Drawing New Conclusions About Drawing

This week I had a conversation with a colleague about the upcoming school year and the challenges associated with new social distancing protocols in the classroom. Like many schools, the desks in my room have been spaced six feet apart for the safety of the students. The unintended result of this distancing is to make it very difficult for students sitting on the fringes of the room to see the whiteboard. This is particularly problematic for me as I really like creating drawings on the board to illustrate complex concepts.

Why am I so drawn to drawing? Here’s what one expert has to say: “There is no more powerful way to prove that we know something well than to draw a simple picture of it,” says Dan Roam in the visual problem-solving book The Back of the Napkin. “And there is no more powerful way to see hidden solutions than to pick up a pen and draw out the pieces of our problem.” 

To keep drawing in my new classroom reality, I have been looking at different tech tools to allow me to draw digitally and share them with students. But, my colleague came up with a more intriguing idea: he suggested I have students create their own drawings.

At first I dismissed the idea, thinking that the purpose of the drawing was for me to communicate an abstract concept – not for students to communicate it. Then I realized the fundamental error in my thinking: me doing the drawing is the equivalent of me doing all the talking – the result is me doing the learning. Instead of this teacher-centered model I’ve been employing for years, I need to have my students take the lead in converting ideas into diagrams. 

By attempting to convert ideas into concrete representations, students will be taking on more of the cognitive load. Rather than passively looking at connections, they will actively be making connections. Information will move from the sensory to the working memory where they will analyze it and synthesize it with existing information. 

I need to stop showing what I know and help students develop their own understanding and make their own associations. One of my plans is to present a concept to the class and then challenge students to visually represent it. We can then share our diagrams with each other and then have a great discussion about why we created them the way we did. As well, we can talk about what we like about each other’s creations. 

First though, I probably need to begin with a session on drawing diagrams. What are the different ways to visually represent concepts – graphs, flow charts, organization charts, etc.? We could also discuss various ways to illustrate change, growth, relationships, such as the use of dotted lines or arrows. 

It might also be a good idea to have students think about their thinking prior to drawing. What kinds of questions could you ask yourself to ensure understanding of the concept being explored. Dan Roam suggests questions like:

  • What is there? What is not there?
  • What do I recognize right away, and what throws me off?
  • Are the things in front of me what I expected to see? 
  • Have I seen this before?
  • Are any patterns emerging? 
  • Do I have enough visual inputs collected to make sense of what I see, or do I need to go back and keep looking?
  • What is the best way to visually convey my idea? Which visual framework will be most appropriate for sharing what I’ve seen?
  • When I go back to what I originally looked at, does what I’m now showing still make sense?

I will miss drawing on the board for my students. I will miss making characters with silly faces and showcasing my ability to recreate a map of the planet from memory. But, I am excited to give this experience to my students . 

I am sad that it took a global health crisis for me to see this. I wonder what other improvements that social distancing changes will have on my practice? I can’t wait to find out!

Ed X! 

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