Literacy specialist Shawna Coppola teaches at a small elementary school in Rollinsford, New Hampshire, where she focuses on universal instruction and supporting teachers, often stepping in to help plan a lesson or co-teach a unit. She said that an unlikely book has profoundly changed how she thinks about teaching reading and writing: Sunni Brown’s The Doodle Revolution: Unlock the Power to Think Differently.
Coppola, who was never much of a doodler herself, said when she first started teaching 16 years ago, she often told students to stop drawing all over their papers and pay attention. But what she learned from The Doodle Revolution is that there is research to support the idea that doodling is actually not stealing focus, but helping to increase focus by helping the doodler think deeply about what is being said.
And more than that, Coppola said, it’s fun. This conversation with MindShift has been edited for length and clarity.
Coppola: The book that has changed my life is called The Doodle Revolution: it takes you through what doodling is, it argues for its benefits, and talks about how visual learning and visual thinking can help us become better learners, but also can be super fun. Not only is Sunni Brown a really engaging writer and speaker, but she grounds her work in research.
Studies show that sketching and doodling improve our comprehension — and our creative thinking. So why do we still feel embarrassed when we’re caught doodling in a meeting? Sunni Brown says: Doodlers, unite! She makes the case for unlocking your brain via pad and pen.
I found this book three years ago, in the business management section of the bookstore. But I could see how the ideas that Sunni was putting out there could apply to education. It really hit me in a way I didn’t expect.
I think the book aims to break down misconceptions about doodling as being a mindless thing. Often, we think of doodlers as not paying attention. I remember when I first started teaching, I had this student who was a big doodler, and I would say to her, OK, put that away. And I had a meeting with her and her parents one day and it [doodling] came up somehow. And they tried to explain to me why she doodles, they were telling me how it helps her focus. At the time, I just wasn’t ready to hear it. I was willing to say, ok she can doodle, but no one else is going to doodle in my classroom! I didn’t doodle, so I saw it as something sort of subversive. And that’s what Sunni talks about, we think of doodling as something mindless and almost rude. She turns that notion on its head.
The other part of the book offers some really practical ways to learn visual thinking techniques, and that was really helpful for me, because I never thought of myself as a visual learner, but now I completely think of myself as a visual learner. She talks about using a ‘visual alphabet,’ she talks about using color when you’re taking notes, how you can differentiate between different parts of what you’re listening to or reading. She talks about using different kinds of bullets and frames. Then she gives us space as readers to kind of practice it in the book.
This book has changed what I do so much. It’s changed how I access and synthesize information. But what’s really changed is the way I listen to information coming in. I’ve been taking pictures of my notebooks through the years to see how they’ve evolved — and it’s become so fun for me, it helps me focus. It’s changed everything about the way I think of composition, and the way I think. It’s just been completely paradigm-shifting for me.
And I use it in different ways with the students. Like, my colleague teaches a fifth/sixth grade classroom. She used to be a doodler and a drawer, but stopped. The book really spoke to her. She started doodling more. Then she and I explicitly taught her students some of the techniques that Sunni teaches in the book. It’s given permission to the kids: so when we’re doing math, I can doodle, and doodle what I’m hearing and that’s OK, no one’s going to be mad at me, or have to put my notebook away.
But it’s not only visual thinking strategies; it also helped me think differently about composition as a whole. [Because of the book], in the past couple of years, we’ve done a lot more inquiries into comics and graphic novels and illustration study. And the students are so much more engaged, I feel like I see it, and other teachers have told me how much engagement they see with their kids now. They love it.
My favorite quote: “How do we drop like rocks off the visual language learning curve? When and why does this insidious phenomenon start? I’ve seen children of all ages ooze doodles and drawings onto paper as if they were vines growing with their hands. They do this easily, without prompting or training; it’s as natural as walking and talking. Then, without warning–and worse, without adults noticing or caring–they seem to lose their visual language capacity as they embrace numbers and letters. Out go their loose, easy sketches, and in come the supposedly “real” tools, the power tools of numbers and words that will likely dominate their attention for the rest of their lives.”