Learning by Active Note-Taking, not Passive Picture-Taking

Source: Creativity Post, Nov 2016

how much we humans struggle with perceiving the world around us accurately, building robust understanding out of it, how difficult we find it to communicate all of this to others, and how fragile this human enterprise we call “science” turns out at times.

“Why not take a picture?”

Yes, why not take a picture of the flower instead of (badly) sketching it? After all, the fidelity of a photo dwarfs that of a sketch by several orders of magnitude and you can always print it out and stick it in your notebook. What do we gain by spending a lot of time for so little in return?

… we can draw a meaningful distinction between seeing and remembering a thing. When you “lay eyes” upon that flower, the rays bouncing off of the thing hit your eyes and your brain forms an impression: a memory. But the story doesn’t end there, because what your brain does with that memory can radically change it.

Every time you recall a memory, your brain alters that memory before putting it back. So seeing something once gives your brain very little to work with and makes errors in your perception that much more likely, and therefore consequential.

“But isn’t that the perfect argument against sketching and for photo taking?”

No, because the point of recording an impression of it lies not only in having that impression, sketch, or photo. Instead, it lies in practicing a number of skills, the mastery of which makes you a competent scientist and more effective human being:

  1. practicing your ability to accurately perceive an object and commit it to memory,
  2. practicing your ability to build your own model with increasing fidelity and work with it, and
  3. practicing your ability to communicate your experience of that object via your model so that others can work with your experience as though they had lived it themselves.

In effect, we ask our students to practice the entire process of absorbing information (perception), processing that information (modeling), and then producing effective outputs (speaking).


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