Utilising the power of OneNote and Surface to develop visual thinking skills

Guest post by Steve Brophy, Director of ICT & eLearning at Ivanhoe Grammar School.

In 2010, Sir Ken Robinson gave a speech titled “Changing Paradigms” at a Renaissance Society of America public event. As usual, Sir Ken was at his poetic best and his call for a redefinition of our current school model echoed throughout the world thanks to a broadcast on the TED network. As well as Sir Ken’s message, the talk was also famous for the introduction of the RSA Animate series. The RSA Animate series, the brainchild of Andrew Park and his visual storytelling company, Cognitive was developed to make the powerful ideas shared at the RSA events more accessible. Park’s amazing visual interpretations of Sir Ken’s words gave the talk new life, really showcasing the power of visuals to unlock deeper thinking.


Dan Roam, author of the best-selling visual thinking book of all time, “The Back of Napkin” and founder of the Napkin Academy calls this Vivid Thinking. “Vivid Thinking is a mnemonic that stands for Visual-Verbal-Interdependent Thinking. Vivid means we can better understand the complex problems of today by both talking about them and drawing them” Roam writes in his latest book “Blah, blah, blah”. As the saying goes, a picture tells a thousand words. A great drawing can connect the dots between complex concepts or serve as the garden bed to grow an idea in depth. So why is this?

According to Sunni Brown, author of the Doodle Revolution, “visual attention is like a learning loophole; it doesn’t compete with what we hear.”

It is why PowerPoint is the staple of every presentation. Powerful words combined with powerful accompanying images capture and retain our attention and allow us to take in and digest greater amounts of information. On the flip side of that, we can all remember a presentation where the words and the images were on opposite teams! So how do you develop these capacities in learners? How do you help learners capture both the verbal and visual attention of their audience to share complex ideas?

In my classroom, it lies in the combination of the Surface Pro 4 pen and OneNote. OneNote is a low floor, high ceiling platform. The entry level to start is low but the height of thinking possible is endless. OneNote provides my students a canvas to develop their abilities to represent their thinking visually and this is amplified by the Surface pen. One of my favourite features of OneNote is the endless canvas it provides students, providing them an endless space to doodle, annotate, scribble, write, prototype and develop their ideas and this is vital.

According to Brown, “Your mind only has a certain capacity for storing information, so it’s important to have a physically large playing field for the brain to consider different visual possibilities.”


Being able to zoom in and out through the touch capacity of the Surface Pro 4 allows students to change perspective and delve into different components of their thinking. This thinking can then be easily shared with classmates through OneNote’s presentation mode and it is in this endless canvas approach that students can see their ideas not as separate discrete elements but as a narrative that represents their current thinking. It is this narrative to hone on when they are presenting their ideas. Regular short pitches of their ideas also help my students to clarify their thinking and ideas in front of an audience and to receive feedback on the verbal and visual elements of their presentation. It is this continued deliberate practice that helps students develop their ability to present verbally and visually.

Find our more about Surface and OneNote for Education.  To stay up to date with everything happening in Microsoft Education, make sure you follow us on Facebook, Twitter, subscribe to our blog, and join the Microsoft in Education community.

You can also check out all our teacher training tools and stay up to date with upcoming training and events on the Microsoft in Education website.