Brad Ovenell-Carter is not a graphic artist. However, many would make that assumption after viewing the educator’s “sketchnotes”—a name that’s gaining currency for illustrated records that distill a lecture, speech, or lesson into a visual synopsis.
When students are asked to think visually, it adds a dynamic aspect to the way they process new information.
“Sketchnotes are intelligent note-taking,” says Ovenell-Carter, director of educational technologies and a teacher at Mulgrave School, a K-12 independent school in Vancouver, B.C. “The note-taking process is normally passive. But with sketchnotes, you don’t write anything down until your thoughts are there. It’s already digested.”
He and other educators are introducing sketchnotes to students as a way to engage with a different way of thinking when they capture material. While most note-taking is very linear, with details written as soon as they come from a teacher or speaker’s mouth, sketchnotes require the note-taker to stop and think before jotting anything down. Ideas must be considered, and connections made, before the pen (or digital bit) is even drawn.
Ovenell-Carter is the first to say that he’s not producing Michelangelo-like renderings, but that isn’t the point. His finished products are resonating with peers as well as students.
There’s already a popular website, Sketchnote Army, and a book, Mike Rodhe’s The Sketchnote Handbook (Peachpit Press, 2012), which Ovenell-Carter bought to help him get started. He recently launched his own Google+ community, Sketchnote Scribes, to connect with others using this process.
Melissa Techman, a teacher and librarian at Broadus Wood Elementary School in Earlysville, VA, partnered with her school’s art teacher to produce some versions of illustrated note-taking. Techman had a fifth-grade class work on a combination of writing and drawing in which they took notes and taped them all together on a giant piece of paper. Then, they started connecting their notes.
“As we try to have kids be producers, one of the benefits of having them explore different methods of writing and presenting is they begin to get a more critical approach to what they’re seeing,” says Techman. “There are a lot of different ways to present information, and I want students to develop a flexible way of thinking about these different strategies.”
Ovenell-Carter often has students share notes as well and assigns two or three kids in each class to be official note-takers—which they can do in multiple ways, from tweeting to finding online links to facts. At the end of class, everyone comes back and sees what’s missed, compiling a more complete set of notes as part of a collaborative note-taking experience.
“If we talk about personal learning, which is a buzz word today, people taking notes in different ways is liberating for them,” he says.
As Ovenell-Carter’s sketchnotes become more popular, with followers on his Pinterest boards and website, A Stick in the Sand, he finds himself giving lectures on the topic, is illustrating another author’s work, and is working on a tome about conversations he’s heard—30 percent of the conversations will be illustrated as sketchnotes.
While many craft sketchnotes using pen and paper, Ovenell-Cartner prefers to use digital means to get down his impressions, using the free app Paper.
Many people may push shy away from drawing notes for lack artistic skills, he says, anyone can create a sketchnote with just a few simple characters, their choice of lettering styles, and a willingness to try.
And if some details are lost, and facts fall by the wayside with the sketchnotes method, he’s not that concerned.
“The joke is we all miss a key point,” he says. “I know I will be in the middle of listening to an interesting talk and realize I missed something, because I was riffing on something else. So no one takes perfect notes.”