Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Taking Note of Note-Taking

     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.

     It seems that Socrates also noticed this.  He worried about the technology of his day, the stylus, which allowed people to write in clay.  He was afraid that “[Writing] destroys memory [and] weakens the mind, relieving it of…work that makes it strong. [It] is an inhuman thing.” In other words, if you could easily make notes (now carved in clay), you no longer had to remember what you wrote down and so you could now forget it.  Listening and writing are two different and, perhaps, competing verbal activities. Modern research into multitasking indicates that we really don’t do two or more things at once, but simply shift attention back and forth from different tasks. But in college, we were all encouraged to take notes, not only from lectures but from our readings as well.

     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. 

1 comment:

Myra Zarnowski said...

I have my own quirky way of taking notes. I assume many other people do too. What I think needs to be shared is that it's ok to develop your own style of sifting, sorting, and responding to information. It would be helpful to be able to share with students some examples of how different people do it.