From Slate to Notebook (or From Rote to Note)

From Slate to Notebook (or From Rote to Note)

Ashley Bayles and Lauren MacDonald


Albert Einstein took a test designed by Thomas Edison and one of the questions asked him to know the speed of sound. Upon not knowing the answer, he responded that he did not carry such information in his mind but it was readily available in textbooks (The New York Times, 1921).  This view on the less important role of rote learning  is a very modern one and has only come about since personal notebooks have become available. Originally, slates were used in schools. This meant that students copied information from the teacher which they then needed to memorize. The slates were wiped clean and used for another task later. With the invention of the personal notebook, students now had a space where they could then ¨train their mind to think¨ and keep a personal record of information. There was no longer a need to memorize facts. Information could be kept for later reference. There are still debates on the value of rote learning today and looking back at the historical context helps to explain some of the confusion about this issue.

Historical Context of Slates and Notebooks

Slates were commonly used in schools in the late 18th and early 19th centuries (Fernley, 2008). These tools were similar to larger blackboards but were small enough to be handheld by students. To make slates sturdier they were bound in a wooden frame (Fernley, 2008). All students had their own slate and brought it with them daily back and forth to school. Students wrote on their slate by scratching it with a slate pencil. Eventually, these slate pencils were replaced with soft chalk which made the writing process easier.

Students used their slate to practise math, writing and penmanship. Once work was completed and checked by the teacher, students used a cloth or sponge from home to clean their slate before being able to continue on with their work. Slates had other uses outside of schools. For example, sailors used them to chart a ship’s location at sea and factory workers used slates for keeping inventory of goods (Wikipedia, 2013). It was the writing device of the time.

After the American Civil War, pencils appeared which were easier for smaller students to hold (PBS, 2001). It was around this time that the cost of paper decreased and became inexpensive. Writing on paper became more prominent in schools. Slates were used less frequently as students began writing on paper. They were able to keep a more permanent written record of their school work and of what had been taught by the teacher. Eventually in the early 20th Century, these loose leaf sheets of paper were bound together in a spiral notebook (Modern Mechanix, 2006). The notebook in its various forms allowed students to keep all their work in the same place and continues to be used in the 21st Century because of its versatility.

Slates and Notebooks: The influence on thought

The transition from slates to notebooks greatly influenced what we value in society and even how we think. The slate is reminiscent of the oral tradition. The limited permanency of this technology required the use of mnemonic aids, repetition of thoughts and formulaic patterns of speech in order to remember and recall information (Ong, 1982). Teachers dictated information to students and while they could write it down on the slate, this was only temporary as in order to write down more information at a later time, the slate needed to be wiped clean. As a result, the slate was really a tool that continued the oral tradition and was part of the slow change to written society. Students recited information back to the teacher, rather than writing it down and submitting it.

As loose leaf paper and eventually notebooks came into use, thoughts shifted from being oral and recall based to a more text-based culture. We were now able to keep information outside the mind and access it for later reference at any point in time. The information did not even need to be our own, we could access information that previously was only available through discussions with other people.  Now we had unlimited access to their mind in the form of notes on paper or in notebooks. This new literacy of writing notes establishes a line of continuity outside the mind (Ong, 1982).  Information is less likely to be lost, as we can retrieve it if we forget it. The ability to have physical notes and to review them at any time moved our thought focus from memorising and recall to analysis and reflection (Ong, 1982).

The transition to notebooks also shifted what teachers valued in student work. Now rather than just being able to recall information, students needed to be able to make connections with the information and place it in context, making critical analysis of the material. As Miller states, ¨each tool involves a different cognitive style or skill. For example the invention of paper influenced cognition by making rote memorization of oral texts less important” (2002, p.384).

In his book Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology,  Postman writes of King Thamus´ response to Theus, when he presented the king with the invention of writing saying, “those who acquire it [writing] will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of by their own internal resources” (1992, Ch. 1, para 2).  In the transition away the slate, where the focus was on rote learning and memorization, to the notebook, this does not seem to be the case. The ability to take written notes with paper and pen/pencil is beneficial for students, which is supported by Boch and Piolat (2005). The authors explain how not only does note taking help students learn to write and learn the content of their studies, but it fulfills “two major functions: to record information and/or to aid with reflection” (p.101).

Note taking is useful for students to store, learn and think about the information presented by the teacher. They are able to create a “stable external memory” of information which can be accessed later on if needed and so that they won’t forget (Boch & Piolat, 2005, p.101). Kiewra explained that the outcome of note taking is more than passively taking notes to create an external memory source, the action of note taking is part of the memorization process and results in a form of “internal” storage (as cited in Boch & Piolat, 2005, p.104).

Lin and Bigenho (2011) also support the idea that note taking is beneficial for students. They argue that note taking requires the learner to attend to the information and the learning goal, select and organize what is relevant and move it through their working memory and into long term memory. Piolat, Olive and Kellogg assert that when taking notes students need to maintain their short term memory so as to acquire, represent, choose and understand the information being presented to them by the teacher in order to access and update their long term memory (as cited in Lin & Bigenho, 2011, p. 202). Further to this, note taking helps with student attention when listening to a lecture or reading. This assists students in expanding on the information further by connecting it with their prior knowledge.

The transition from slates to notebooks altered how we think and what is valued in society. Writing in notebooks not only helps students learn the information being presented by the teacher, but also acts as a permanent record of what was learned so that it can be reviewed and reflected on later by students.

A Shift in the Phenomenology of Reading and Writing

Ferdinand de Saussure noted that writing ¨has simultaneously ´usefulness, shortcomings and dangers’” (as cited in Ong, 1982, p.5). He felt that oral speech ¨underpins all verbal communication¨ and therefore writing is a complement to it rather than a transformer (Ong, 1982, p.5). This is similar to how the transition from slates to notebooks changed the look and feel of reading and writing. While it did not transform reading and writing, it did change communication in a discreet way. The more an individual can write their own thoughts down and work through them, the less they need to orally communicate with others in order to work through these ideas. As Ong says, orality stresses group learning, cooperation and a sense of social responsibility while print stresses individual learning, competition and personal autonomy (1982). This is not to say that oral communication was less important, but the process and uses of it altered. Now an individual could take time to make notes before speaking and then refer to them when speaking so as to ensure they cover all the points they would like to make. The great forums and oral debates of the past no longer have the same status in society. Print has taken over and we know that ¨embedded in every tool is an ideological bias, a predisposition to construct the world as one thing rather than another, to value one thing over another, to amplify one sense or skill or attitude more loudly than another¨ (Postman, 1992, Ch. 1, para 13). A notebook could be seen as a place to play and explore, to experiment. There is less authority present in a personal notebook than in recording information on a slate. The privacy provided by the spiral notebook afforded writers a place outside their own mind to record thoughts and information. Writing became much more personal and less controlled.

Additionally, the personal notebook changed what it meant to be a student writer. Slates were places for students to record the words of their teacher, rather than adding anything of their own. Its limited space meant that students were unable to add their own interpretations or annotations. The notebook changed all that. Students now had the space and time to add their own words. While teachers remained the central source of information, students took on a slightly more active role in the learning process. A student who did not understand material could now take the time independently to go over their notes again, review and reflect on the content. Notes could also be shared with people outside of the classroom so in a sense the notebook extended the walls of the classroom.

Changes to Literacy

As technology changes, so does our definition of literacy and our expectations of what it means to be literate in our society. The transition from slate to loose leaf paper and eventually spiral notebooks transformed the spaces of reading and writing in the classroom. No longer did students have to memorize everything they wrote on their slate for later reference. They could now keep track of their work, refer to it later, and make connections between previous and current learning. Notebooks created the ability to keep a record of work that had been completed and review it in order to improve upon it at a later time.  This is important in terms of our understanding of how we remember information. In terms of Bloom´s Taxonomy, the slate only allowed for the lower levels of cognitive domain, whereas paper and personal notebooks allow for more analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

With the slate as a form of writing, literacy would be defined in basic terms of the ability to read and write. Knowledge of facts and information that has been provided by an authority was what makes someone literate. As the notebook came along individuals had the ability to write down not only the information given, but also take the time to make their own notes about that information through personal connections and previous knowledge. There was time to reflect on information because it would not be lost from the page as soon as new information needed to be recorded, such was the case when the slate was in use. ¨Literacy is, among other things, the realization that language can have a visual as well as an aural dimension, that one´s words can be recorded and shown to others who are not present, perhaps not even alive at the time of recording¨ (Bolter, 2001, p.19).

The ability to reference information allows almost anyone to be literate in terms of the way it was defined by the slate. If anyone could have information and be literate, the definition and what we valued as knowledge began to change. With a personal notebook there was a need to have more skills than just the facts (although those remained important and to this day create debate). This new technology was a remediation of the slate and ¨remediation involves both homage and rivalry, for the new medium imitates some features of the older medium, but also makes implicit or explicitly claim to improve the older one¨ (Bolter, 2001, p.24). Additionally, Bolter claims that ¨the fixity and permanence that printing seemed to give the written word was just as important in changing the nature of literacy¨ (2001, p.14).

Mass literacy had started its transformation. No longer was it sufficient to be able to write and record another person´s thoughts. It became necessary to record your own thoughts alongside another person’s information in your notebook. In a way, the change from slate to notebook created a collaborative space in the world of print that had not previously existed.

Implications and Changes to Teaching and Learning

Slates and notebooks encouraged different teaching and learning practices. Slates encouraged teacher-led group instruction during the 18th and 19th centuries. During this time, class recitation of information played a significant role (PBS, 2001). Group learning, recitation and memorization, or rote learning were the primary presentation methods of information for teachers.

Rote learning is defined as “a learning technique which avoids understanding the inner complexities and inferences of the subject that is being learned and instead focuses on memorizing the material so that it can be recalled by the learner exactly the way it was read or heard”  (K12 Academics, 2013, para 1). This type of learning is done through repetition, with students being able to recall the information the more it is repeated.

This type of learning requires little effort on behalf of students and is inefficient (Novak, 1998). Novak (1998) asserts that when students memorize information they do not make connections with their prior or existing knowledge base. In order to link new information to what exists students are required to study material repeatedly, or overlearn the information. However because arbitrary connections are made, this information cannot be recalled hours or days later. Students who used slates were not expected to make connections on their own, but rather to copy exactly what they were told by their teacher. Their work could not be preserved when using slates which meant that students had to memorize their work. A good student was essentially a good memorizer.

As a learning tool, slates were easy for students to use, had low maintenance, and were inexpensive. Students only needed a slate pencil and the slate itself. They were long lasting as they were cleaned and used repeatedly by students.  Slates were also inexpensive.  Paper and pencils were difficult to come by and were expensive, and thus not affordable for many families during this time period (Fernley, 2008; Ergo in Demand, 2013). Slates therefore kept financial costs to schools minimal. Slates were ideal for students to practise their penmanship and for drawing (Gwynedd Council, 2003).

However, there were complications in teaching and learning when using slates. Teachers were initially required to go from student to student, copying problems for students to work through onto the slates. This method of teaching, along with the cost of supplies at the time, resulted in small class sizes and slower instruction (Ergo in Demand, 2013). When the blackboard appeared in schools in the 1800s, teachers could then copy problems and information onto the blackboard for students to copy themselves onto their slates, instead of the teacher copying the information onto each slate. Although the blackboard changed the presentation method for teachers, what did not change was the fact that teachers had to correct student work on the spot and could not take student work home. Slates also meant that there was no storage or permanent record of student work as once work was completed and checked by the teacher, students were required to clean their slate in order to continue.

Bolter (2001) writes that when new technologies appear they supplement or replace those which are already established. This may result in a change of the culture’s writing space. Such a change took place in schools with the move from students’ using slates to notebooks. The appearance of pencils and paper altered teaching and learning and the educational practices of both students and teachers. Teachers continued to present information to their students through lectures and teacher-led didactic instruction; however students were able to make notes on information presented by the teacher and to keep them for future reference, review and for studying at a later date. Student work could also be preserved as a permanent record of student learning and achievement. Notebooks allowed students who joined the class part way through the school year or who missed a class due to illness to have access to the notes of his or her classmates in order to catch up. They were easily portable for students and teachers, the latter of which could take student work home to correct and review. The shift from slates to notebooks also provided the very early beginnings to the current changes that we are seeing now in education with more personalized learning.

While rote learning and memorization are frowned upon as valid educational practices today, they are still covertly present in many areas of our daily lives without us realizing. Blumenfield (2000) states that  “repetition, in fact, is not only the easiest way to learn something, it often is the only way to learn something” (para 2). If we take for example learning to sing our countries’ national anthem. The more we hear it and sing it, the more we learn it. The same can be said of any song on the radio, a prayer or congregational response in church, or a pledge in Girl Guides or Scouts. The more we hear these words, the more we internalize and memorize them. When we do this, we are in fact engaging in rote learning.

Novak (1998) does acknowledge that there are occasions when being able to recall information verbatim is useful, such as recalling phone numbers. He also states that school testing often promotes rote learning (Novak, 1998).  Memorization or rote learning is therefore advantageous for students. Those who know names, dates and places in history, or their multiplication tables by memory, for example, are at more of an advantage when testing requires recalling such information. Students who learn information through meaningful learning, relating new information to prior knowledge, are thus at a disadvantage when recalling information verbatim is required.


Slates placed value on orality, rote learning and memorization. They provided only a temporary storage of student learning. During this time the basic skills of reading and writing defined literacy.  When notebooks appeared in classrooms what was important and valued in terms of learning shifted. With the transition from slate to notebook, students took on a more active role in the classroom by becoming more responsible for their own learning. Notebooks allowed them to make connections, thinking critically and analytically. They afforded students a more permanent record of their learning, as they could collect their thoughts and note information for future review and reflection. Student work could also be checked by a teacher later or referenced for another assignment to help scaffold learning. Scaffolding learning and the knowledge that students could take notes and were no longer required to memorize what was previously taught allowed teachers to delve further into the curriculum and teach more advanced materials. Despite this change, elements of rote learning continue to have subtle influences on learning and a presence in our daily lives. Notebooks  transformed literacy, learning and the classroom, and had a far reaching impact on education for years to come.


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