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My name is Sunni Brown and what I want to talk to you about today is how people learn. Now, I’m not interested in this topic as a cognitive neuroscientist or an educator or even as a person who is particularly altruistic around learning. I got interested in how people learn because of a transformative experience I had when I was introduced to a field called ‘visual thinking.’
Visual thinking is an emergent field that has a fast-growing and engaged global community. The field of visual thinking includes skills as diverse as information design, industrial design, data visualization, group process design, etc. It also includes a skill referred to as ‘graphic recording’. I’m going to assume that the term ‘graphic recording’ is new to you, so for today’s purposes let’s familiarize the language and refer to graphic recording as ‘visual note taking.’
You may be thinking to yourself: I know what note-taking is, but what is visual note-taking? Visual note-taking is the translation of auditory content into a visual language format. It’s that simple and that complicated. In other words, content is streaming to an individual from some source – a speaker, a professor, the radio, etc. – and when someone takes notes visually, that content gets funneled down into its essential elements and then interpreted using a combination of words and images. It is an active process with the human brain as the interpreting agent.
Graphic recorders take visual notes on a large-scale in service to group work, so I included this photograph so you could get an understanding of how I take notes visually.
But I also wanted to show examples of what other people’s visual notes might look like. These are from a friend of mine named Austin Kleon. In my world, I would refer to these as small-scale visual notes, but in your worlds these would be normal-sized.
These are from a working group with one of my clients and I include these because many times when I show people visual notes and suggest that they too could create them, they’re instinctive response is to shrink backward and insist that they can’t draw. And my immediate response is always: Neither can I. This is not fine art. And I am not an artist by any definition. And if you look at closely and analyze it, it becomes clear that I could not be using more basic marks on the paper. I’m using with squares, circles and lines and these are still, very obviously, visual notes.
This form of visual note-taking, properly referred to as a mind map per Tony Buzan (author, president of the Brain Foundation, originator of Mind Maps, etc.) is also a simple way to translate content into visual language.
And last, some black and white visual notes that I created in a recent workshop. So you see, visual notes can take many forms and you can’t really do them wrong.
So, when I first entered into this field of graphic recording (or visual notetaking) my intention during these sessions was to be in service to the group, but every time a session ended I noticed something strange: it was significantly impacting my own learning. I had a notable understanding of new information – I could ask intelligent and informed questions and I was in totally unpredictable environments working with previously unknown content. Weeks and even months later I would still recall content and when I worked with repeat clients I would easily dive back into the conversation. Now we know through various studies that doodler retain up to 30% more content than non-doodlers (and that’s when they’re not even drawing related to the content!) so this is not surprising. I was able to make creative connections and associations between content and even to make suggestions to executives on content that was usually new to me. You know you have a grasp on information when you can begin to transmute it and recombine it rather than just repeating it. My listening skills dramatically improved and I became a master of discerning important versus less-important content and quickly determining what was worth capturing in visual form.
My first thought was: I have finally become a genius. My frontal lobes have fully grown in (they keep growing until we’re in our 30s) and I am now the genius that my mother has always thought that I am. So I enjoyed this hypothesis for about a day…
…until I was forced to conclude that it was very likely that the process of visual note-taking was what was genius. This process of intentionally tracking content in a visual format was what was genius. It was having a notable impact on my ability to understand the world, remember it, explain it to other people and “play” with it. Fast-forward one year – I’m continuing to take notes visually and I continue to work with groups and I keep getting returns on my efforts – and I am approached by a woman who had seen a feature about my work in the Austin American Statesman. (Aside about how you submitted your own name.)
Her name was Dr. Virginia Scofield. She is a brilliant human being. She got her Ph.D. in 1977 from UT Austin in Immunology and did her post-doctoral fellowship at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Dr. Scofield is best known for being one of the first researchers to suggest that sperm had a primary role in the transmission of HIV and AIDS. This was in the winter of 1988 and at the time, the molecular mechanism by which the virus was spread was as yet a mystery. It was controversial research at the time but further evidence continues to surface indicating that her hypothesis was accurate. Interestingly, her research was based on her molecular work with animals called “sea squirts” and, because I didn’t know what a sea squirt was and I thought perhaps you wouldn’t either, I’ve included a picture of one. So Virginia reached out to me because she saw my work in the newspaper and she shared with me a very interesting story. It was 1969 and Virginia was an undergraduate student who had never wanted to be anything other than Dr. Scofield. Her plan was always to get into graduate school and become a doctor. She knew she could get a stratospheric GRE score that would help her get in but she also needed a semester of straight As if she were to continue on to graduate school. Unfortunately, she had reached a stumbling block in the form of a class called Organic Chemistry. It was a class she had already failed once and from the looks of it, it would be a class she would either fail again or at least fail to get the A she needed to get into graduate school.
So it was during the Christmas holidays and she was in a full-fledged panic because she had to take her organic chemistry final after the holidays and she had been reading and taking notes on the contents of her Morrison and Boyd Organic Chemistry book for days and she wasn’t making any real progress. Now, I got curious about this textbook by Morrison and Boyd so I searched it online and found it coupled with this phrase: &quot;Do any chemists or pre-med students who graduated in the last 40 years not tremble when they hear the phrase 'Morrison and Boyd’? So I got a better understanding of the state Virginia had likely been in at this time – particularly since she perceived her entire future to be on the line.
So after days of reading and taking notes and reading and taking notes and getting nowhere…
…that’s when it occurred to her to start drawing pictures of the content. Desperation is the mother of invention. She started to take each paragraph and translate it into a visual representation of what it said. She went through each chapter of this book, literally converting them into a visual counterpart of themselves. She said she would scribble and sketch and keep redacting until the concept was accurately represented and firmly cemented in her mind. After the holidays, Virginia took her final, she got an A in Organic Chemistry and went on to become the incredible professor and researcher that she is today.
She did not forget the lesson that she learned holed up in her room over the holidays. So when she herself started teaching, Dr. Scofield used images as teaching tools and she asked her students (who were inevitably taking only written notes) to stop trying to capture everything she was saying and to simply draw what she drew or draw what they wanted to draw. She encouraged them to use labels, categories, numbers/equations and abbreviations, but to focus on creating imagery. And Dr. Scofield had an extremely high rate of student success in her classroom relative to other professors teaching the same subject, a situation she credits to visual note taking. So Virginia and hundreds of students over the decades learned experientially what I learned experientially – that visuals are powerful, memorable, efficient due to their information density and they are effective for learning because of the way our brain works.
So what do we know about visuals and the brain? We know quite a bit but there are three notable points that I’d like to mention today.
The cerebral cortex is the outermost part of your mammalian brain and it plays a key role in memory, attention, perceptual awareness, thought, language, and consciousness. If this grid were to represent the neurons in your cerebral cortex dedicated to processing sensory information (because the cerebral cortex is responsible for sensory, motor and association information), 75% of those neurons are dedicated to processing visual information. The rest are roughly evenly divided among the remaining senses. Point: This is not just a minor distinction from the other senses - we are heavily wired for visuals. Our brains are visual information processing MACHINES.
We also know of a highly pervasive phenomenon called the Picture Superiority Effect, or the PSE. Simply stated, the more visual the sensory input is the more likely it is to be recognized and recalled. Our brain’s ability to process visuals is truly Olympian in measure. Scientists love comparing comprehension and retention rates of oral and text-based communication with pictorial presentation and the conclusion is always: picture demolishes them both.
What do you think the retention rate is 72 hours after information is presented to subjects orally or textually? 10%. What would you guess is the retention rate several days after information is presented visually or pictorially? 90%. One year later retention rates of these same visuals hovered around 63%. Point: Pictures are heavyweights. Text and oral presentations by comparison are wimps. We’d probably pick on them in the school yard. (Brain Rules, John Medina, molecular biologist).
Now, there’s another interesting theory that has a lot of scientific backbone and I think it’s worth noting today. It’s called the Dual Coding theory. Simply stated, visual and verbal information are processed along different channels in the brain. So you have one highway for verbal content (including text and auditory content) and you have another highway for visual input.
So if this represents your verbal highway in a session in which you are trying to learn, these cars represent the auditory content coming to you and these cars represent the text-based content that note-takers rely on. Unfortunately, this is a traffic jam. We know that auditory content competes with text-based content for your brain’s attention, forcing your brains to make a choice about what it can pay attention to. So when someone is speaking and we’re trying as hard as we can to write down what they’re saying, that verbal channel experiences a traffic jam. Yes, some information will get through, but a lot of it will be turned back and it will take a lot longer to get what you do get. Meanwhile, in most of the learning environments in which we find ourselves, the visual freeway – the equivalent of an information superhighway in your brain – is wide open. There’s often not a car on it or maybe there are a couple. It is a lonely, underutilized road.
The ideal combination for absorption and retention is to couple verbal content with visual content, to let them work in concert. Using visuals and language together engages more of our whole mind in a way that relying on text or language alone simply cannot do. But even knowing how our brains are wired, the fact that pictures are superior and the fact that text and auditory content crowd each other out, how do we still see 95% of students taking notes?
Like this. And increasingly, like this on their laptops. But what’s wrong with these notes? I mean, I made it through school taking these notes. They have no discernable patterns. They have no color (they are monotone – the root word of monotonous) They have no images or visualizations. They have no dimension. They have no spatial awareness. There is no gestalt or wholeness. There are no obvious associations between content. They obscure key words. They waste time. (Encourage unnecessary noting, the re/reading of unnecessary noting and the searching for key words.) Ultimately, they don’t leverage the way our brain works. In fact, If we were to create a system of note-taking that was designed to shut our brains down, this would be it.
Students by and large don’t like taking notes. Tony Buzan, the originator of Mind Maps, conducted numerous global studies related to note-taking and found that the most common words students around the world use to refer to note-taking are ‘boring,’ ‘repetitive,’ a ‘headache,’ ‘wasted time,’ ‘panic,’ and my personal favorite ‘punishment.’ Many students perceive note taking as something someone wants you to do when you’ve done something wrong. But students aren’t going to have to stop taking notes any time soon. We need to offer them a better way to do it.
Because quite frankly, if there were a continuum representing this problem and it went from Reasonable to Questionable to Ludicrous, the fact that students and learners around the world don’t yet know how to take advantage of fully-loaded visualization software that comes pre-packaged in our brains is definitively ludicrous.
I wish that we would take the skill of visual note taking and visual thinking out of the exclusive realms of designers and artists and into the realms of education, business and government, where people are grappling with very sophisticated and complex, messy problems. I wish people would understand that creating visual notes does not involve artistry. It is simple and anyone can learn it. I wish that universities would make the skill of visual note taking available to any student who wanted to learn it. I wish to overturn the myth that doodling or drawing in class is indicative of not paying attention. On the contrary, doodling is how students and learners ensure that their brains don’t opt out of the conversation altogether. Doodling and drawing is powerful, meaningful, memorable and it is totally intellectual and appropriate in a university setting. It is one of the best ways to prime our brains to see and know the world more effectively.
In short, my TEDx wish is to start the doodle revolution, today.