The term independently-hosted is used here to describe online publishing practices that utilise the World Wide Web (hereafter the Web) as a decentralised socio-technical system, where individuals and communities operate as the owners or controllers of the online infrastructures they use in order to share content. Such practices may be adopted as an alternative of, or as a complement to, the use of centralised content-sharing systems that belong to and are entirely operated by third parties. The term “publishing” is used here in a rather inclusive way and refers to the act of making content available online, rather than being restricted to the editorial processes that characterise, for instance, academic publishing.
The most detailed form of the idea can be found in Sönke Ahrens’ book How to Take Smart Notes, which also looks closely at much of the note taking and psychology related research over the past several decades. While he frames the method in terms of writing and creation as the end goal, much of the method dovetails with Bloom’s Taxonomy as I’ve outlined. It could also be framed as Cornell Notes with a greater focus on atomic notes that are highly linked and thereby integrating a student’s new knowledge with their prior knowledge.
I’d love to see more educators scaffolding the use of this note taking tool in their classes, especially in high school and undergraduate education.
Cross reference: https://boffosocko.com/tag/note-taking/
Recall briefly that Bloom’s Taxonomy levels can be summarized as: remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate, and create.
Outlining the similarities
One needs to be able to generally understand an idea(s) to be able to write it down clearly in one’s own words. This is parallel to creating literature notes as one reads. Gaps in one’s understanding will be readily apparent when one realizes that they’re not able to explain an idea simply and clearly.
Regular work within a zettelkasten helps to reinforce memory of ideas for understanding, long term retention, and the ability to easily remember them. Many forms of zettelkasten software have functionality for direct spaced repetition if not dovetails for spaced repetition software like Anki or Mnemosyne.
Applying the knowledge to other situations happens almost naturally with the combinatorial creativity that occurs within a zettelkasten. Raymundus Llullus would be highly jealous here I think.
Analysis is heavily encouraged as one takes new information and actively links it to prior knowledge and ideas; this is also concurrent with the application of knowledge.
Being able to compare and contrast two ideas on separate cards is also part of the analysis portions of Bloom’s taxonomy which also leads into the evaluation phase. Is one idea better than another? How do they dovetail? How might they create new knowledge? Juxtaposed ideas cry out for evaluation.
Finally, as argued by Ahrens, one of the most important reasons for keeping a zettelkasten is to use it to generate or create new ideas and thoughts and then use the zettelkasten as a tool to synthesize them in articles, books, or other media in a clear and justified manner.
I’m curious to hear if any educators have used the zettelkasten framing specifically for scaffolding the learning process for their students? There are some seeds of this in the social annotation space with tools like Diigo and Hypothes.is, but has anyone specifically brought the framing into their classes?
I’ve seen a few examples of people thinking in this direction and even @CalHistorian specifically framing things this way, but I’m curious to hear about other actual experiences in the field.
The history of the recommendation and use of commonplace books in education is long and rich (Erasmus, Melanchthon, Agricola, et al.), until it began disappearing in the early 20th century. I’ve seen a few modern teachers suggesting commonplaces, but have yet to run across others suggesting zettelkasten until Ahrens’ book, which isn’t yet widespread, at least in the English speaking world. And even in Ahrens’ case, his framing is geared specifically to writing more so than general learning and education.
Cornell notes come from a time closer to the traditional space of commonplace books, academic thinking, and note taking that was more prevalent in the early 1900’s and from which also sprang the zettelkasten tradition. I can’t help but be reminded that the 10th edition of Pauk’s book How to Study in College (Wadsworth, 2011, p.394), which helped to popularize the idea of Cornell notes with the first edition in 1962, literally ends the book with the relationship of the word ‘topic’ by way of Greek to the Latin ‘loci communes‘ (commonplaces), though it’s worth bearing in mind that it contains no discussion of the commonplace book or its long tradition in our intellectual history.
One was meant to use Cornell notes to capture broad basic ideas and facts (fleeting notes) and things to follow up on for additional research or work. Then they were meant to be revisited to focus on creating questions that might be used for spaced repetition, a research space that has seen tremendous growth and advancement since the simpler times in which the Cornell note taking method was designed.
Additionally one was meant to revisit their notes to draw out the most salient points and ideas. This is part of the practice of taking the original ideas and writing them out clearly in one’s own words to improve one’s understanding of the material. Within a zettelkasten framing, this secondary review is part of the process of creating future useful literature notes or permanent notes that one might also re-use in their future writing and thinking.
Missing from the Cornell notes practice but more directly centered in the zettelkasten practice is taking one’s notes and directly linking them to other related thoughts in one’s system. This places this method closer to the commonplace book tradition than the zettelkasten tradition.
While a more basic and naïve understanding of Cornell notes in current academic environments still works on many levels, students and active researchers might be better advised to look at their practices in view of broader framings like that of Sönke Ahrens’s book How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking.
It also bears noting that one could view the first stage of Cornell notes in light of the practice of keeping a waste book and then later transferring their more permanent and better formed ideas into their commonplace book.
Similarly one might also view full sheets of finished Cornell notes as permanent notes mixed in amidst fleeting notes and held together on pages rather than individual cards. This practice sounds somewhat similar in structure to Sönke Ahrens’s use of Roam Research to compile multiple related ideas in individually linked blocks on a single page holding them together in a pseudo-project page for more immediate and potentially specific future use.
Announcing our next Obsidian Book Club, beginning next week, in which we will synoptically read two books: Too Much to Know and The Extended Mind. Everybody is welcome, whether or not you have been in a book club before. It's a really good group and I think these books will spark some very interesting conversations. If you're interested, drop me a line at the email in the video and I'll send you the details.
- The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain by Annie Murphy Paul
- Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age by Ann M. Blair
The last two clubs were incredibly scintillating, so I can’t wait to see what this incarnation holds. Everyone interested in the topics and/or the process is welcome to join us. Details in the video.
In addition to the fun of the two particular texts, those interested in note taking, information management, personal knowledge management, zettelkasten and using tools like Obsidian and Hypothes.is in group settings will appreciate the experience. If you’re an educator interested in using these tools in a classroom-like setting for active reading and academic writing, I think there’s something to be learned in the process of what we’re all doing here.
Obsidian Book Club
Tentative Schedule beginning on
Saturday, March 26, 2022 Saturday, April 2, 2022
Paul: Introduction and Part 1
Blair: Chapter 1
Paul: Part 2
Blair: Chapter 2
Paul: Part 3
Blair: Chapter 3
Blair: Chapter 4
Paul: Any overflow from before??
Blair: Chapter 5
The Almighty Question
Asking questions is one of our most important tools for thinking. Questions force us to think. We’re wired to want to give them answers. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it was the proximal question that started it down the slippery slope.
Socrates is still rightly famous for his pedagogic method featuring the almighty question. Creating good questions are one of the most valuable parts of the idea behind Cornell notes. Scientific research is all about asking solid questions.
The wise man doesn’t give the right answers, he poses the right questions.
Teachers often analogize the period as the proverbial “stop sign” of a sentence, but they’re off base—the majority of periods are barely worth a rolling stop at best. I think it’s far more valuable to treat the question mark as an actual stop sign. It tells me to stop and actively think about what I’ve just read. What might the answer be? Is it answerable? Will the text indicate where to go? Will I be left hanging?
As I read, I always actively look out for the question marks in a text. When annotating, I’ll frequently highlight them in situ or in the margins with a simple “?”. What does the question mean for the current context? What might it mean for other tangential and even non-related contexts?
Questions can be used as rhetorical tools by the author to highlight what is important in their narratives or reasoning. Other times, unanswered questions in pieces are some of the most important and pressing portions of a text. They indicate what we don’t know. They indicate where we might try exploring, researching, and expanding our knowledge and place within the world.
Only the Questions
When evaluating whether or not a book will have value, it can be useful to know what sorts of questions the author is asking. Towards this end, I’ve recently come across a great digital tool called Only the Questions from Clive Thompson. It will parse through large bodies of text and extract out only the questions which were posed.
So feel free to throw in your favorite novel, your current non-fiction read, songs, poetry, speeches, religious texts, philosophy, even comics and see what comes out. Read the questions posed before you start. Once you’re done reading, revisit them to determine which ones were answered. Which ones were left as an “exercise for the reader”? Which ones can you provide the answers to now that you’ve read the text? Which questions were left open and will gnaw at your brain for years to come?
My fascination with questions has been super-charged by having such easy access to so many more of them. How will you use this tool?
Do you know of any other clever tools relating to questions? I’d love to know what they are and how you integrate them into your work.
We caught ’em!
— Perusall (@Perusall) February 21, 2022
For a dramatically different perspective from most of both my suggestions and others I’ve seen on the thread, a Sketchnotes representative like Mike Rohde (@RohDesign) would be nice.
The basic zettelkasten note taking method is very simple and clear cut as originally described by Konrad Gessner in Pandectarum sive Partitionum Universalium (Zurich: Christoph Froschauer. Fol. 19-20, 1548) to Sönke Ahrens’s book How to Take Smart Notes: One Simple Technique to Boost Writing, Learning and Thinking – for Students, Academics and Nonfiction Book Writers. Just a handful of bullet points can outline the elegance and simplicity of the system. This dramatic simplicity leads to some tremendous value and complexity.
However, in modern use as seen online since roughly 2018 on, the idea and the digital tools surrounding it, has seen some severe mission creep. Zettlekasten has moved to the fad stage and we’re “zettlecasting” everything under the sun. While it can be used as a productivity tool specifically for writing, some are adapting and using it (and tools built for it) for productivity use writ-large. This includes project management or GTD (Getting Things Done) functions. Some are using it as a wiki, digital garden, or personal knowledge management system for aggregating ideas and cross linking them over time. Others are using it as a journal or diary with scheduling and calendaring functions tacked on. Still others are using it to collect facts and force the system to do spaced repetition. These additional functionalities can be great and even incredibly useful, but they’re going far beyond the purpose-fit functionality of what a zettelkasten system was originally designed to do.
Ahrens highlights the zettelkasten method as being simply and specifically designed to do its particular workflow well—no more, no less. He cleverly analogizes slip boxes to their larger box cousins, the shipping container, and the way that that they revolutionized the shipping industry.
In hindsight, we know why they failed: The ship owners tried to integrate the container into their usual way of working without changing the infrastructure and their routines. They tried to benefit from the obvious simplicity of loading containers onto ships without letting go of what they were used to.
Following this analogy, many people are currently trying to not only revolutionize shipping, but sourcing, manufacturing, distribution, and marketing as well. While this may be interesting and the digital tools might accommodate some of these functions, are they really custom built from start to finish to really excel at these functionalities? Can they really do all of them at once? While some may come close and do well enough, the added complexity and overreach of all these functionalities may be diluting the base power of what the zettelkasten is capable.
People conflate the idea of note taking and the zettelkasten with tools like Obsidian, Logseq, and Roam Research. This is not necessarily a good thing. If they expect it to do everything and it’s not capable of that or well designed to do what they expect, they’re more likely to get confused, frustrated, and eventually give up. I’ve seen it happening more and more.
As an example, in a book club related to Ahrens’ text in which many highly educated and talented people have been using these tools and have even previously read the book, many are still far too confused about what these tools are and the value that can come from them.
For those who are just coming to the idea of a zettelkasten, I recommend you limit yourselves to just that basic functionality. Don’t muddy the waters with other productivity functions, to do lists, journals, diaries, kitchen sinks, or the latest wiz-bang plugin. Don’t throw in buzz words like GTD and MOC. Stick to the simplest script for a few months and focus on finely honing a small handful of questions and ideas each day from your reading to see what happens. Write, link, repeat. Don’t get caught up in the collector’s fallacy by keeping and saving every single fleeting note (thought) you’ve got (or if you must, put them into a folder off to the side). Focus on the core idea.
Once you’ve got that part down and it’s working for you, then consider adding on those other functionalities. Experiment with them; see what works. But don’t be surprised if those other portions aren’t the magic bullet that is going to revolutionize your life. We’re likely to need new tools, functionality, and a system built from start to finish, to make those other things a useful reality.
For ideas on implementing this (under various names) try: https://indieweb.org/commonplace_book. Micro.blog may be one of the online platforms that does a lot of this with IndieWeb building blocks, allows syndication to twitter, has a low barrier, and a reasonable subscription cost. It’s a social reader that also includes
I’m always curious about which methods and tools people use to take best advantage of these knowledge ideas, particularly for collecting, curating, reusing, and ultimately creating. Have you written about your overall experience with Knovigator and how you use it in this context?