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Sketchnoting and Visual Learning

            We had a professional development session for synagogue school – on Zoom – to teach us a technique called Sketchnoting. The broad purpose of the session, I think, was to open our minds to different methods of teaching, and different ways to encourage our students to express their own thoughts. And for people who process information best through visuals, and especially through pictures, the Sketchnoting method is probably a huge step forward in learning and comprehension.

            But for me, it was torture.

“Me too.”

            It took me years to learn how to read menus and recipes, because of the way the words are presented on the page, and I have never been able to read a comic book or a graphic novel from beginning to end without wanting to throw it out the window. I’m sure this qualifies as a learning disability of some kind, but it was never diagnosed or addressed in school, and I worked around it well enough that no one seemed to notice.

            But sitting there during the professional development session, staring at the computer screen and trying to make sense of a series of little pictures meant to represent words, drove me nuts. I wasn’t the only one who struggled, thank God, or else I would have (naturally) assumed it was all my fault, for being so hard-headed and stiff-necked and whatever else is wrong with me. The teacher of the class even acknowledged that learning how to translate words into pictures is much harder than recognizing the meaning of pictures drawn by someone else (though I found that difficult too).


            After a general introduction to what Sketchnoting looks like on the page (simple drawings, separated by boxes, often modified with one or two descriptive words), we did an exercise where the teacher gave us a word (in this case the word was “idea”) and asked us all to draw a picture of the word on a post-it note. My first thought was a lightbulb, but I can’t draw a lightbulb, and I don’t understand why a lightbulb is supposed to represent an idea, so I rejected that one. Then I tried to draw a cloud, because I was thinking about the Platonic ideals and how there’s supposedly a perfect version of each idea, somewhere, like maybe in heaven, but I couldn’t draw a cloud either; my best attempt looked more like an ameba.

And then I drew a tree – a very simple, curly-headed tree – because trees have been on my mind lately, and because I never have just one idea; I tend to have a core idea that branches out in dozens of directions. So a tree fit the word idea, for me.

            All of this took place in twenty seconds. And when I held up my post-it note to the camera, the teacher picked it out of everything on the screen and said, disbelieving, is that a tree? He didn’t ask why I would draw a tree, or what made a tree my best representation of the word idea. He just told us that whenever he does this exercise the majority of people draw a lightbulb, and a significant minority draw a word bubble over the head of a person, and this is proof that we actually do share a common visual language that most people will understand. Except for Rachel, of course.

“Oh, Mommy.”

            If I’d gone with my first idea and drawn even a terrible lightbulb, I would have fit in fine, but I wouldn’t have been satisfied with my work. I would have been disappointed in myself, because even though I know enough about popular culture to know that, at least in the United States, a lightbulb is often used to represent an idea, that’s not what it represents for me.

            But I felt guilty for rocking the boat. I didn’t realize, until after the exercise was over, that the teacher had been trying to prove a point about the universality of certain images. I thought I was supposed to be creative and imaginative, and I’d clearly misunderstood the purpose of the exercise.

            The teacher went on to tell us that you can use Sketchnoting to capture the deeper meaning of an essay or a lecture or a YouTube video. He said that you’ll be able to remember more of the lecture if you can sum up key ideas in pictures instead of words. But I couldn’t do most of the exercises he gave us, because I couldn’t think of pictures to draw to represent specific concepts, and even when I could think of something, I couldn’t draw it fast enough.

            Before the teacher himself had come onto the Zoom, my boss did a warm up exercise with us, asking us to describe how we each take in information. She called on me first, and I should have been able to guess that she was asking if we are visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learners, or some variation on that idea, but instead I was flummoxed, because I didn’t know what she was looking for. I don’t know, I said, I take in information in a million different ways.

“I take in information through my nose and my belly.”

            I wasn’t trying to be difficult. I only understood that she was (probably) asking the visual/auditory/kinesthetic question in the aftermath, though no one else really answered in those terms either. But it felt like a microcosm of how I respond to the world overall: with confusion. I know some part of it is because I want to be different, but a lot of it is that I can’t figure out what kind of answer people are looking for and I don’t make the assumptions they expect me to make. I generally have the “right” answer in my back pocket, but I have ten other answers in there too, and I don’t know which one to choose.

            I remember a psychology class where the teacher had us go through a stack of Rorschach cards and describe what we saw. She had a list of scores for each possible interpretation and most of the students in the class fit nicely into the pre-set answer groups, and then there was me. She called my answers “creative,” because I saw things like a group of monkeys in space suits riding bicycles, instead of a butterfly, or a lion. She couldn’t score my answers and just shrugged when I asked what that might mean.


            But, I’m learning that it’s not that I’m bad at all kinds of visual learning, it’s that my mind sees more possibilities than other people see, and I have to ask a lot of extra questions to narrow down what someone else expects me to see. It makes me difficult. And it makes my life difficult. And people assume I’m doing it on purpose, just to be different. And I don’t know; maybe I am.

            But is that so bad?

            When I look at my students, I don’t see anyone who fits neatly into the predetermined learning categories. I see a lot of unicorns. And maybe I’m seeing things in them that no one else sees; but it’s there. And, yes, they can be trained to see the world in a rigid, conventional way; or most of them can. But I’m unlikely to be the teacher who asks that of them. I’d rather have a room full of unicorns, even if that makes them more challenging to teach, because that’s what makes the work so much fun.

“I’m a unicorn too, right?”

If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

            Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

75 responses »

  1. Microsoft from time to time organizes sessions for MVPs (Most Valuable Professionals, of which I am one) to present to other MVPs on various topics. I almost invariably find these presentations challenging and tedious (and I always feel bad about it because the presenter is so enthusiastic about the topic), but the one on sketchnoting was one that I particularly chafed at. Like you, I have no ability to draw anything nor any thoughts about visual representations of ideas, and to me it seemed like a really inefficient way to take notes, create an outline, or anything else you would use it for. So I definitely sympathize.

  2. Let’s hear it for the unicorns!! Whatever happened to thinking outside the box?! If your teacher already knew what answers he wanted, why in the heck did he even ask??! Thank goodness for you, Rachel! I’d have been smiling and high-fiving you over Zoom! Bring on the creativity, for gosh sakes. One of m supervisors used to call me the George Carlin of the office because I saw things just a bit different than everyone else. I think George would be pleased.

  3. Since the purpose of the session was to help teachers recognize and encourage different types of learning, he shouldn’t have expected everyone to be the same or to be able to do the exercises easily. If you aren’t a visual learner, then you would struggle. Just as someone who is a visual learner struggles with auditory learning. The point should have been to help you be empathetic, but have another method in your bag of tricks for those students who are struggling with traditional learning. It sounds like you are an amazing teacher!

  4. Thanks for this. It reminds me that a well thought out and drawn diagram can tell “a thousand words” but a poorly conceived diagram is just trash!

  5. I also made a teaching career out of “thinking outside the box” so to speak. Fortunately my much more practical wife was around to keep me more grounded. Thanks again for continuing to read my blogs.

  6. Great post, Rachel. I’m all for being different in a good way. There’s not enough creativity in the world these days when everything is fed to us through gadgets.

  7. Images are important to me – I’ve been making paintings as long as I can remember – but I promise I would be useless at this sketchnoting business. To me, images, at least in painting, are not a translation or shorthand for words. They are a different beast altogether. That’s why I could never be an illustrator.

  8. I had a tutor explain that I am a tangential learner where most conventional learners are linear. It sounds like you may be too. We may get to the same destination, but we get there by a different path that others don’t understand. Skip the stupid sketches and use whatever method works best for you!

  9. Jennifer Barraclough

    I think a Tree is a much more interesting and original image than a lightbulb! Celebrate your creativity.

  10. I can definitely relate!

  11. I’m with you on that, Rachel. And I have come to value being different…although it has taken quite a while, I like it.

  12. I think it’s wonderful that you take in information in a million different ways. I wish more people did.

  13. I think people like us to fit neatly into slots to reinforce their prejudices, kinda round pegs in round holes.

  14. Eh, someone who would think of trees probably invented the internet, so don’t fear!! Happy Valentines Day!!!!!!

  15. I applaud your courage to stand up straight and be ‘different’ – not fit the ‘norm’. I think that speaks of how much stronger you are on the inside that you see yourself being. I wish I had th courage to not conform and not being afraid to do so.

    And yes, cheers to the unicorns!

  16. Archaeologists didn’t have a grasp on hieroglyphics until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, so there’s that factoid, too. Don’t even get me started on Mandarin characters.

  17. Keep being different! Personally, I love the tree as symbolizing ideas. I don’t get that sketchnoting thing at all, especially if they expect everybody to come up with the same thing. What fun is that? Like you, I would rather have a class full of unicorns!

  18. To be frank, I find things like sketchnoting to be little more than artificially created psychological mumbo-jumbo that someone invented to make everyone think they were clever. The best teachers never have to think about that nonsense, because they teach from the heart, not from the minds of others.
    Best wishes, Pete.

  19. Congratulations! You don’t fit in a box. And you don’t try to make your students fit in a box. Wondering if Einstein or other great minds fit in any box…

  20. Rachel, this line spoke to me.

    “my mind sees more possibilities than other people see…”

    To me, you have the ability to see both sides of an argument. You can walk in another person’s shoes and glean their perspective. I see this is a strength, even if it does not allow you to be pigeonholed. It also will make you more interesting to talk with over a cup of coffee.


  21. The person that came up with that is probably the same ‘genius’ that came up with Block for WP or the ‘new math’

  22. This is really interesting to me. Recently, I’ve developed an urge to incorporate more images into my writing. I’m surprised to find that I enjoy drawing—not for the outcome, but for the process and for the way it opens up my thinking. Your descriptions of how you understand images is fascinating to me. Especially this quote: “It’s not that I’m bad at all kinds of visual learning, it’s that my mind sees more possibilities than other people see>”

    Thanks for writing this!

  23. Stay unique, Rachel! ❤️ Thanks for writing/sharing!

  24. Surely individuality should count, and if everyone was the same, what a boring lot we all are!
    I love your idea of a tree. It starts as a seed and grows into something wonderful and majestic.

  25. I can well sympathize. Many so called professional development sessions are, in my view, pointless.

  26. Your tale reminds of a time way, way back in my corporate days when a young person in the “training department” (shows you how far back) made a presentation to a group of senior executives about the benefits of including some cartooning in their communications. The trainer tried flogging the notion that the occasional doodle, placed on a memo from a vice president of whatever, would be well received by staff, an ice breaker if you will, democratizing what was typically a hierarchical approach to spreading information. The execs all sat through the presentation looking like they had gastric distress and when the trainer finished and departed, a long silence ensued; no one wanted to broach the idea of actually adopting corporate cartooning. Finally, one guy piped up and suggested that maybe a nice cartoon on the trainer’s termination notice would be fun.

  27. So, I will gladly stand next to you and throw comic books, graphic novels, and can we add DK eyewitness books out the window. My brain refuses to wade through all the visual noise on the page. Rather it usually begins to shut down. Even though I am a visual learner, sketchnoting sounds like my worst nightmare. I can’t draw and I’d overthink the illustrations the entire time which is one of the reasons I dislike emoji’s; I can never really figure out what they mean and am afraid I’ll misuse them and accidentally offend someone. Give me well organized written words and clear cut pictures or illustrations any day. So I end my comment with a big sigh of relief that you will not be embracing sketchnoting as a means of communicating with us on your blog. I love your well thought out & organized words with sprinkles of Ellie and Cricket photo commentary.

  28. The visual learning might work well for dyslexics. My son had difficulties with reading in school because of being dyslexic, but when he grew up and went to work in a shop requiring blueprint reading skills he found those very easy to understand while most people have difficulty learning how to read them. Blueprints are very visual and require people to see in their minds how the part they are looking at in the drawing flips from one view to another, and how something drawn flat looks as a 3-dimensional part once it is built. Maybe whoever invented that sketchnoting was dyslexic so it made sense to them.

  29. Rocking the teaching boat is important, and you should never feel guilty for that, because the different one in the classeroom is the one who is helping everyone else learn.

  30. My fulltime job is doing data- and info-graphics, but I find sketchnoting and visual note-taking counter-intuitive and relatively useless. I’ve seen some group brainstorming sessions where a talented facilitator can draw or mindmap group ideas in a way that captures the process or reveals important connections, but I don’t think this really works for most people if they have to do it themselves. I do think the act of writing or drawing with one’s hands does aid memory and retention generally. I tend to loathe most required training and the learning type/categories have never made complete sense to me either.

  31. Oh, you’re bringing back a long-buried memory for me. In college, I had to take a technical writing course. If you’ve ever read my blog, you know I’m first and foremost a features and creative writer–I don’t do technical writing. I had been ill and missed the first class in which he explained the principles of technical writing. So when I turned in my first assignment–describing the American flag–it was far too flowery and symbolic. What we wanted was measurements, cloth description, # of stars, etc. What he got was symbol of patriotism, freedom, etc. He held up what I wrote in front of the class, mocking it and tearing it apart. Long-winded way of saying–if I had been good at what he wanted, I’d be in a small cubicle writing truck manuals today. Instead, I get to do what I do. Keep your freak flag flying, Rachel. The world could use it right about now!

  32. My goodness that must have been a trial. The point of using different types of note taking techniques is to help those who struggle to write quickly and efficiently to record ideas and thoughts. If you do write quickly efficiently and well, you don’t need them. I do like to use mind mapping as a technique for planning but know that some colleagues literally can’t ‘see’ it at all. It is just a lot of lines to them. I presume your trainer was just an enthusiast who couldn’t see that alternatives to writing are there for people who need an alternative to writing – not for everyone. Keep up your unique take on life keep on writing. 🙂

  33. Keep drawing trees or *whatever* comes to mind!!

  34. Sketchnoting seems like soemthing that would work with my student, thanks for the idea. I’ll investigate this further. As it is I have a little emoji card tucked into the back of my lanyard so he can point to the one that best describes how he’s feeling at that moment. More than once it’s saved me from him lashing out when he can’t articulate his feelings.

  35. Ok, someone trying to get you to use sketchnoting is crazy. Crazy.

    I always draw when listening, usually eyes or profiles of faces. Rarely, if ever, does my drawing have the slightest thing in common with the subject being discussed. One of my bosses (who had been an internal client) asked for one of my boring client meeting sketchnotes.

    I was a procurement agent / contract negotiator, and she wanted to understand how my drawing related to my ability to follow the conversation and craft contract language which would allow us to negotiate a workable deal and buy the goods or services the internal client desired.

    I couldn’t explain it to her (or any other client or boss who asked) as anything beyond a meditative calming technique which allowed me to get beyond the stress of my ADHD performance / social anxiety and deliver the desired results. I used to shrug it off with a laugh and say it was my idiot savant / Rainman trick.

    Exposing you to your some of your students need to doodle while taking notes is to be applauded as I can’t tell you how many teachers made it their mission each year to force me take notes without drawing or doodling.

    But, to try and get you to use the technique AND criticize your choice of drawings is madness.

    Seriously. Don’t let this instructor and his phony psychobabble get in your head. Your applying a technique not natural to you should not have even remotely been part of the goal of the session. Rather, your goal should have been exposure to this note taking technique so that you would not hamper your students absorption of the material you are trying to teach.

    Hang in there. Many so called “experts” with unproven theories are often anything but expert.

  36. Unicorn teachers, and teachers who can love and appreciate unicorns, are gifts from God. You are a marvelous teacher. Thank you.


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