On the List! The Many Benefits, for Students and Educators, of List-Making
February 22, 2023
February 22, 2023
By Mary Anne Em Radmacher
Making lists is one of the most effective ways to distill thoughts into brief, clear statements while establishing problem-solving skills, developing prioritized tasks and introducing the value of a personal writing practice. List-writing contributes to both short-term results and long-term objectives.
Everyone learns more quickly through familiar examples. So, when I talk about lists to kids, I start with shopping lists and George Washington. Kids know what shopping lists are. And nearly every primary-school student has heard of George Washington.
It turns out that as a teenager, Washington relied on a list to guide him into adulthood. At some point, he acquired a French book written in the late 1500s, a guidebook for practicing good citizenship and courteous manners that was well-known in the Colonies then.
He first extracted from the book a list of 110 rules of civility, writing them out nearly verbatim, then made a second list based on language and applications that made sense to him.
Students have long followed Washington’s practice. It dramatically improves retention to read something, hear something, want to remember something, and follow this system:
Washington used list-making to help remember and internalize civility rules, principles which supported him through many of the occasions and decisions of his life, and he wasn’t the only historic figure to rely on lists. Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius kept a list of ideas, principles, poems and teachings that were influential. It has endured for more than 2,000 years and is available today in book form: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Thomas Jefferson maintained lists of many of his interests, including the migratory patterns of birds, and Ralph Waldo Emerson was a lifelong list-maker, using lists to document his voracious reading habit.
Over the years I’ve asked hundreds of people aged 6 to 96 questions about list-making. We begin by asking, “What benefit is there to going to the store with a shopping list?” Here is a list of the most common responses:
Then I ask, “Is there a benefit to going to the store without a list?”
These are surprisingly fun and creative answers. The third question is the pivot point: “Can you think of any other parts of your life that would benefit from making a list?”
Participants surprise themselves with the number of ideas they generate. The benefits of keeping (or not keeping) a list are applicable across an array of ages and life experiences.
Thinkers have understood the value of keeping lists since the time of Marcus Aurelius, at least – but proof is still coming in. The National Library of Medicine reports that as early as 1949, studies were being done on the value of collecting information and putting it on a list. Recent neurological research underscores even more benefits to keeping a list: It frees up the brain’s short-term holding capacity. Once something is written down, the brain is satisfied that an action has been taken. That can reduce anxiety, making a host of benefits accessible. The act of recording an item on a relevant list does a spectrum of good work. It even helps reinforce long-term memory.
My first attempts at poetry were more like lists than poems, usually made up of three or four words per line. For me, list-making turned out to be early training for the clarity and brevity required for writing poetry and aphorisms. Aphorisms and lists both can be short and pointed in a single direction.
Making lists helped me develop my capacity for breaking down complex subjects into manageable elements. When I was in fourth grade, I wrote an interactive play based on all we had just been taught about the judicial system. I wrote character development guides for each student and an overarching review of the case we would be considering. Students were assigned roles with specific backstories: judge, bailiff, sergeant-at-arms, lawyers, jury members, and so on. I was able to organize all this material by creating lists of job requirements and imagined character traits. When the teacher retired years later, she told me she’d used my courtroom exercise every year since I wrote it!
Convincing people of any age of the value of maintaining a personal journal practice can be daunting. Many people don’t like writing in longhand; others find composing sentences that flow and make sense a challenge. Some are so concerned with getting things “right” that they miss the value of personal journaling altogether. This is where list-making takes the writing and thinking spotlight.
People born in the past 20 years have increasingly abandoned handwriting in favor of keyboarding. They’re distinct processes and each has particular advantages and specific brain pathways, but the value of keeping lists is sustained either way.
The brain processes both methods differently but the benefits are much the same. List makers learn to clarify and articulate their thoughts, and are liberated from the labor of holding information in short-term memory and transferring it into long-term mental storage.
Handwriting connects to the sensory processing parts of the brain, giving the learner more memory hooks upon which to hang information, according to Professor Audrey van Der Meer, a Dutch neuroscientist. Handwriting also provides richer engagement with information as it’s done by holding and moving a physical writing implement. Professor van Der Meer advocates writing and drawing from an early age as essential for comprehensive brain development, a view shared by neurologists around the world.
Keyboarding provides speed but creates distance from the information, but because our current students have grown up doing it, they find it more comfortable and familiar. Keyboarding can be the ideal tool for the type of list that is often called a “brain dump.” Speed is an asset in that kind of list, as the goal is to identify as many problems, solutions, or ideas as possible.
An excellent way to handle lists is also to verbalize their items. The advantages of this are manifested over a longer period than handwriting or keyboarding. It allows us to answer the question “What are you thinking?” Current technology has made it easier to access, preserve, and express lists by speaking them aloud. This may help explain the intimacy and personal details that people record and share on social-media platforms.
Like keyboarding, verbalization can remove the tactile experience of interacting with information in the kinesthetic and brain-enhancing way that handwriting uniquely provides.
I advocate handwriting lists, as my personal and professional experiences anecdotally support this preference.
With students of any age, a good way to start is with the three questions near the beginning of this article. First, develop a common understanding by asking, “What is a shopping list?” Then proceed to the three questions:
Divide students into groups of three to five and give them time to generate complete answers, then have one person report the results to the whole class. Collect the answers and you’ll have a generative document that can be amended as students add discoveries. Because they created the guide, they own the process.
You can build list-making into many parts of teaching and learning. For example, students can list the actions needed for the next school day. They don’t have to know they’re laying the foundation for identifying and prioritizing tasks, as they will need to when adulting.
Portions of various assignments can end with list making. Here are some examples:
Students create these lists with key words, without constructing whole sentences and transitions. From their lists, ask them to write a single paragraph that expands their thinking. This process also develops the skill of creating an outline (which is simply a list of consecutive elements) for writing, projects, and other uses.
After students have been safely introduced to the process of list-making, you can ask them to move to more challenging applications, such as exploring ways to apply lists in their own lives. They’ve now identified different ways a list can be useful.
Each teacher must determine how a more personal list-making system can be honored with privacy while still being part of the classroom experience. Some have successfully operated with the “show me that you created five different lists this month” method – without reading the contents of the lists. The honor system is also an option.
This transition from educational lists to personal applications is a delicate pivot point to inspiring students to lifelong inquiry using lists for personal inquiry and problem-solving. Students may gain clarity and insights from the lists they create:
Over the past three decades, I’ve provided thousands of blank notebooks and composition books to students, inviting them to explore the personal benefits of making lists and exploring them in deeper ways. This practice accesses what neurologists call inner speech. Students begin to explore and come to a greater understanding of their own experiences by putting their thoughts and feelings on the list.
I love to show students the battered leather daily ledger that my father kept when he was in the military. He listed the key events of each day. Decades later, it gave me insight into a part of his life that he never spoke of and helped me understand him in a new light.
Keeping lists can do the same thing for students. Doing so helps clarify next steps and can reduce anxiety, while teaching personal agency and accountability. List-making is a way for students of different capacities to connect to the experiences of their life in a manageable way.
Not everyone who keeps lists in the classroom will develop a lifelong habit. But some will develop the skill into an important personal practice. A young woman who learned list-making from me as a sixth-grader wrote to me after her third book was published, saying that the skills she learned that day put her on the path to clarity of expression and a deep love of writing by hand.
The methodology I call “on the list” will help your students to be better thinkers and healthier humans.
The author of more than a dozen books, Mary Anne Em Radmacher is an artist, poet, and consultant who has proven that art, creativity, and communication skills are crucial to the success of any organization… even the Pentagon. A writer since she was a child, she uses writing to explore symbols and find meaning as an author. She is perhaps most well-known for these lines from her poem: Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, “I will try again tomorrow.”
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