Classroom Practices

Teaching Students To Think Using Drawing and Sketching

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Drawing is a learning tool. 
You learn to use your imagination. 
You learn to think visually.
Chris Riddell

One of the best teaching approaches I ever brought to my lessons comes from the book Drawing With Children by art educator Mona Brookes. After reading the book and applying its many techniques and lessons, I not only transformed my students, but many of my lessons across the curriculum incorporated more of the benefits of visual learning.

One of Mona’s key points has to do with when we typically start drawing around the age of four and five. Crayons and markers are common toys for youngsters today. We can all conjure up those simple stereotypical pictures kids make of a little house, a tree ripe with apples, maybe a dog or cat, and of course, the sun blazing in the corner of the page. Little direction is usually given to children as they make up on paper what they interpret as their world.

Mom and Dad are so pleased with these early artistic endeavours that the pictures quickly adorn the kitchen fridge or the office for others to praise. But somewhere around the age of eight, a sort of wall interferes with many children continuing with drawing and sketching. Suddenly the savvy eight year old realizes that the little house and stick figures aren’t really cutting it anymore. They strive for realism in their work and struggle when they can’t achieve it. This is the point where many children, and parents, assume there is no artistic talent to emerge and the child moves on to other interests.

Mona Brookes has recognized this wall in her students. She believes it’s why many adults shrug and declare, “Oh I can’t draw.” She goes on to expound:

We don’t expect children to play the piano, study dance, or learn a sport without showing them the basic components of these subjects. Why do we expect them to understand the complexities of drawing on their own?

Instead she works with parents and teachers to use an easy to follow lesson approach that takes away the fear of the pencil, the striving for realism, and perfection. Creating a nonthreatening environment, free from judgement is a big part of it. The beauty and success of her method is that students are taught an “alphabet” of shapes, lines and curves to break down and analyze what they see, into workable parts. Later she introduces shading and dimension.

What emerges is a development of analytical skills, more use of perception and critical thinking. Ultimately problem solving is used to overcome small resistance. I love that she teaches kids to draw with markers instead of the reliance on the pencil and eraser. Every mark on the page is incorporated, especially the mistakes. Best of all, these techniques build self-esteem and the confidence that emerges is transferable to other areas of the curriculum.

I could go on and on about the success my students embraced in their sketchbooks, but more to the point, I found I worked with my colleagues on bringing many of the principles of drawing to other areas of the classroom. For example, with reading comprehension, teachers utilize drawing as a response to:

  • an oral text: Draw what the character saw;
  • or reflection: Draw how this makes you feel;
  • or problem solving: Draw what should the character do.

Often, when posed with a tricky math problem or planning a paper, we would encourage students to “draw it out.” We know mind maps are a great way to get planning started, and quick sketches are useful when we are designing or making something concrete.

[Tweet “Working things out with a diagram approach makes learners see things in a different way.”]

Multiple intelligences and different ways to learn are embraced when sketching and drawing are used more regularly in lessons.

Sketching can be a collaborative tool as well. With multiuser online white boards, such as Flockdraw, available in the classroom or group meeting space, contributions can be visual from all members of the discussion. The tech savvy teacher can also use drawing and sketching software to develop lessons. With apps such as SumoPaint and Psyko Paint kids can add to existing photos with virtual (and less messy) paint and artistic touches. Learning the basics of drawing at an early age doesn’t have to steer every child into become an artist, but can give them more of a skill set to use in different situations, on various media and in the virtual world. Drawing should be part of every student’s toolbox, just like learning the basics of music, sports and drama.

Feeling comfortable with simple drawing and sketching can help ESL students and learners with special needs. When self-expression and creativity are taught in a nurturing environment, students particularly around the age of eight can learn how to get over that wall that tends to stop them. When the expectation is not to produce a gallery worthy piece, but something that looks like the object or scene they see, there is pride and satisfaction… and a more likelihood that their efforts at drawing and sketching will continue. For many, artistic endeavours become a pastime, and often revisited as an adult or senior. Providing opportunities to learn how to draw early will help to become a lifelong learner.

[Tweet “In many ways, #drawing is the connection between the eye and heart and hand.”]

It’s why many children can interpret different drawings of the same object. Perhaps it can be said that in our busy over stimulated environment, we miss the vast majority of what goes on around us. But learning to draw rewires us to attempt to see the world a little differently. Each of us perceives the intimate details required in drawing with a different approach.