Ever notice people who scribble constantly while attending a talk? I do because I don’t take notes well. In fact, I hardly take notes at all. I find note-taking gets in the way of attentive listening. I’m afraid I’ll miss something if I divert my attention to writing something down. Note-taking is a different activity than actively listening. So when I interview an expert to learn about his/her field for a project I’m working on, I bring along a tape recorder. The only notes I take are about specifics—the spelling of a name, or a particular recommended reading, or a website I should visit. Later, when I am synthesizing material in my own writing, I can always double check my memory about what I heard with the tape recorder. I have come to understand that my memory is quite good. And, as a result, I’ve come to rely on it. If I’m worried about forgetting some of the details after listening all day, I write my notes in the evening.
For my first term paper when I was in college, I learned from a graduate student that 3”x 5” note cards about the research were the order of the day and I diligently wrote them. But, today, when I’m reading to learn, I find it disruptive to write notes. That’s why I found Deb Heiligman’s post A Modest Proposal (for Doing Research with Kids) from three years ago so memorable. When I’m trying to grasp concepts the best way for me to learn is to read several different sources on the same subject. It is only when you can articulate a concept in your own words that you truly “own” it. So I also use Deb’s technique of only making a note when something jumps out at me and I know that I’ll want to revisit it.
But doesn’t the act of writing also strengthen memory? The many times I forget to bring along the grocery list I had recently created makes no difference at all in collecting every item on that list into my shopping basket. We authors are verbally articulate about the material in our books because we’ve thought about it and written about it and, as a result, remember it better. The many pundits who speak so well on news talk shows are all excellent writers. Good speaking comes from having written and practicing by engaging in substantive conversations.
The Common Core State Standards “…..require that students systematically acquire knowledge in literature and other disciplines through reading, writing, speaking, and listening.” To become an articulate, educated person requires interaction of all four of these activities, which I’ve bold-faced in this post. I’m not sure where note-taking fits into this process. I have a hunch that it’s one of those highly individualized quirks that everyone has to discover independently. In other words, we each have to figure out what works best in our personal acquisition of knowledge. This could be a sub-text of the CCSS. Although becoming educated involves all four activities, how you make it work for yourself can be discovered only empirically. There is no one right way, one size fits all. It is this process of self-discovery that needs to be communicated to teachers and students.