How to doodle-do drawing for learning

Geography teacher Mark Enser explains how simple but significant changes can take drawing in class to the next level

Mark Enser

How teachers can make drawing in class a learning experience

Tell someone you are a geography teacher and, once they get over the feeling of admiration and awe, you can expect either reminiscences about ox-bow lakes and field work in the rain or jokes about colouring in. 

In people’s heads, the noble subject of geography is indelibly linked to scrabbling around in a box for the last remaining blue colouring pencil. 

We do seem to do a lot of drawing in geography. For most of the 17 years I have spent teaching, these drawings have primarily been about representing information, such as copying a picture to show a waterfall and adding annotation or drawing a field sketch of a mountain scene and labelling the glacial features. 

However, I have increasingly been using drawing not to record information but to ensure that pupils learn this information. There is a subtle but important difference. 

Richard Mayer (1993) suggests that drawing in the classroom can perform one of four main functions. It can be decorative, where the pupil adds something pretty to the page in way of an illustration, and it can be representational, such as the drawing of a waterfall described above.

Learning through drawing

Neither of these two functions are likely to lead to learning, as they are either unconnected to the learning or only involve transferring information from place to place and not thinking hard about the information. 

The other two functions of drawing are organisational (mapping connections between elements) and explanative (showing a process through a series of images); both involve the pupil making decisions about what to draw and how to organise the images on the page. 

They also require pupils to reflect on what else they know about the topic at hand. This process of selecting what to draw, organising their thoughts and integrating them into their long-term memory generates learning. 

Research studies by Van Meter (2006) in primary-age children and Schwamborn (2010) in secondary-age children show that using drawing in this way helps with not only the comprehension of the material being studied, but also the ability to transfer what they have learned to new contexts.

This has brought some fairly small but important shifts to my teaching. Rather than giving pupils a diagram of a waterfall to copy and annotate, I am now more likely to give them a written description of how a waterfall forms and ask them to work out how to draw the process. 

I also use it as a revision activity, such as asking them to draw how Brick Lane in London has changed over time. To complete this task, they need to retrieve from their long-term memories everything they have learned about this place, and then organise this information into a new form as they consider how they can turn what they know into an image. 

There are a few issues with using drawing in the classroom that need to be addressed. One problem identified by Fiorella and Mayer (2015) is that pupils can become overly distracted by the mechanical process of drawing.

This is great if they are in an art class and this is the intention of the lesson, but can be a problem elsewhere where it creates an unnecessary extraneous load (Schwamborn, 2010). They suggest that a combination of using partially drawn images for pupils to complete and teaching pupils about the purpose of the activity can offset these problems. 

Another problem with drawing occurs when we, as teachers, forget the purpose of drawing. If we simply take away the message that drawing is good for learning, we can end up back where I began with pretty pictures of waterfalls and very little learning.

As is so often the case, we, as teachers, need to think carefully about why we are using a particular strategy at a particular time and in a particular way.

Mark Enser is head of geography and research lead at Heathfield Community College in East Sussex

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