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April 1, 2016
Vol. 73
No. 7

More than Pretty Pictures

Artistic expressions reveal young students' thinking and understanding.

More than Pretty Pictures- thumbnails
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At Placentino Elementary School in Holliston, Massachusetts, educator Kathryn Schulte uses drawing during interactive read-alouds before, during, and after reading. For example, before reading an informational text about Tasmanian devils, Schulte asks her students to draw what they think the creature looks like (Paquette, Fello, & Jalongo, 2007). As she reads, she prompts students to visualize and sketch the animal using information they've learned from the text. After she finishes the book, Schulte asks students to use pictures and words to illustrate their final understanding of a Tasmanian devil. The series of pictures reveals students' preconceived concepts, listening comprehension, visualization skills, and shifts in new conceptual knowledge.
Early childhood teacher Donna James of Two Rivers Public Charter School in Washington, DC, engages students in conversations as they create art in order to assess their understanding. Whether students represent their thinking with paint, pencil, collage, sculpture, or clay, the medium is not as important as the narrative students create. Students engage in dynamic dialogues using their artwork as texts. In this light, analyzing children's drawings as ways of developing meaning gives teachers insight into student thinking (Kendrick & McKay, 2009).
"If you are sitting with them, they will tell you what they are drawing and thinking," said James. "The picture often evolves as the student's thinking does. The end result might be a colorful blob, but the student can describe the story behind the image he or she sees." Pointing to a picture of painted flowers, James noted, "I can't see exactly what the student is seeing, but in describing her work, this student explained, 'I didn't draw roots because the roots are down deep.'" This child's explanation of her artwork uncovered evidence of learning.

Windows into Thinking

As instructors at Lesley University Graduate School of Education, we coach novice teachers and consult in model classrooms from Boston to Washington, DC. When we walk through the halls of urban schools, we are often drawn into classrooms by the sound of students composing new songs or the sight of students collaborating on design projects. The anecdotes we highlight in this article demonstrate how such uses of art reveal young students' thinking and understanding.
Students' artwork becomes more than pretty pictures when it is used to develop and document learning. Artistic practices are a representational discipline (Halverson & Sheridan, 2014), so the act of putting pencil to paper or paintbrush to canvas is one way that young students can communicate their understanding in concrete form. Art is a vehicle for developing conceptual knowledge and communicating meaning to others.
According to constructivist theory (Vygotsky, 1978), by drawing, drafting, sculpting, constructing, painting, and creating, students develop disciplinary thinking habits. As a result, the picture frame becomes a window into student thinking in math, science, social studies, reading, and writing. We find that students develop critical-thinking skills when they explore a fundamental concept, such as interdependence between living things, using multiple artistic mediums. Art not only meets the needs of visual and kinesthetic learners, but also provides an entry point for young learners to conceptualize complex ideas, design inquiries, solve problems, and discuss findings. Students use art to develop new knowledge and uncover misconceptions about how the world works.

Thinking Like an Entomologist

Teachers at Two Rivers Public Charter School put these practices to work. Classes in this school use drawing, tinkering, and constructing not just for play, but also as a process to help students visualize and conceptualize ideas. Students' creativity becomes a vehicle to develop and transfer thinking into visual representations; teachers then use those expressions to effectively assess understandings. In one such class, a teacher found that learning through inquiry and multiple modalities ignites creativity that builds students' interests, motivation, and disciplinary thinking.
When we visited a 1st grade classroom at the school, the students had one question on their minds: "Are you afraid of spiders?" In the days before our visit, their teacher, Ann Selzer, presented her students with the following essential question: "Many people are afraid of spiders and choose to kill them. Is that okay? Why or why not?" Students were immediately engaged to find out. The question sparked wonderment and motivated the young scientists to investigate. Visiting this classroom reminded us that one of the most important ways to get students to inquire deeply is to present them with a question and task that is both worthwhile and connected to their lives.
The classroom was filled with aquariums and specimen tubes that housed a variety of live spiders, some of which students found in their homes and around their city. Among students' favorites was a tarantula they named Fuzzy who "stayed in his cage because his bite might hurt but will not kill you," as one 1st grader reported. The students also gathered pictures of spiders that are native to their neighborhood. Each young entomologist then selected a different species of spider and set out to draw a scientific illustration that would become part of an informational book. Students became familiar with "their" spider, and from that familiarity arose many questions and discoveries.
To create scientific drawings, students were encouraged to stop, look closely, slow down, notice details, and look again. "Each time you go back, you notice different things and ask more questions," Selzer said. Each iteration of their drawings—like each iteration of close reading—uncovered an additional layer of meaning. As students examined their spiders, they developed skills for "close looking." They had to closely examine the structure of spiders—just as a close reader looks at the craft and structure of a text. Afterward, students transferred their insights to drawings on paper.
In close looking and drawing, the students discovered unique features of the spiders, such as distinct, colorful patterns. The open-ended task of creating a scientific drawing also naturally led students to compare and contrast their spiders. "My spider's legs are twice as long as yours," one student said to another. The two students stopped to look closely and then looked again, asking, "What makes a spider a spider?"
Students and teachers critiqued one another's artwork at each stage of the drawing process. They used three simple but powerful rules to critique work: be kind, be specific, and be helpful (Berger, 2003). In the beginning, the drawings looked like typical 1st grade pretty pictures, including smiley-faced spiders with up to ten legs. The more students observed and critiqued, the more scientifically accurate their drawings became. Spider heads started including a mandible (jawbone) instead of a smiley face—and spiders all had the correct number of legs.
As the drawings became more realistic, students made more astute observations like, "That's the spinneret. It has to be attached to the abdomen, not the legs." Not only did the students spontaneously use tier three vocabulary terms, but they also noticed important details and critiqued one another's work for accuracy. The culture of constant revision encouraged students to offer feedback on their classmates' work, which in turn deepened their conceptual knowledge.

Art as Assessment

Selzer viewed students' drawings as formative assessments and used them to inform her next instructional steps. When students started to pay attention to specific details in their drawings, she knew they were ready to learn more about what they had drawn. For instance, when she saw students add hair to their spiders' legs, she guided the class to research why spiders like Fuzzy have those tiny hairs (to pick up vibrations and smells from the air). In her next instructional move, Selzer prompted, "Tell me about the legs in your drawing. Why might the shape be important?" Students noticed that the scientific drawings showed spider legs of different shapes, which led them to discuss how those differences help spiders survive in their respective habitats. (Some spider legs allow an arachnid to walk on water, make flying jumps, or walk upside down.)
Crafting these scientific drawings pushed students to think like entomologists. The young scientists created drawings to explore and explain their thinking. They developed mathematical concepts of scale, proportion, shape, and precision. The students started noticing spiders outdoors and in their homes and carefully gathered them to observe as classroom pets. Their drawings helped to synthesize learning and later to communicate what they learned to a real audience.
The final product of the unit was an online book called "DC Spiders." Students each contributed their best work to a page of the publication. Using "all about" books (Calkins & Mermelstein, 2003) as mentor texts, the 1st graders wrote informational texts to accompany their drawings. Students created a rubric for their writing, which helped them stick to their topic and add relevant details. The rubric also supported students as they used their scientific observations and research to communicate facts about spiders through nonfiction writing. The students revised their work—as they had revised their drawings, through multiple drafts and critiques—and shared their book with families and the school community.
At the end of the unit, the class revisited the essential question about whether people should kill spiders. As a result of their work, the students not only learned about spiders, but they also became less fearful and grew to value spiders' role in nature. In short, students showcased an understanding that all living things are interdependent. Now these 1st grade scholars and their families have pledged to think twice before stepping on an eight-legged friend.

The Power of a Blank Canvas

Art used in the classroom as a literacy practice and iterative process has been shown to be effective in deepening content knowledge (Fortus et al., 2005). When students start with an open-ended problem and a blank canvas, they begin to explore big ideas. They create representations, ask questions, and revise their thinking. Learning by constructing and reconstructing is a messy and complex process during which young students learn and shape ideas as they create understanding (Papert, 1980).
By contrast, giving students tasks like worksheets to "color in the lines" might be therapeutic, but it doesn't require them to internalize new information. In fact, it doesn't require them to think deeply at all. We do not want our students to live within institutionally created lines.
Instead, we want our students to start with a blank canvas, grapple with cognitive dissonance, and, in the end, construct their own meaning as they learn.

Berger, R. (2003) An ethic of excellence: Building a culture of craftsmanship with students. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Calkins, L., & Mermelstein, L. (2003). Launching the writing workshop. Portsmouth, NH: firsthand.

Fortus, D., Krajcik, J., Dershimer, R. C., Marx, R. W., & Mamlok-Naaman, R. (2005). Design-based science and real-world problem-solving. International Journal of Science Education, 27(7), 855–879.

Halverson, E. R., & Sheridan, K. (2014). The maker movement in education. Harvard Educational Review, 84(4), 495–504.

Kendrick, M. E., & McKay, R. A. (2009). Researching literacy with young children's drawings. In M. Narey (Ed.), Making meaning: Constructing multimodal perspectives of language, literacy, and learning through arts-based early childhood education (pp. 53–70). New York: Springer Science Business Media.

Papert, S. (1980). Mindstorms: Children, computers, and powerful ideas. New York: Basic Books.

Paquette, K. R., Fello, S. E., & Jalongo, M. R. (2007). The talking drawings strategy: Using primary children's illustrations and oral language to improve comprehension of expository text. Early Childhood Education Journal, 35(1), 65–73.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher mental process. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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