Thinking with pen and paper

paperThe ream of bond paper in a low drawer of my table in the classroom is getting thin. All my students know exactly what the next activity will be whenever I give a piece to each one: I will ask or write a few questions on the board that they shall reflect on and they have to jot down any thoughts on this low-tech “thinking pad.”

I have demonstrated to them how to fold the paper horizontally into two parts and then turn it sideways so they can write from left to right, back and forth, on this improvised “four-page booklet.”


After some 15-30 minutes of thinking and scribbling, they are ready to speak their mind.

“Turn to your partner and share” is my famous instruction. With eager expectation, they always do.


I love the noise and laughter of a busily engaged class. No one is left behind in recitation; the shy ones, as well as the gregarious, have a partner to help them free their thoughts. They enjoy the chatter such that, oftentimes, I have some difficulty wrapping up the warm-up.

I then ask for those who are willing to share their thoughts with the whole class. Since they have had time to think and polish their thinking in the dyad, their responses are now so much more substantive and refined.

I collect the “booklets” and commence with a lecture that actually is extending or explaining, abstracting or extracting their views by hanging them in a framework—a psychological theory or principle.

Externalizing thoughts

Whether to think about something cerebral or sentimental, personal or professional, a pen and a paper are quite useful to generate ideas, map a plan, compose a line and even reflect on life issues. They make thinking easier, more fluent and flexible, creative and comprehensive.

Writing externalizes thinking from inside the head to the outside world. It unloads and unburdens the short-term memory so that the brain has more space to wiggle.

The pen-and-paper tool serves as external memory so that the mind does not have to expend energy on the basic processes of attending and remembering, but instead to put the concentration on the higher-order thinking skills, such as reasoning, analyzing and evaluation.


I also learn more about my students and their thoughts by reading these “booklets.” So much of what they are afraid to say out loud in class are on these pieces of paper.

I am moved by the hardships some of them have gone through to have reached this place in their education and career. I am amazed by their determination and strength to overcome poverty or failures in the past, and encouraged by their hopefulness for the future.

Thinking on paper is thinking out loud so that we force our thoughts through a process that sets them free from the labyrinth inside our heads and gives them a home—a place to linger before we lose them. It is articulating our ramblings on paper so that we can take a good look at them, go back to them, turn them around and, in the end, create, clarify and organize the ideas into something other people can understand.

Planning books and talks

When I am invited to speak—whether for a 30-minute talk or a three-day seminar—I spend lots of time mapping out themes and concepts.

I use “thinking pads” in my study room, in my bedroom, inside the car, everywhere to jot down any thought that pops out serendipitously—a word I heard, a phrase I read, a metaphor I remembered, or a story I treasured.

These pages are a sight to behold—lines and arrows in different colors, with light or heavy strokes, all caps or lower cases. Over the next days or weeks, I weave these seemingly unrelated “fingerprints” into a tapestry, like a toddler connecting the dots to make an image appear in a picture book.

Many of these scratch pads became the substance of books that had been published.

Once, stuck in traffic for hours, I took out a small notebook and scribbled an entire table of contents of 12 chapters for the book I would be writing next.

When I watch good documentaries or reports on television, I take down notes of important details. (I’m sure few people watch TV with a notebook at hand.) I then squiggle some questions and personal observations about them, which eventually appear in my class lectures.

Papers and pens are never far from my sight. They have brought me so much good!

The writer is a professor of Educational Psychology at the University of the Philippines. You may e-mail her at [email protected]

Read Next
Don't miss out on the latest news and information.
View comments

Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.

TAGS: Learning, pen and paper, thinking
For feedback, complaints, or inquiries, contact us.

© Copyright 1997-2020 INQUIRER.net | All Rights Reserved

We use cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. By continuing, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. To find out more, please click this link.