There is a group of scientists discussing a concept. One of the scientists has a new idea. What do you think he or she does to explain it to the others?
Most likely, she grabs a pencil and paper and makes a drawing to illustrate the concept. And what happens? The process of drawing clarifies various issues in her mind. Discussing the drawing with the other scientists allows them to question her assumptions and address any misunderstandings.
Imagine if we used this technique to teach science in schools. Imagine that students drew their understandings of complex concepts to explain their insights to each other and to their teachers.
This whole notion of visually representing an idea, in order to communicate or teach, makes the students clarify in their own mind the essential pieces of the idea, creating a visual metaphor.
Making a drawing in order to explain is a means of clarifying in your own mind what you want to say, it forces the students to think deeper. In the process, students reveal any misconceptions in scientific understanding, even with very smart students. This is non-threating and double feedback for the teacher: it shows her what the students are misunderstanding, and if the same misunderstandings continually crop up, it shows the teacher that she needs to adjust her teaching.
Kids are unbelievably visual; it’s the world they are growing up in today. This technique not only matches how scientists themselves communicate, it syncs with how students think. Visual thinking is how we understand science, it’s how Einstein was able to first grasp the concept of relativity.
Through NSF grants, Frankel has introduced this technique in universities, high schools, and middle schools. In one example, a college student received an A in chemistry, and was able to answer a question about which liquid would boil at a lower temperature because she had memorized the formulas and knew when to apply them. When asked to draw the process, she (and others in the class) completely missed the actual reason some liquids boil at different temperatures, the effect of molecular bonding. The teachers were astounded that their students could parrot back the right answers on tests, yet have such large gaps in their conceptual understanding.
At a Middle School in Harlem, Frankel conducted a summer boot camp for teachers. The teachers worked in groups to create pictures explaining the water cycle, which is often taught in 7th and 8th grade science. This not only provided a non-threatening way for the teachers to address their own knowledge gaps, it also inspired them to use Picturing to Learn with their own students, and Frankel said the teachers have responded that their students have made unbelievable strides in their comprehension and interest. The teachers reported that over ¾ of their students’ drawings show problematic explanations, many of which would never have been caught with standard textbook problem sets or tests.
Ms Frankel is currently developing rubrics to make it easier for teachers to adopt Picturing to Learn in their classrooms, and can work with school, districts, or content providers that want to incorporate these techniques in their science curriculum, and can be reached through her website: http://www.picturingtolearn.org/