Happy New Year! I love celebrating the New Year. My birthday happens to be New Year’s Eve, so the start of a new year coincides with the start of my next trip around the sun. Each January 1st I take time to reflect on my past year and create goals for the coming year. Part of my reflection for this year entailed the professional learning opportunity I suggested in my prior post:
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.
Let’s examine my responses for each of these questions.
Why have I had students take notes in the past?
As I thought about this question, I had to consider my work as a high school mathematics teacher separate from my work as a univeristy mathematics educator. As a high school teacher, I (as I mentioned last in my last post) did not think about note-taking in depth. In retrospect, I thought that having students take notes would allow them to have a reference from which to study and to ensure they were attending to the important ideas. It also, sadly, served as a classroom management strategy at times; the students were quiet and attentive while taking notes.
To understand how mismatched these purposes were with the process, you have to understand the process of note-taking in my former classroom. Please understand that this process was not unique to me. Since leaving K12 teaching I have observed countless math classes at all levels in a variety of locations and note-taking kind of looks the same everywhere I go. So read this not as a specific case, but as a portrait of traditional note-taking in American schools.
As I started a new lesson, I would write out some important ideas on the overhead project (now mostly done via slides on the Smartboard). I developed these notes after reading through and pulling out key ideas from the textbook. This means that the students could have found the same information in their books in greater detail (mine were summarized and largely comprised of definitions and worked examples). As I wrote, my students wrote. They dutifully copied down all my words and examples without question. I even remember them copying down errors and then groaning as I caught those errors and had them fix their notes.
The speed of note-taking was the speed of my writing and talking. How could they possibly have been making sense of what was happening when they had to keep up with my writing? I now firmly believe that these notes had little meaning to my students. The fact that they copied down errors without pause suggests that they were not comprehending what they were writing. In my dissertation study, I termed this process of note-taking a transcription activity. Indeed, most of my students could have been writing down the notes in Portuguese (a language none of them spoke) or any other language and had the same understanding.
I will note that through the years I changed my note process up a bit. I moved to guided notes in which I printed packets for students that had a lot of the information pre-printed aside from blanks for key terms or worked examples. I thought that these might help them keep up with my writing and speaking (I’m a fast talker). The students did like these notes. They could listen until I came to a key point or example and then they had simply to fill it in. Again, I’d argue that this is a transcription activity and they were not really learning through this process. In both of these processes (traditional and guided notes) I also realized that students were taking notes that made sense of the ideas to me, they were not encouraged to think through the ideas and note them in ways that made sense to them. This has been a major revelation to me and I revisit this dilemma in the next post.
So, in considering my intent for notes to serve as a reference and to ensure students attended to the important ideas, my process was horribly misaligned. Students would have notes and sure, they could reference them, but what good is a reference that you don’t necessarily understand? Also, why not have them use the book for that process as it has greater detail? In addition, if you don’t understand the important ideas, how can you attend to them meaningfully? These points are all so glaringly obvious now, but they weren’t then.
In terms of my final purpose, classroom management, the process actually did support this. I believe this is the reason that note-taking done in this way continues to persist. However, we must ask ourselves if we are okay with a classroom management strategy that does not support math learning. I am not. Furthermore, I believe that much of the classroom management issues we face are actually classroom engagement issues. Surely we can develop more engaging ways to create artifacts of our learning while actually learning!
As a university educator, I typically use PowerPoint slides to help me keep on track of what I have planned. They don’t have a lot of text, but do have some main ideas. I post these slides and tell students they don’t have to take notes, they can simply reference the slides later so they can focus on the conversation in the moment. However, it still seems as though there is value to taking notes of what is happening and key ideas. Furthermore, there have been studies that state the benefit of hand writing notes versus electronic notes. Most of my students only use devices. Should I rethink my practices in light of this information (spoiler alert: yes!).
So in summary, my purposes and processes for note-taking are out of alignment, save for classroom management, which I can find different ways of addressing. This exercise helped me critically examine my purpose and process and think toward the future.
Why do I want students to take notes in the future?
I still want students to take notes so that they have an artifact of their learning. I want them to have a reference for when they study that is of their own creation. In addition, I want notes to provide a means for my students to think about their thinking: a metacognitive tool. I don’t want the notes to be a restatement of my thoughts, rather, I want them to be a record of their interpretation and sense-making of the ideas we discuss.
In my next post, I will delve further into processes that would help to support these purposes.
Professional Learning Opportunity: Take a bit of time to detail your current process for note-taking (if you have one). Then, discuss the ways in which your process and purpose align or not.