Systems Thinking 2 – Week 2 – Does note taking affect our interactions with the world?

15 Feb , 2016 Aalto University,Course Diary,Studies,Systems Thinking 2

The second week of the Systems Thinking 2 course at Aalto covered the following four thematic clusters: 4 – Dialogue, engagement, intervention, 5- Ecosystems, collapse, resilience, 6 – Coevolution, turbulence, anticipatory systems and 7 – Living systems, viable systems, metabolism. While I myself have been part of group 6 and thus presenting on coevolution, turbulence and anticipatory systems I will reflect on an idea/observation that has been developing for me during the past weeks and connects well with the presentation of group 4 on dialogue, engagement and intervention, specifically the idea they presented of using so called “rich pictures” in the context of soft systems thinking to understand complex problems.
I’ve been thinking about note-taking quite a bit during the past weeks and especially how linear versus non-linear note-taking affects the way one understands/remembers contents that the respective note is about. Personally I have always had quite a hard time taking notes on a computer. So, while I’m quite tech affine in all other regards and probably using a lot more software tools than most of my fellow students (at least by observing and talking to them) I have always been quite “old-fashioned” when it comes to note taking, relying simply on paper and pencil. Granted, I’ve always been a bit unhappy that those resulting notes weren’t full text searchable, but I still couldn’t get away from it and I think the main reason is that however advanced note taking apps on computers have been, I always found it quite cumbersome to easily use different structures and relationships in a text editor or tools like Evernote, eventually leading to very linear notes, starting with text in the top left and then just producing blocks of text. Of course, lists are relatively easy to use, but that still leaves me with the fact that it goes from top to bottom without an easy way of placing things next to each other, let alone in a circle or depicting other non-linear processes.
I also tried tools like Scapple, which allow for chunks of text and some mind mapping functionality to connect bits and pieces with arrows etc., but nothing really did the trick for me. Eventually I ended up using slightly more advanced paper, like the Whitelines Link, which was ok, but still left me urging for improvements, because, after all I’d really like to have all my notes digitally accessible, and eventually full text searchable.
Since the beginning of this term I am now using an iPad Pro with an Apple Pencil and an app called Notability. I feel very comfortable with it and compared to future attempts, I actually feel that it has improved my note taking. I can quickly draw shapes, create relationships and use symbols to speed up my note taking. I don’t have to switch between multiple pens to use different colours or types of pens to introduce hierarchy, I am actually quite happy and I feel my notes are becoming better and I am better able to capture complexity and hopefully eventually make sense of it.
This quite personal experience leaves me wondering: Why do we spend so much time during education learning how to write, but rarely any time in learning how to structure and draw concepts? The method of rich pictures group 4 presented in the context of soft systems thinking seems much more useful to me. Observing the note taking of my fellow students and asking a couple of them about their process, seems to yield some distinct field-specific preferences, with most business students using their laptops and Evernote, while nearly all designers and architects, rely on pen and paper.
This leaves me wondering, whether the different forms of note-taking and subsequent sense-making or communication process about said notes, lead to problems in how we interact with the world surrounding us. Or a bit different: Should business people stop taking linear notes, forcing them to put everything in a simple hierarchical process from top to bottom in order to create more of a sustainable environment?


  1. Wikipedia: Rich Pictures [retrieved February 15, 2016]
  2. The Open University on Youtube: Rich Pictures – The Art of Rich Pictures (3/8) [retrieved February 15, 2016]
  3. The Open University on Youtube: Using Rich Pictures – The Art of Rich Pictures (4/8) [retrieved February 15, 2016]

1 Response

  1. David Ing says:

    The two-dimensionality of rich pictures (with potential for more dimensions, with creativity) could be a development point for linear thinkers. In the context of SSM, the rich pictures are created collectively, with encouragement that even non-artists should contribute their perspectives into a shared work.

    Personal note-taking could be something different, though. In listening to a lecture presented sequentially (rather than random access, as is possible through a web browser), simultaneously synthesizing on the fly takes a large amount of both mental processing and tool facility — either a stylus, keyboard or pencil.

    Maybe the answer is to dissolve the problem by spending less time in lectures altogether. Discussion in small groups has the potential to bring the speed down to human levels. While blackboards are now an anachronism, perhaps whiteboards and flip charts are better than “death by Powerpoint”.

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