The Most Powerful Learning Technology

Journaling is the most powerful toolkit for dynamic human learning. It is affordable, accessible, democratic, and it can be modified and specialized in almost infinite ways. All you need is a pad of paper and a pencil.

Whether your learning is emotional, scientific, or artistic, journaling should be an essential part of your toolkit. Some of the greatest minds of history relied heavily on diaries, journals, and sketchbooks as a substrate for their thought process. Notable examples include Mark Twain, Charles Darwin, Marie Curie, Frida Kahlo, and of course Leonardo Da Vinci.

marie-curie-notebookPages from the journal of Marie Curie

How it works: I have done my best to break down journaling into what I see are the 7 major benefits.

Commitment and Attention : When you sit down to draw a flower in your journal or write about an idea you make a commitment to focus on that thing. This is very different from daydreaming where your brain might briefly consider something in passing. By writing about something or sketching it in your journal you show your brain that this is something important and you give your brain a chance to actually work on this subject. You will notice more about your subject, be more creative, and have better problem solving ideas when you attend to something by working it out on paper.

Visual-Verbal-Manual: Words are abstract and language is a recent innovation that uses a limited part of our brain. Many problems can not be solved in this part of the brain. However, when we put words on paper, when we write by hand, and especially when we combine images with words, more and more of our brain is engaged in the task. Even off-topic doodling during a lecture has been shown to improve retention of information (doodling).Visual thinking in general is a very powerful tool and incorporating graphic facilitation or sketch-noting into your work can be very beneficial. Sketch-noting

Externalizing your thinking For Objectivity: Another huge benefit of journaling or keeping a diary is that it allows you to get ideas, feelings, and emotions out of your head and down on paper. This is a powerful way to break cyclical thinking, unproductive rumination, and downward depressive thought spirals. If you are feeling super frustrated about a team that you work with and you start to write down how you feel on paper you immediately put some distance between yourself and the emotions. Now you can be more objective. Even if your only goal is to record your feelings you will find creative solutions start to bubble up on their own. For more artistic projects or group projects, externalizing your thinking is essential for feedback. And you know how I feel about feedback! Put your logo idea, business model, or permaculture design on a piece of paper where you can stand back and evaluate it. Now, it is not so personal, now, you can see the strengths and weaknesses, now, you can learn, now, you can move forward. Your journal can document these feedback loops and revision cycles.

Externalizing your thinking For Mental Space: Another benefit of getting your ideas out of your brain and onto paper is that it frees up mental space for higher level thinking. One of the main weaknesses of the human brain is our inability to simultaneously hold many pieces of information in mind. The more you are trying to hold the less freedom you have to make connections between the pieces or solve problems in a creative way. Get that stuff out of your brain and you will find new energy and inspiration to take your ideas to the next level.

Venting: People have used pen and paper to vent their emotions for a long time. This is another form of externalizing your thinking and your emotions. Just by expressing the emotions onto paper you get more relief than cycling it through your mind. The paper won’t get exhausted, judge you, complain, or resent you (some of the common drawbacks when venting to friends or family.) Venting in your journal or diary is healthy and can be emotional or intellectual. For example, when I am nature journaling at an aquarium and I am trying to accurately draw the subtle profile of a salmon I might get frustrated at my inability to quite capture the look. In my notes next to my sketches I will often write something such as: “This curve is tricky! Gah!” Or I might write a funny expletive next to an indelible mistake that I made. This helps me  get over it fast, not take myself too seriously, and not get to precious about the appearance of the page.

Chronology and Trajectory: The human brain is weak when it comes to remembering precise dates, times, and chronologies. It is also weak at noticing (or caring about) long trajectories and big patterns. Journals and diaries by their very nature become valuable sources of chronological information. When a journal keeper looks back at a journal from 3 years ago they are often able to see connections and recognize patterns. Is the snow on the mountains melting earlier this year then it has for the last 10 years that I have been keeping a journal? Am I noticing a pattern in my romantic relationships over the last decade since I have been journaling? These are the types of insights that by themselves make journal-keeping infinitely valuable because they are precisely the things that our human brain would often miss.

Record: Last of all, a journal provides a record. Do you need to double check how you conducted an experiment last year? Do you want to remember the name of someone you met or a secret waterfall you found? What about once you are dead? The world would be a much poorer place if Leonardo DaVinci and Frida Kahlo did not leave a piece of their brain behind on paper.

If you are already keeping a journal I commend you. If you are thinking about starting a journaling practice then I remind you: all of the great geniuses had a journal.

darwin-journal Pages from the journal of Darwin.


The Power of Visual Thinking Part 1: Sketch-notes

I first heard the term “sketch-notes” at a nature journal club meeting where John Muir Laws was describing this type of visual-note taking and it’s power as a learning tool.
Sketch-noting is a synthesis of sketching and note-taking where each form of communication is used for what it is best at. Sometimes an image can be worth a thousand words and other times 10 words are worth a thousand pictures.

As it turns out, there are some people doing some quite amazing work in the field of sketch-noting and there are also books out about the subject.

The work of another great sketch-noter and graphic facilitator, whose work I sampled at the top of this page, can be seen here:

This is one of those meta-topic skills that can be applied to virtually all forms of learning. It is a high-return on investment. I see it as a form of journaling which I have described as the “most powerful learning tool” in an earlier post. It is another way of externalizing your thinking. The techniques have been very refined with sketch-noting to improve the communication of ideas. I plan on studying and gleaning as many useful tips as I can and applying them to my own work. I recommend you do the same! It is fun!

Here is a short video about sketch-noting

Learning From Kids: Part 2: Taking Risks


The little feet are a blur of motion as the six year old boy runs down the treacherous, steep, gravel path. “No running down the hill!” calls a camp counselor in vain. The little boy makes it safely to the bottom of the hill, a defiant and exhilarated look on his face. No injuries this time but 1 in 5 kids eat dust when they try running down that same hill. Looking around at the high incidence of scrapes, cuts, bruises, bee stings, and poison oak suggests that kids are either accident prone or have a propensity to take risks. Now, look around at a group of adults: how many of them have cuts, scrapes, bruises and road rash on their knees or hands?

I would argue that the propensity for risk-taking and boundary testing that we see in children is actually a learning strategy. This strategy seems to be highly effective and can be observed in the young of other animals, especially the more intelligent ones such as canines, corvids, and primates. The next step in this logical progression would be to devise ways in which adults can selectively employ risk-taking to accelerate our own learning process, cognitive flexibility, and to break through mental obstacles.

What is the benefit of risk-taking to learning?

What are the dangers of risk-taking?

When was the last time, as an adult, that you pushed yourself beyond your comfort zone and were rewarded by the experience? When was the last time that you regretted not taking a risk?
Taking risks and testing boundaries is an essential learning strategy. Without it we would become fossilized in our ways and unable to learn. As adults we have the chance to practice our metacognitive awareness and try to push ourselves to take risks in a strategic way. It might not come as naturally to us now as it did when we were kids but we can still use this powerful and often exhilarating strategy to boost our learning.

Have fun!

Learning From Kids: Part One: Beginner’s Mind

If your mind is empty, it is ready for anything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.

Shunryu Suzuki


The zen master Shunryu Suzuki deftly summarizes the concept of beginner’s mind in the above quote. The concept is familiar to many who have studied zen and is recognizable in many Eastern philosophies from Taoism to Kung-Fu.

However, in the West the idea that “knowledge itself is power,” a quote from Francis Bacon, has had more influence. This exaltation of the accumulation of bits of knowledge has become the dominant perspective in the modern world. People confuse this finding, memorizing, and reciting of information with learning, understanding, and wisdom. We marvel at computers’ ability to store countless bits of information and we apply a digital memory metaphor to the workings or failures of our own minds. This is a mistake.

The ancient philosophers of the East recognized that the accumulation of knowledge and expertise can lead to the fossilization of the cognitive processes. Humility, flexibility, and openness to observation are often hampered by knowledge. Thus, the concept of beginner’s mind was expressed as an antidote, an ideal, a teaching metaphor.

When a child is learning language for the first time their mind is not cluttered with preconceptions, social anxiety, or prejudices. They are sponges, sucking up learning in the most efficient and flexible way. Adults can emulate this, we can use the metaphor of beginner’s mind to help us refine our expertise and learn more while being careful to avoid the pitfalls of the over-cluttered and fossilized “expert mind” where possibilities are few and learning is stagnant.

Have you ever done really well the first time you tried a sport or art form only to lag and flounder later on? Beginner’s luck? Perhaps, but luck is over-rated; I think this effect is a result of beginner’s mind.

If you really want powerful cognitive abilities focus on learning not knowledge, observe children, enjoy the day to day wonders, practice humility and restrain your inner expert. For more on this idea, see my post on knowledge as an obstacle to learning.

Why am I obsessed with learning? See my post on learning how to learn.



What is Nature Journaling?

Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction.

E. O. Wilson

Sometimes, after I casually throw the term around, someone will ask me, “What is Nature Journaling? My spell check doesn’t even think that journaling is a correct verb!”

Nature journaling is a process or substrate for externalizing and recording the dynamic interaction between human curiosity and the natural environment. By making sketches, writing notes, and jotting down other information, the journaler engages with the observed surroundings. This process can be highly focused with a planned subject or it can be spontaneous and based on the unpredictable environment.

Nature journaling can be a solitary pursuit or it can be a communally-shared activity. It is a relatively new movement but clubs are being formed around the world, providing a support group, motivation, and sharing for people in the same locality who want to nature journal together. Nature Journal Clubs

A typical nature journaling club expedition might go like this:

It’s a beautiful Sunday morning at the entrance to a California park full of mixed oak woodlands, rolling hills, and blackberry covered creeks. A handful of people are milling about near the entrance with sketchbooks, binoculars, and hiking shoes. More people arrive; some know each other and some are totally new, some are seasoned artists and naturalists, others are just getting started with watercolors. The mixture of skill levels, backgrounds, and experiences benefits the entire group.

After a short round of introductions and maybe a motivational talk, the group heads off down the trail like a pack of curious kids. Occasionally, the group will slow down and someone will point out an osprey flying by or a snakeskin on the trail. Some people will capture a few quick sketches of the bird in flight and jot down some notes about the shed snakeskin. Then, the group will stop for longer, people will do a mini landscape painting or try to capture the details of a wildflower.


Once everybody has filled a few pages there is usually a chance for everyone to lay out journals on the ground. Now is the chance to see what others have been up to, share ideas, and borrow methods form each other.                                                                           There is always something to learn from others.

After a few hours of journaling, most people have developed an appetite and there will be a break for a potluck lunch. Fun and educational conversations continue during the potluck and sometimes someone will read a poem or a quote or give a technique demonstration. If there is a facilitator or main organizer of the club they might ask for donations to help keep the group going.

After lunch, the group will continue their exploration; observing, sketching, recording. There might be another round of journal sharing before the group returns to the entrance of the park and everyone heads their separate ways.

I believe that nature journaling is the most powerful toolkit for learning about nature. It is affordable, accessible, democratic, and it can be modified and specialized in almost infinite ways. The process is also encouragingly cumulative; the more you do it, the more you will notice, the more you learn, and the more beautiful and meaningful your journal pages become.

For many useful videos on nature drawing and journaling, check out John Muir Law’s youtube channel: John Muir Laws
He is one of the main champions of nature journaling and is a storehouse of good information on drawing and natural history. He also has the most comprehensive book on the subject: Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling









Rigidity vs Fluidity


Bruce Lee’s philosophy on the rigidity of style and dogma is equally applicable to the visual arts, gardening, land management, and all other realms of human endeavor. Instead of subscribing to one school of thought blindly one should try learning from many masters, weaving together one’s own synthesis. Do not become crystallized. Crystals are beautiful but they are dead, static, inflexible, and unlearning. Be fluid; adapt and incorporate diverse elements into a liquid whole.

Born to Track

So what if you don’t live near a nature preserve with elk, mountain lions, or other big charismatic mammals? Maybe you don’t even have a suburban park nearby with coyotes or raccoons. Never fear, you can still practice tracking.

Paradoxically, tracking is not about animals or footprints in the sand, tracking is a way of seeing the world. It is a way of observing patterns and thinking about cause and effect. It is a system of connecting the dots that is so fundamental to the way our human brain works that it is impossible to separate ourselves from it. All humans are born trackers but it is up to each of us as individuals to either ignore this fact or embrace it.

Sherlock Holmes embraced the fact that he was born to track and he practiced his skills with assiduity. He used deep observation, deductive reasoning, and the testing of hypotheses; the same techniques used by the hunter gatherers that all of us descend from. Today’s forensic scientists and detectives continue in this tradition.

Modern archaeologists embrace the fact that they were born to track. Despite their use of high tech imaging and chemical analyses, archaeologists are asking the same big questions that every tracker asks: who, when, why, and in what order? They look at clues, signs, and remains left behind and piece together stories of what happened in the past.

So, if you are not tracking elk, coyotes, ancient mummies, modern criminals, or Professor Moriarty, then what are you tracking?

A Match Made in Heaven!

IMG_2516Tracking and nature journaling; a match made in heaven!
Come explore coastal lagoons, meadows, and dunes for an awesome day of tracking and journaling in a great location. We will approach tracking in a holistic sense and learn to integrate it into our quiver of naturalist skills.

Abbot’s Lagoon in Point Reyes National Seashore is a world class location for tracking and bird watching where we are sure to find many goodies to fill our journals. Badgers, otters, bobcat, owls, ravens, falcons, and foxes are a few of the denizens whose tracks and sign we might see.

Meet at the parking lot at the trailhead on Pierce Point Rd, approximately 15 minutes from Point Reyes Station. Wear lots of layers and be prepared for variable weather, sun, and wind. Also be prepared to walk in sand dunes.

Sunday February 28th from 10-4pm

Meet at Abbot’s Lagoon Trailhead on Pierce Point Rd in Point Reyes National Seashore in Marin County, CA.


more information:

Seeing and Not Seeing

“The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.”

–Sherlock Holmes

Have you ever revisited somewhere that you have been many times and seen things that you didn’t notice or never paid attention to before?  I know that I have.

Have you ever noticed that after shopping for one type of a shoes or reading about one type of animal all of a sudden you are noticing them everywhere? I know that I have.

It is easy for the conscious mind to come up with faulty explanations for these occurrences, such as, “Wow. Everybody is getting the same shoes as me now.”  But the truth is usually not in the outside environment but in one’s own perception.

When I was a kid, growing up in Southern California, I was very observant and I noticed more things in nature and saw more animals than the average kid my age and much more than the average adult. However, I was an untrained naturalist for the most part and when it came to birds I knew few by name. When it came to local birds of prey I knew even fewer by name. The name that I definitely did know was red-tailed hawk. And sure enough, the only raptors that I remember seeing were red-tailed hawks.

Later, when I moved to another part of the state for college, I had the good luck of taking a natural history class where I learned about five different local birds of prey and learned to identify them frequently in the field. My first interpretation was: “Wow, there are so many more raptor species here than in Southern California, there must be some environmental reason.”

In subsequent visits to Southern California however, I started seeing many of the other species of raptors. Apparently, some of what had been “red-tailed hawks” turned out to be red-shouldered hawks, and some were probably even accipiters, while surely many of the other birds had just gone un-named and therefore un-noticed.

The field of cognitive science has learned a lot about perception in the last few decades and much research has been focused on vision. Most people take what they see for granted as an unadulterated, objective view of reality. As it turns out, what we see is vastly mediated by what we know, what we think we know, and what we expect or don’t expect.

If you only know the name of one kind of bird you might not see much else besides that bird. But if you read a whole book about the elusive Cooper’s hawk you will probably start seeing them (and hearing them) all over the place.

The morals of the story are:

  • What you see and what you don’t see is shaped by what you know and don’t know.
  • Don’t jump to conclusions about environmental reasons for what you see or don’t see.
  • You can train yourself to see more


I will be adding more related articles about observation in small digestible segments.