Teach students to make, not copy, notes from books

Tuesday, March 5th, 2024 04:50 | By
Moi Avenue Primary School students at a KCPE examroom in the past. PHOTO/Print
Moi Avenue Primary School students at a KCPE examroom in the past. PHOTO/Print

Our teachers at Kivaywa Secondary School, in the early 1980s, were keen to know whether we were making optimal use of the instructional hours they had with us in the class.

Once or twice during a school term, they would tell the class prefect to collect our exercise books and hand them over to them after the lesson ended.

They would peruse the students’ exercise books to establish whether we made notes from the series of lessons they had taken us through. The assumption was that those who had taken notes while the teacher taught were not just present; they were also attentive.

Looking back, I find that our teachers were truly great teachers. Great in the mastery of the disciplinary knowledge they taught us and equally great in the pedagogical knowledge required to impart the disciplinary knowledge that gives a teacher, any teacher, not just the power, but also, the ability to teach.

Note taking and note making both require learners to think critically about what they are hearing or reading. Note taking applies to what one is hearing and note making applies to what one is reading. Both note taking and note making involve pulling the key points out of a whole lot of information.

Throughout my four years of secondary education at Kivaywa secondary school, we took notes. We didn’t make notes from any book—at least from the perspective of formal requirements from any of our teachers. I started making notes in my “A” levels. “A” students were mature enough then, to make notes from books—be they textbooks or books.

I recall this episode because, I have noticed, anecdotally though, that some teachers in some schools are asking students to make notes. Sadly, however, all the students do, is to copy notes from textbooks.

This is unfortunate. If students copy notes—and from textbooks—they are not thinking and processing. Without doubt, copying is a sterile instructional strategy.  There is no thinking or reasoning process going on in the mind. There is no cognitive demand or expectation when students are asked to copy notes. Without challenge, the challenge of the intellect, there is no engagement.

Student achievement is a product of engagement of mind, will and soul. And when learners take lots of time copying notes from textbooks, they are not learning but regurgitating what is in the textbooks without understanding it.

I recall one teacher. Perhaps, one or two great teachers of literature I ever came across in my nine years of studying literature as a discipline. The late Ugandan Makerere educated Okia Oriang.

Once the Ministry’s then Kenya Institute of Education (KIE), as Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD) was called, introduced new set books, Okia read all of them.

All he did, when (re)reading the books, was to mark turning points in the novels or plays. Turning points in a play or novel are important incidents or actions or events.

However, he insisted that all of us, without exception, read the Setbook he was about to teach next week. It was not his business to read the book with us from page to page. Literature is not taught as class readers.

For each lesson, he looked at the book from a particular perspective, the next lesson another perspective. He took us through an average of five different perspectives until we felt we knew all the things or happenings in the book and why they happened.

So, all we remember are important incidents in the book and, with that, trigger what happened before and after—in discussions and ultimately in the examinations.

The greatest transformational reform initiative a head of a basic education institution can do is to ensure that teaching is effective. The teachers should have time to thoroughly prepare for all the engagements they have with learners. They should teach at a speed and with appropriate teaching strategies; this will enable learners to follow the instruction, and make notes as they go along.

Note taking or note making? Yes. Note copying? A big No. Copying notes has zero educational value. It weakens the curriculum delivery process.  A curriculum I have personally found excellent.

—The writer is the Communications Officer, Ministry of Education

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