What students’ drawings reveal

iStock_000001028732XSmallDrawings can document school environments and support educational change, report researchers in a recent issue of the Harvard Educational Review. For a decade, Walt Haney, Michael Russell and Damian Bebell, Boston College, have used students’ drawings to document educational phenomena. These researchers relate examples of how drawings have been used by schools to inform and change education and learning. They present evidence of their reliability and validity.

Drawings are a good way to know what children think and feel, write Haney and fellow researchers. Having students draw is an alternative method of documenting how children experience school. If educators give carefully constructed prompts, surprising aspects of school and classroom activity and student learning can be revealed in students’ drawings.

Examples of prompts include: Think about the teachers and the kinds of things you do in your classrooms. Draw a picture of one of your teachers working in his or her classroom. Draw a picture of yourself taking the MCAS (standardized test). Think about work and activities you do in math class. Draw a picture of yourself learning math. Draw a picture of what a camera sees when you are reading.

Drawings can support change

Haney et al. believe that drawings can provide a valuable catalyst to document, change and improve what goes on in schools. Their work with drawings grew out of collaborative efforts with schools to evaluate their own reform efforts.

In the 1990s, two school systems (Corpus Christi, Texas, and San Diego, California) conducted student reflection surveys in all their middle schools. These surveys included a student drawing exercise. Haney et al. found they could reliably analyze the feature s appearing in students’ drawings and use these analyses to document changes in schools over time. Drawings reflected the changes educators were carrying out in their schools.

The students’ drawings also proved to be a powerful vehicle for teachers to learn from students’ perspectives. They helped teachers reflect on and think about changing their classroom practice. Drawings were used, for example, to identify the feelings of learning-disabled students as schools worked toward full inclusion.

These researchers have collected a range of reliability and validity evidence that shows drawings can be used in a variety of ways to document real and important aspects of classroom environments and student activity. Their research indicates that the systematic coding of drawings can validly and reliably document change in the organization of classrooms.

Haney et al. are particularly impressed by the power of drawings to engage teachers and provoke reflection and change. They report that other studies have revealed that drawings can be used effectively with beginning teachers and for promoting reflective practice. They believe that drawings provide a rich opportunity to document students’ perspectives and to transcend assumptions regarding what goes on in our classrooms.

These researchers caution that drawings should be used in combination with other methods of study. They also recommend asking students questions about their drawings, when possible, to better interpret what they have drawn. A short description of their drawing is helpful in interpretation.

“Drawing on Education: Using Drawings to Document Schooling and Support Change”, Harvard Educational Review, Volume 74, Number 3, Fall 2004, pp. 241-272.

Published in ERN March 2005 Volume 18 Number 3


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