Can you draw it? Sketchnotes 101

In my current projects on linking research and practice in mathematics education
I am called to create illustrations and visual manifestations of ideas.
I have also found this lens to be supportive in my teaching.
In reading student papers, where ideas are still forming, I ask:

Can you draw this idea? Create a sketch to illustrate the interconnection of these topics.

Sketching is a Moving Meditation

I treat drawing and sketching as a moving meditation.
Visual and creative playfulness.

How To_1
Sketchnotes are a form of visual play and creativity. Condense an idea into a single page or notecard. Aim for fun, not perfection.

As a meditation,
I work to flow and breathe,
with pen on the page in near constant motion.
This movement allows me to not overthink what I’m doing,
and instead to go with it.
To allow an unfolding.

Examples of Sketchnotes

Here are few examples to show what I mean by a Sketchnote.

I created this collection while observing another person give a professional talk (e.g., see Student Reasoning as a Source of Insight) or a classroom observation (e.g., Making Sense of Experience).

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I also create sketchnotes from articles I read, and write, as a way to visually condense an entire paper into 1 page, or a short video.

I elaborate a few of these in blog posts such as: Keys to Playing the Publishing game, Dr. Nicky the Scientist. I also have a YouTube Channel with videos on Representational Fluency and Learning Trajectories (flowers!), to name a few.

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I draw inspiration from several sources. Here are a few you might check out:

  • If you’re looking for a good starter for layouts and design ideas, check out Lindsay Braman’s website or Instagram feed. I got good at drawing banners and flags by working on her outline. She also uses different hand-lettering techniques that are good to play with.

  • I find graphic novels to be another source of inspiration for creative mixes of visuals and text. Check out the Zen Pencils website or Instagram feed. Another ideas is to read a really great book on making comics, such as the one by Scott McCloud.
  • Lynda Barry’s texts “What it is” and “Syllabus” got me inspired to think about where images come from. In some of my sketchnotes the images quite literally emerge without a clear sense of where they came from.
Seeking Connections
Seeking connection
  • An Innovator’s compass is another really fun tool to get ideas out on the page, and works well from initial conceptualization of ideas to more developed ways of thinking.
Center on people. Define principles. Dream. Design. Discover. Innovator’s Compass.

Lean In to Your Passions

Another key point to creating sketchnotes is that there is no perfect formula,
there are no “answers” in the sense of a sketch being “right or wrong.”
It is art. Creating a sketchnote is an artistic process.


Research and Practice
Lean in to your passions. Allow a creative process to unfold. Let go of attachment. Be true to you.

From this stance, you might find it helpful to think about

  • what inspires you?
  • where and when do you feel most alive?
  • what are you passionate about?
  • what do you have fun doing?

Tapping into what makes you YOU, your ISness, is key. For me, I’m inspired by nature, and specifically trees. I sketch trees all the time. And recently came across a great book from which I’m learning how to sketch trees with greater precision, and it’s fun!

Boy at tree.
Heart-centered. Lead with your heart.


Can you draw it? Get your pen.

Finally, sketchnotes are a versatile medium that can be used in many many contexts. Here are a few that I like. Give them a try!

  • Doodle. So you play with graphic organization in a mix of text and visuals. I always cary a pen and something to write on. I feel lost without the ability to write things down. Like an extension of my mind, these tools are essential for my practices of expressing, and of learning, and drawing meaning from experiences.

How To_2

  • Educate. As an educator I’m playing with how to incorporate sketchnotes into planning and design of mathematics teaching. For example, if you take a learning progressions stance (big ideas, core concepts, sequences of tasks, assessments, student learning), and use this to frame your “plan” fill in the details and voila – a quick research-informed guide for strengthening links between research and practice in mathematics.
How To_3
A Learning Progression as a Framework for Mathematics Education Lesson Design
  • Learn. My favorite thing to sketchnote is a live presentation of research findings. I find that it helps me learn. Often presentations are dynamic, and if you’re lucky, the speaker is well-prepared and has rehearsed the material ahead of time with dynamic visuals and cues. If you don’t have an opportunity to attend a talk (at a conference, or open meeting), watch a good speaker on YouTube. Try this one by Chris Emdin on reality pedagogy. What did you come up with? Here is what I made.



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