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The Doodle Revolution

Tuesday, December 09, 2014  
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By Sunni Brown

By Donna Lamberti, UMS-Wright Preparatory School
{Headlines} February 2014

Let me start this review by saying at the outset that I am not a doodler. Correction: I was not a doodler until I read The Doodle Revolution by Sunni Brown. Since reading this book, I have dipped my big toe into the vast pool of doodling and infodoodling and I am slowly becoming accustomed to the feel of the water. 

Brown’s book, as the title implies, is a manifesto about the lack of visual literacy in our culture and why we can’t afford not to address this problem. Unlike many manifestos, however, the author provides the research to back up her claims and a step-by-step process to follow to work towards a solution. While the book is written in breezy, amusing prose, do not let that fool you: Brown means business.

The book begins by addressing the biases many of us have about doodling. Many of us consider doodling both mindless and distracting. Not so, says Brown. In fact, the research indicates that “doodling is thinking,” provided doodling is accompanied with good listening skills. Doodling is a language, a visual language. Like literacy in general, doodling involves being able to understand and interpret the visual symbols of others, as well as create and communicate with our own visual symbols. Children come to this visual language naturally. Indeed they learn this visual language before learning to write in letters and numbers. Yet when students begin to learn their letters and numbers, they begin to lose their visual literacy skills. Brown wonders why not use all three: words, numbers, and pictures? The author contends that we do not use visual language well because we are not taught that visual language is part and parcel with critical thinking and problem solving in the same way that words and numbers are.

For Brown, there are three “Ps” to doodling. The first is cognitive power. Doodling can help increase retention, recall, and comprehension by addressing multimodal learning and extending the mind by taking pressure off our working memory. The second is organizational performance. When doodling in a group, doodling can help with problem solving by allowing everyone to engage with the big picture, immerse themselves in deep and collaborative thinking, and provide a visual record of the conversation and therefore a shared memory. Finally, doodling is pleasurable. There’s just something fun about the process that keeps doodlers doodling.

Doodling is all well and good, but Brown takes it to the next level by advocating the use of the infodoodle. As Brown states, “the word “Infodoodler” describes someone who relies on a tight fusion of words, shapes, and images to represent text-based or auditory content...accommodating a full range of learning better understand, remember, innovate, align, design, or solve.” Using various devices like typography, word pictures, frames, connectors, and faces and figures, Brown argues that traditional text-based notes can be transformed to improve understanding. The author also explains how different doodle maps like system and comparison maps can be used to harness the power of the doodle. So think of the infodoodle as a traditional word web on steroids. 

Now, if you are thinking at this point, I can’t draw, or my students will tell me that they can’t draw, Brown has an answer. Doodling is not about drawing. Doodling is not an art form but a visual language. And if you don’t believe Brown, don’t worry. She provides plenty of doodling exercises and doodle games throughout the book to help reluctant doodlers become more comfortable with the process. Yes, doodling in the pages of this book is actually encouraged!

Brown explains throughout the book the power of the doodle for improved thinking and comprehension, and while I found her arguments convincing, as I said at the outset of this review, I myself do not doodle all that much. So I decided to attempt my hand at the infodoodle and put it to use in my own classroom. In my Advanced Placement European History course, we recently studied the Crimean War within the context of a unit on 19th century nationalism. Prior to class, I created my own infodoodle about the war. When I got to class, I explained some of Brown’s arguments about the power of visual language. I asked students to either copy my own doodles that I made on a white board, or create their own as we went along. The next day, we took a brief quiz to see how much the students could recall. 

The results, while not scientific, were interesting. Some of my students responded very well to the exercise. They thought it was fun and engaging, and they commented as they were doodling on that first day that they thought it might help them. The results of the quiz showed that it certainly didn’t hurt them. While I didn’t notice any sharp distinction between the grades on this particular quiz and quizzes in the past, some students self-reported that they believed it helped them remember more information. A couple of my students continued to “infodoodle” their notes throughout the remainder of the unit, and one student in particular spent a fair amount of time outside of class doodling on his own. This student ended up receiving the highest grade in the class on the unit assessment, and he believed it was in part because of the power of the doodle.

The last section of the book deals with the process and possibilities of the group infodoodle. The group infodoodle has great potential for the classroom. As more and more emphasis is placed on the development of 21st century skills, teachers will need to find ways to bring those skills to the forefront in their own classrooms. The group infodoodle can help with all six C’s of 21st century learning: connect, create, collaborate, communicate, compute, and think critically. Furthermore, what I like about the group infodoodle is that it is adaptable to the specific age level and subject area. It can be used to solve problems in the science or mathematics classroom, to study a work of literature or art in the English or arts classroom, or to better understand the nature of a controversial topic in the history or humanities classroom. Since students from a very young age can draw and write simple words, the group doodle can be used with students as young as 4th or 5th grade all the way to adulthood. 

If you decide to experiment with the doodle, here are few last things to keep in mind. The personal infodoodle is, of course, the easiest in that it requires nothing more than paper and a pen or two. If you plan on using your infodoodle to instruct others or you plan on engaging in a group infodoodle, you will want access to a few more supplies such as a large white board space, markers, sticky notes, and perhaps some digital components like a tablet. For teachers who must share their classrooms with others, this can be a little tricky in that you may need to find ways to save and move your work. Practicing ahead of time was key for me, as I knew doodling in the moment was probably out of the question as someone new to the process. There was no way I was going to be able to draw a dove on the board to represent the Peace of Paris without figuring out what a dove generally looked like. Brown promises this will get easier over time, especially as you collect and curate more doodles that can be used for varying purposes. Finally, I found that explaining Brown’s arguments and research to my students, even very briefly, went a long way towards convincing them to giving the process a try. I think this is an important component to the process that should not be skipped.  

Throughout the book, Brown discusses the potential of the doodle in our personal lives, our work lives, and our school lives. I believe that visual language has a huge role to play in education, and I am excited to see how individual teachers and students will incorporate some of Brown’s insights into their own instruction and learning. Perhaps the follow up to Brown’s book will focus exclusively on how the doodle and an emphasis on visual language is revolutionizing education.

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