Diagramming for thinking

An article in Science asks,

Should science learners be challenged to draw more? Certainly making visualizations is integral to scientific thinking. Scientists do not use words only but rely on diagrams, graphs, videos, photographs, and other images to make discoveries, explain findings, and excite public interest. From the notebooks of Faraday and Maxwell to current professional practices of chemists, scientists imagine new relations, test ideas, and elaborate knowledge through visual representations.

Drawing to Learn in Science, Shaaron Ainsworth, Vaughan Prain, Russell Tytler (this link might not be paywalled)

Continuing,

However, in the science classroom, learners mainly focus on interpreting others’ visualizations; when drawing does occur, it is rare that learners are systematically encouraged to create their own visual forms to develop and show understanding. Drawing includes constructing a line graph from a table of values, sketching cells observed through a microscope, or inventing a way to show a scientific phenomenon (e.g., evaporation). Although interpretation of visualizations and other information is clearly critical to learning, becoming proficient in science also requires learners to develop many representational skills. We suggest five reasons why student drawing should be explicitly recognized alongside writing, reading, and talking as a key element in science education. …

The paper goes on to list a lot of reasons why this is important.

Drawing to Enhance Engagement

Many students disengage from school science because rote learning and traditional topics reduce them to passive roles…. Surveys of teachers and students indicate that, when students drew to explore, coordinate, and justify understandings in science, they were more motivated to learn than from conventional teaching. The use of drawing caters to individual learner differences, …

Drawing to Learn to Represent in Science

Students need to learn how scientists use multiple literacies … to construct and record knowledge, where reading, writing, and talk are integrated with visual modes. Generating their own representations can deepen students’ understanding of the specific conventions of representations … as well as how representations work more generally …

Drawing to Reason in Science

To show conceptual understanding, students must learn how to reason with multiple, often visual, modes. Understanding sound waves, for instance, can involve being able to coordinate a range of wave diagrams, time-sequenced representations of air particle movement, and pressure variation. … This creative reasoning is distinct from, but complementary to, reasoning through argumentation.

Drawing as a Learning Strategy

… asking learners to read a text and draw what they have understood requires them to make explicit this understanding in an inspectable form. … visual representations have distinct attributes that match the visual-spatial demands of much of science learning. Moreover, visual representation has been shown to encourage further constructive strategies. Inventing representations … acts as preparation for future learning, …

Drawing to Communicate

Scientists draw to clarify ideas for colleagues, students, and the public. … visual representation is one way to enable broader dissemination. Through drawing, students make their thinking explicit and specific, which leads to opportunities to exchange and clarify meanings between peers. Where learners generate and publicly share their representations, they learn by critiquing the clarity, coherence, and content of what they and their peers have drawn. These windows into student thinking can serve teachers in … assessment.

I agree wholeheartedly. In addition, I think the same insight should be extended to social systems, where people are even less familiar with visual conceptualization tools. I inwardly groan every time I have to give a short pitch on a model, knowing that I’ll have to use part of my precious time to explain the visual lingo of a causal loop diagram, and can’t use stocks and flows because people would think I was from Mars.

A letter this week expands:

The Education Forum “Drawing to learn in science” … makes a convincing case for placing greater emphasis on the cultivation of student skills in drawing diagrams and other forms of external representations. …

Students have a strong tendency to use the wrong diagrams for the task at hand and, when they do construct appropriate diagrams, they frequently fail to derive correct solutions or inferences. Even more troubling, most students do not use diagrams unless explicitly told to do so. Student knowledge about diagrams is often insufficient to instigate their use.

… for students to more readily use diagrams, they need to appreciate the actual benefits of their use. Students also need to overcome hurdles associated with thinking that drawing diagrams is too difficult or too costly in terms of mental effort. There are some projects aimed at addressing these problems. However, if drawing diagrams is to genuinely take a more central part in science education, we believe that more researchers and educators need to focus on the issues we describe.

Drawing Attention to Diagram Use, Emmanuel Manalo, Yuri Uesaka

There’s clearly enormous appetite for this. Witness the enthusiasm for graphic facilitation, design thinking for learning, and other approaches that combine storytelling with visual representation.

Drawing to Learn in Science

  1. Shaaron Ainsworth1,*,
  2. Vaughan Prain2,
  3. Russell Tytler3

+ Author Affiliations


  1. 1School of Psychology, University of Nottingham, University Park, Nottingham NG7 2RD, UK.

  2. 2Faculty of Education, La Trobe University, Bendigo 3552, Australia.

  3. 3School of Education, Deakin University, Waurn Ponds 3217, Australia.
  1. ?*Author for correspondence. E-mail: shaaron.ainsworth@nottingham.ac.uk

Should science learners be challenged to draw more? Certainly making visualizations is integral to scientific thinking. Scientists do not use words only but rely on diagrams, graphs, videos, photographs, and other images to make discoveries, explain findings, and excite public interest. From the notebooks of Faraday and Maxwell (1) to current professional practices of chemists (2), scientists imagine new relations, test ideas, and elaborate knowledge through visual representations (35).

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