share them with me if I happened to be with him when they came to him. I later learned they were never really spontaneous (check this post out for more about where creative ideas originate), but my father’s habit inspired a desire in me to write important things down: ideas, special events, sketches, even the occasional invention.
I started keeping a small sketchbook as an adult, the smallest Moleskine about the size of my palm, in my back pocket. If an idea came, I’d write it down. Over time, I’d reflect on old entries revising ideas as they’d incubate in my mind. It eventually became almost a physical extension of my brain: a place for me to layout my thoughts and develop them over time.
Once I became a teacher, I began to draw from my habit of thought development, current neuroscience, and educational research to develop what I call Thoughtbooks.
Let's talk about note-taking first
Students take notes in practically every class, but all too often notes are used to give the illusion of engagement. The teacher is assured that the students are doing something—usually copying what the teacher wants them to write—so they must be learning. And although there is the tiniest shred of truth to that, without considering some fundamentals of notes for when and how to use them, most students merely replicate pages and pages of notes devoid of usefulness.
Now let’s look at how notes are used outside of school, by say the most innovative people in history. Just take a look at these.
What do you notice about how and why these people take notes? Each person wrote in their own way. Some are organized, and some are not. Most are not structured. Many have pictures. But all of them, every single one, are written to record and develop thoughts—which is the key.
Let me clarify another point about note taking, since there’s a bit of a stigma with the term “notes.” I first learned about this from Christopher Lehman who wrote an amazing book on the topic of note taking: Energize Research Reading & Writing. That’s such a dreadful, uninspiring title, but the book is amazing.
Lehman posits that all too often in school students, and even teachers, perceive notes in the following manner:
Information + Copying = Notes
When it should be like this:
Information + Thoughts = Notes
In other words, the focus here is that students learn to write down their thoughts as they learn and engage with material. They certainly might have to copy information at times, but that is not the emphasis.
The vessel for connections and retention: Thoughtbooks
Fundamentally, notes can be used to spark creativity Notes taken effectively become the vessel for connections and retention—the scribbles and jots operating as cues that trigger memories. They act as a catalyst for creativity while helping students remember thoughts, ideas, acquired knowledge, and experiences to more readily combine and synthesize them. The main premise of Thoughtbooks is based on loads of research cited below, but most notably from John Hattie’s research—specifically what he calls Organizing and Transforming Conceptual Knowledge, which has an effect size of 0.85.
There are three phases for utilizing Thoughtbooks effectively: Foundation, Reflection, and Synthesis.
Like constructing a building, you have to start with a strong foundation. Many teachers try to skip this part, but it is critical. There are 3 pieces of a strong note-taking foundation: Recording thinking, learning a variety of note-taking strategies, and consuming and connecting.
Teach to record thinking:
This is by far the most important step. In order to do this effectively, they need to be taught and see modeling of what information to write down and how to record thoughts. Many teachers use Chris Tovani’s format of Inner Voice Sheets, which is a great way to ease students into the idea of recording thoughts. A word of caution though: I’ve seen many teachers rely too heavily on the Inner Voice concept and make it into just another assignment—at least from the students’ perspective—despite the potential positive outcomes. Christopher Lehman also has a method in his book. Whichever method you choose, the emphasis is that students learn to write what they are thinking when they encounter information, which means they need to given time to write what they think after encountering new information.
Teach note-taking strategies:
The second step is teaching students to take notes with purpose, by teaching an assortment of strategies. Sounds simple, but anyone who’s had their students take notes knows how much students hate it; we obviously have to change that perception. So, I always start the year with doodling with purpose, sketch notes, and a variation on inner voice concept because the students have a positive perception of taking notes in these ways. Then by the time students are exposed to more formulaic methods like Cornell notes, they see it as another useful format to structure their own thoughts and information. But again, the focus is developing thoughts—not the structure.
Over the years I’ve accumulated dozens of note-taking methods and structures, all of which can be useful for various purposes; however, it is important that students experience and play with various techniques, so they can find approaches that they prefer. As a result, some students may choose to take their notes on a given topic by creating a Venn diagram, others might create a T-chart, still others might choose to use sketch notes. The more tools they learn, the more likely they are to Hopefully to transfer these ideas into different content and experiences.
Students also learn to take notes with a purpose—not indifference—because they find joy in developing their thoughts. It no longer is about what the teacher wants, rather how to develop one’s own thoughts most effectively.
Teach to Consume and Connect:
The bulk of time using Thoughtbooks is then spent doing what Allen Gannett, author of The Creative Curve, calls consumption. I don’t love this term because it denotes a more passive act than what we want from our students, but Gannett’s idea of consumption is to take in as much varied material as possible. The students then consume a wide selection of information and content and begin building their foundation of surface knowledge by recording important pieces of information and their thoughts about them. As teachers, we begin by exposing students to a wide range of material centered around a central theme or topic. For example, a language arts, social studies, or humanities class might focus on the general topic of empathy. The teacher then provides texts on the topic. When I say texts, I mean anything we can refer to and draw information from. Texts can then be in the form of novels, short stories, articles, videos, discussions, personal experiences, experiments (blue eye brown eye), and practically anything else you think of that can spark a deeper understanding of at least one facet of empathy. Over time, student build their foundational understanding of a topic or theme.
To further deepen their understanding, students need to be given time to make connections between pages of notes. In other words, give students time to look back at their notes from a lesson 3 weeks ago that connects to the lesson today. They might ask additional questions or even answer some they had previously. They might create a whole other page of notes creating a visual depiction of what they now know that they didn’t before. Eventually, we want students to build the habit of finding, consuming material, and making connections between the texts. Ideally, we want students to learn to acquire, sift through information, and make connections on their own, which has to be taught explicitly—I usually don’t get to students using thoughtbooks autonomously until the second half of the year, once they’ve experienced and been trained in using Thoughtbooks.
Learning to record one’s thoughts, knowing the best way to record them, and learning to seek and sift information obviously takes practice. At first, they’ll struggle, but like everything we teach, if we want them to do well we must model each component separately. I recently presented on this topic and created this resource on the various aspects to note-taking. But again, the emphasis is on students developing their own thoughts as they learn and encounter information.
The last point to make this effective is giving students time to record their thinking as well as time to return to old notes and clarify thoughts based on new information they learn. If students initially read articles and listen to lectures to build surface knowledge, they need to be given time during the lesson to write down what they understand and how it connects to previously learned material. If students then partake in an experiment, they need time to not only record their thinking but possibly return to previous notes and make further connections. The act of constantly returning to notes and making associations helps build the depth of knowledge and understanding whereas the initial note-taking develops the surface knowledge.
As students begin to record their thoughts, the ideas are often unclear, not well developed, and not very deep—even when sufficient time is give during the initial lesson. Ed Catmull, the founder of Pixar and author of Creativity, Inc., explains that all creative ideas (including all of Pixar’s movies) start out as what he calls “ugly babies.” Catmull further explains this notion that creative ideas at their inception, “are not beautiful, miniature versions of the adults they will grow up to be. They are truly ugly: awkward and unformed, vulnerable and incomplete. They need nurturing—in the form of time and patience—in order to grow.”
In education we use the term “creative incubation” to clarify the notion that students need time and attention to further cultivate ideas like any seed needs time and nutrients to grow, develop, and fully mature. (I love this Picture book: What Do You Do With an Idea?) Time is absolutely essential in fostering a creative environment but is the piece most commonly left out. During this incubation stage, students revisit and reflect on thoughts and ideas over the course of days, weeks, or even months. They ask questions, collaborate with others, clear-up misunderstandings, maybe even revise old notes, and ultimately refine their own thinking about the concepts. This process builds upon their own network of neuro pathways. The Thoughtbooks then become a physical map of students constructing those networks and associations; without sufficient time to “organize and transform” their understanding and reflect on their notes, their neuro networks are built too weakly to transfer that understanding. Hattie explains that,
"To think more conceptually, students need to figure out how the surface knowledge they have acquired to understand concepts, and the deep knowledge they have developed about how ideas relate to one another, comes more fully under their own command. In large part, students benefit from organizing conceptual knowledge, so they can analyze their understanding and identify where they need to go next in their learning. Importantly, it is the student who is in the driver's seat."
As Hattie confirms the importance of students organizing and transforming, I can’t help but jump for joy because most importantly student are in “the driver’s seat.” My favorite part about the Thoughtbooks is that students eventually begin to look at the world differently: they begin to make associations between what they learn in school and a movie they just saw or connect a book they read in English to a conversation they had in Math. Creativity is largely a result of one’s ability to remember what’s learned and experienced and draw from that when needed, Thoughtbooks are designed to build that habit—in any content!
The great thing about teaching students to consciously make associations is it automatically helps them see more relevance in what they’re learning because they understand how it connects to something they could potentially use. They very quickly begin to enjoy taking notes. In my first years teaching this, I would have students come to me on a regular basis asking if I could please teach this to other teachers at the school, so students could take notes like this in all their classes. I have since worked with countless schools and teachers of all contents to do just that.
Most recently I was giving a training to a group of science, math, and English teachers. At the end of the last day of the training a science teacher raised her hand and said, “I’ve been teaching for 26 years, and I realized today that I’ve been doing it all wrong.”
Once students have built a strong foundation of surface and deep knowledge, incubated their thinking, and organized and transformed their conceptual knowledge, now they are ready to use it.
This part is the most fun but can be very difficult for some. There are countless ways to use the Thoughtbooks from this point, but I certainly have my favorites, and I will always prefer authentic audiences. Therefore, my list consists of those where students use the information to contribute to the world in some way. It may be publishing a book as a class using iBooks Author (which is free by the way) to inform others about world problems; it may be a STEAM Project the students then develop a solution for; Problem Solving Teaching or PBL where it is more self-directed; or my favorite Integrated Curricula projects combining pieces from all of the above—a true synthesis!
Basically, students need to do something with their knowledge—not just take a test or write an essay, although those are possibilities and sometimes necessary—but I encourage you to go beyond traditional assignments. The possibilities are endless.
I encourage you to explore and experiment with the idea of Thoughtbooks. You will find that students will not only remember and apply what they learn more readily, but they become more creative.
Want to learn more about how to teach students creativity in this way? Read the next post in this series:
The Most Successful Way for Teaching Creativity Part 3:
Mental Cross Training Through Integrated Curricula
Please share your ideas and experiences in the comments below on the use of Thoughtbooks in your classroom.
Matt Strock is a passionate teacher, instructional coach, learning & development consultant, speaker, writer, life-long learner, maker, change maker, and innovator.
The pilcrow or paragraph symbol was originally used to signify "the beginning of a train of thought." The Pilcrow Times began in my classroom with texts specifically chosen to kindle thoughts and ideas that most students wouldn't normally consider.