The Role of Paper in Learning

How do you learn a new subject? Let’s say you’re starting work on a new project, one where you have expertise in the craft but not the domain. You’ll be working alongside subject matter experts. Their time is limited; you don’t want to waste it by asking lots of newbie questions. It’s up to you to come up to speed fast so you can ask relevant questions and help structure the problem.

As a strategic designer, I find myself in this situation often. For example, a few years ago I worked on the design of a system that was meant to be used by neurosurgeons and radiologists. While I’d designed user interfaces for complex systems before, I didn’t know much about neurology. Working in this space required that I get up to speed quickly on a complicated subject matter. (No “it ain’t brain surgery!” jokes on this project!)

Over the years I’ve developed techniques for learning that work for me. I’ve written before about the three-stage model I use. To recap: when learning a new subject, I aim to 1) contextualize it, 2) draw out the distinctions in it, and 3) explore its implications. I strive to make each stage actionable: to make things with the new information I’m learning.

What kinds of things? It depends on the stage of the process I’m in. In the very early stages, it’s mostly scribbles, sketches, and various notes-to-self. Further on in the process, I look to share with others — especially with people who know the subject matter. In both cases, I’m looking to establish a feedback loop. Seeing the ideas out in the world changes my relation to them. I’m reminded of the tagline on Field Notes notebooks: “I’m not writing it down to remember it later, I’m writing it down to remember it now.” Spot-on. The act of putting pen to paper changes my relationship to the idea; the act of articulating it nudges me to give it structure and coherence.

I deliberately chose the phrase “putting pen to paper;” this process doesn’t work as well for me with digital tools. I’ve been experimenting for years with digital sketchbooks, but keep coming back to pen-and-paper for speed, reliability, and ease-of-use. That said, digital tools play an essential role. My (continuously evolving) learning ecosystem includes software like OneNote, Ulysses, OmniFocus, and Tinderbox. Recently I’ve also started experimenting with DevonThink. These tools all serve specific needs and do things that paper can’t do.

There’s lots of overlap between these tools, so why have so many of them? It’s tempting to want to cut down the ecosystem to as few tools as possible. But putting everything into a single tool means sacrificing important functionality; the ones that do lots of things don’t do any one of them as well as dedicated tools. For example, OneNote, Tinderbox, and DevonThink can capture reminders, but none of them do it as well as OmniFocus, which is designed for that purpose. (Having OS-level, cross-app search functionality such as macOS’s Spotlight is a boon, since it means not having to remember which app you put stuff into.)

A paper notebook could be the ultimate “does everything” tool. People have been taking notes on paper for many hundreds of years. There are lots of frameworks around that allow you to use plain paper to track commitments (e.g., bullet journals), separate signal from noise (e.g., Cornell notes), etc. Paper is super flexible, so there’s always the temptation to do more with it. But paper is far from perfect for some learning activities. For example, capturing lots of long texts and finding patterns in them (what I’m using DevonThink for) is best done with digital tools.

While the form of my learning ecosystem keeps evolving, it’s increasingly clear what role my paper sketchbook plays: It’s a scratchpad where raw thoughts and ideas emerge. It’s not for capturing long texts. It’s not for sharing with others — not even with future me (i.e., “to remember it later.”) Instead, it’s an extension of my mind; a sandbox where I shape for myself — thus internalizing — the things I’m learning.

In practice, this entails jumping back-and-forth between digital tools and paper. I once aspired to consolidate these steps into a “smart sketchbook” (see here and here) that would allow me to eschew paper. However, I increasingly value the role my physical sketchbook plays in my learning ecosystem. Its limitations are an advantage: using it requires a shift in modality that keeps ideas flowing, vibrant, and malleable.