This article describing JS Mill as an ‘inveterate annotator’ prompted me to ruminate on the place of scribbling in the margin.

Obviously, it’s a tremendous coup to be able to see the internal workings of a mind like Mill’s. But his motivations for annotating – to ‘marshall all of the information’ he was reading – and what it shows about him – his gut reaction to what he read, his vacillating opinions and his more evolved judgements – can apply to us all.

It made me think about when I first began teaching, and how militant I was about students not writing on photocopies. I mean MILITANT. Spurred by a dwindling budget, I stood at the door and inspected each returned copy. Obviously there were scribblings that were more Anglo-Saxon in nature, but more often than not they were students who just liked to underline the odd word that took their fancy, draw an arrow from a picture to the relevant text, or to colour in the turret of a castle because that’s what we decided was a really important defensive feature.

These were students just marshalling the information they were given – making sense of what they were being exposed to – just as Mill was.

I’m glad to say I’m now living openly as a scribbler and doodler myself. I prefer to print heavy-duty material off and highlight what interests, intrigues or puzzles me. I annotate in the margin to take points further, link them to what I know, or to ask questions. It’s a visceral, calming and helpful process, that means I digest far more of what I’m reading than I would have by reading alone. The trees, the ink, the planet – I know. But there’s some tough topics and themes for which only scribbling will do.

Fast forward a year…

With the move to online teaching and learning over the last year, I’ve been thinking about how teachers can prepare lesson materials and guide students in their learning using annotations.

Recently CLA’s Education Platform added new notes and highlight features which allow teachers to mark-up their digital copies to guide learning and effectively direct their students to certain parts of the text. It might not be as satisfying as physically highlighting a photocopy or scribbling in the margin, but it gets the job done – and is a lot more environmentally friendly!

Visit the Education Platform Knowledge Base to find out more about highlighting and adding notes to copies you make through the Education Platform.

This blog was originally published here in February 2020.