Services for Schools, Educators, and Families



The other day I heard a teacher wonder whether it was okay to ask students in a digital classroom—that is, a classroom in which every kid is packing a laptop—to keep notes in a paper notebook.

That’s a heck of a good question, getting at the heart of how we learn, how we organize incoming information, how we process this, and how we keep track of content and ideas we need to keep track of.

In ninth grade I was taught a rigorous I.–A.–i.–a. outlining technique in history class. To some extent we seemed to be graded based on how closely our own notes adhered to the structure of the teacher’s own I.–A.–i.–a. lecture notes. This worked fine in that class, but when we found ourselves in front of a famously discursive teacher—more of a raconteur than a lecturer, really—for grades 10, 11, and 12, it was every student for himself.

Thus, I developed my own system for taking notes, using the same cartridge pens through college and graduate school. At some point I discovered Law Record notebooks, narrow-ruled with a margin about a third of the way from the left. I filled the left side with my observations, responses, and doodles and attempted the orderly recording of class or text content on the right. It worked for me.

I had classmates who worked a kind of stream of consciousness record of classroom proceedings and classmates who managed to distill even graduate school literature seminars into formal outlines. As life has proceeded, I now have colleagues who clack through every meeting—useful to have a record, useful to have someone whose keyboarding skills are up to the task of recording—and those who tend toward paper and pen. I note that quite a few adults don’t take much in the way of notes at all, relying on the keyboard notetakers, Twitter hashtag streams, or livebloggers to keep a readily accessible record; not a bad strategy, really, as long as others are willing to put in the sweat equity.

A deliberate typist rather than a facile one, I still tend toward paper, having traded in my Law Record notebooks for little notebooks from Levenger that have open space on the left that I use for rumination while trying to jot down salient discussion points in the lined area. I am afraid I still prefer fountain pens—clean, solid lines—although there are a few kinds of cheap rollerballs that I deem worthy in a pinch.

My informal survey of students reveals a similarly eclectic approach to taking notes. I know that teachers still try to teach outlining and other notetaking methods in lower grades, but technology now makes this harder, simply by offering more choices.

My holy grail of notetaking (and I suspect that of lots of other people, but the killer app remains elusive) would be a tablet computer with really nice stylus input on a page that would mimic my little pads. The stylus would look and feel and have a nib size like the Lamy pens I prefer, and it would somehow be impossible to misplace and cheap to replace. (The stylus I occasionally use on my iPad—and Steve Jobs was famously contemptuous of stylus input systems—leaves a line like an old crayon and would cost me ten buck or more to replace.) Good character recognition and write-to-text would be nice; my old Palm PDAs could do that, after all. I have just read of a partnership between Moleskine (I could be a convert) and Evernote that moves in the direction I crave, but their new products will be a bit pricey and still not deliver exactly what I’m looking for—I don’t really want to have to photograph each of my notebook pages.

So what do we tell a teacher in an age when every student may be approaching the whole notetaking enterprise in a way that is somehow idiosyncratic and where the possibilities change with the technology, regularly and a bit unpredictably?

We have an obligation to help students develop the skill of recording, distilling, and reflecting on what goes on in their classes or what they read. If teaching “old school” methods–I.–A.–i.–a. or “Cornell notetaking” (on which my Levenger pads are based) or “mind maps” or other systems with a history—helps to get kids started, that’s probably okay.

But like anything else we aim to teach, it’s worth laying out for ourselves what it is we want students to gain from the learning. In each of our classes and in the aggregated experience of “school,” why do we want students to take notes? I’m assuming there are a few universals in the answer to this, but we each have a slightly different take on the whole business, based on our own experiences and preferences.

The trick is to differentiate instruction—or at least the design of learning experiences—to help every student find his or her best method or at least best approach, as technology will bring about changes in available methods. This means that we have to be intentional about our purposes and attentive to students’ individual needs and preferences.

It also means that questions like, “Can I require kids to take notes in paper notebooks?” is no longer the simple yes/no classroom policy question that it might have been even in 1992. We can require students to “take notes,” but what we mean by “notes” and how we want them to do this is a question requiring a far more complex response than it did not so long ago.

Or perhaps, the matter of notetaking has always required a complex response but not always been given one.

1 Comment
  1. Interesting thoughts, Peter. I’m not sure of any answers. I do know last year in an iPad pilot class, I noticed kids quite trying to copy what went on the board after a few weeks (link to post below)–they just took pictures of them at the end of class! Our school quit teaching note taking over a decade ago (Cornell notes), and I wonder what that means for our students.