Consider the last time you learned something new. (Note: if the answer is you can’t remember, you need to change that! IMO the best teachers are those who love learning. It is a necessary part of your development!). For example, I recently learned a new way to braid my hair by watching a tutorial on YouTube (see the video here).
As you think about the thing you learned, consider carefully your learning process. Did you take notes? Did you try over and over? Would you process differ if what you were learning was a concept or a skill or was for school or for a hobby? I imagine it might. When I think about my hair braiding example, I found the best way for me to learn was to practice along with the video. I paused and rewound again and again as I tried to braid and re-braid my hair. I didn’t write anything down, I had a tutorial I could go back to again and again as needed.
If I instead consider trying to understand the ideas presented in an academic paper, my process would differ. Clearly one difference is the format, I’m now reading rather than watching. However, there are other differences too. For one, reading academic papers is something that is important for my job, not just a new way to do my hair for the day. For another thing, the ideas in the article are things that I want to understand, not just do. I also want some record so that I can come back to it later. In this instance I will read the article (it exists digitally on my computer) and I will highlight the PDF and stop periodically to take notes in my journal as I read. This affords me the opportunity to interpret what I am reading in my own words and also to keep track of important aspects that I might later want to return to (via highlighting).
In my two examples what I was learning and why I was learning differed. When I set out to learn something new I often draw upon my method without much thought. Lately, I’ve been trying to be more mindful of my methods which again led me to note taking in the mathematics classroom. As I sit in math classes and think about the purpose of notes it occurs to me that the students and the teachers in the classes may not have done the same.
I don’t remember teachers telling me about the purpose of notes beyond, “so you remember this later,” but if that was the case, most of what was written had already been written in the textbooks prior to my arrival in the classroom. In addition, copying down what was happening as it happening wouldn’t help me remember unless I went back to them at some point and if they make sense to me, right? As a teacher, I made my students take notes because it is what one does in math class. I had evidence of this; as a math major I graduated with notebook upon notebook of notes from all sorts of math classes. (for some reason I moved these with me from place to place, even though I never referenced them, until I finally got rid of all of them a few years ago). However, in retrospect there was another purpose for making my students take notes, and this revelation is a bit embarrassing in retrospect. The students were so much easier to manage when they quietly sat taking notes.
I readily admit that as a new teacher I was lacking in classroom engagement (a term I prefer to classroom management) strategies. Note-taking-time was this magical portion of class during which I felt in control and knew that the students must clearly be learning since they were so quiet and attentive (*snort*). What I failed to realize was that they could have been taking notes in a Klingon with the same degree of success and learning that resulted from the process. So now, I am trying to reevaluate my own purpose for having students take notes (or not) and I hope you join me.
Below, I have an exercise that can serve as a professional learning opportunity for you prior to my next post. I hope you try it out (I will post what I come up with next time) and join me for the next post early in the new year!
Professional Learning Opportunity: Take 5 minutes to write down why you have had (past tense) your students take notes (or not) in your classroom. If you have never pondered it before, this is a good time to start! Step away from this paper and then reread aloud. Now, edit it (don’t erase, write a new draft if needed) to reflect why you would like (future tense) to have students take notes (or not) in your classroom. Keep this handy for the next part in the sequence.