Back to the Drawing Board

I came across a press release this morning which contains the following

More should be done to encourage students to use their drawing skills in science education, researchers at The University of Nottingham say.

In a paper being published in Science this week, academics say that although producing visualisations is key to scientific thinking, pupils are often not encouraged to create their own drawings to develop and demonstrate their understanding.

In the paper the authors, led by Dr Shaaron Ainsworth in the University’s School of Psychology and Learning Sciences Research Institute, said: “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.

In the light of this I thought it would be topical to post an updated version of an old piece I wrote on the theme of sketching. This is quite a strange subject for me to have picked pick because drawing is something I’m completely useless at, but I hope you’ll bear with me and hopefully it will make some sense in the end. I always thought that drawing was an important and neglected aspect of education, but I hadn’t until today any solid research to back it up!


What  spurred me on to think about this subject was the exhibit I was  involved with for the  Architecture Biennale in Venice as part of a project called Beyond Entropy organized by the Architectural Association School of Architecture. In the course of researching this project I came across this image of the Moon as drawn by Galileo

This led to an interesting discussion about the role of drawings like this in science. Of course  the use of sketches for the scientific representation of images has been superseded by photographic techniques, initially using film and more recently by digital techniques. The advantage of these methods is that they are quicker and also more “objective”. However, there are still many amateur astronomers who make drawings of the Moon as well as objects such as Jupiter and Saturn (which Galileo also drew). Moreover there are other fields in which experienced practioners continue to use pencil drawings in preference to photographic techniques. Archaeology provides many good examples, e.g.

The reason sketching still has a role in such fields is not that it can compete with photography for accuracy or objectivity but that there’s something about the process of sketching that engages the sketcher’s brain in a  way that’s very different from taking a photograph. The connection between eye, brain and hand seems to involve a cognitive element that is extremely useful in interpreting notes at a later date. In fact it’s probably their very subjectivity that makes them useful.  A thicker stroke of the pencil, or deliberately enhanced shading, or leaving out seemingly irrelevant detail, can help pick out  features that seem to the observer to be of particular significance. Months later when you’re trying to write up what you saw from your notes, those deliberate interventions against objectivity will take you back to what you  saw with your mind, not just with your eyes.

It doesn’t even matter whether or not you can draw well. The point isn’t so much to explain to other people what you’ve seen, but to record your own interaction with the object you’ve sketched in a way that allows you to preserve something more than a surface recollection.

You might think this is an unscientific thing to do, but I don’t think it is. The scientific process involves an interplay between objective reality and theoretical interpretation and drawing can be a useful part of this discourse. It’s as if the pencil allows the observer to interact with what is observed, forming a closer bond and probably a deeper level of understanding patterns and textures. I’m not saying it replaces a purely passive recording method like photography, but it can definitely help it.

I have not a shred of psychological evidence to back this up, but I’d also assert that sketching is very good for the learning process too.  Nowadays we tend to give out handouts of diagrams involved in physics, whether they relate to the design of apparatus or the geometrical configuration of a physical system. There’s a reason for doing this – they take a long time to draw and there’s a likelihood students will make mistakes copying them down. However, I’ve always  found that the only way to really take in what a diagram is saying is to try to draw it again myself. Even if the level of draftsmanship is worse, the level of understanding is undoubtedly better.Merely looking at someone else’s representation of something won’t give your brain as a good a feeling for what it is trying to say  as you would get if you tried to draw it yourself.

Perhaps what happens is that simply looking at a diagram only involves the connection between eye and brain. Drawing a copy requires also the connection between brain and hand. Maybe  this additional connection brings in additional levels of brain functionality. Sketching iinvolves your brain in an interaction that is different from merely looking.

The problem with excessive use of handouts – and this applies not only to figures  but also to lecture notes – is that they turn teaching into a very passive process. Taking notes in your own hand, and supplementing them with your own sketches – however scribbly and incomprehensible they may appear to other people – is  a much more active way to learn than collecting a stack of printed notes and meticulously accurate diagrams. And if it was good enough for Galileo, it should good enough for most of us!

7 Responses to “Back to the Drawing Board”

  1. Interesting argument. I always find that looking at drawings, say, botanical illustrations, makes the plant structure so much clearer and easier to understand than looking at a photograph. Maybe because the illustrator has – in choosing what to draw and how – has edited out everything extraneous. This is not to say that photography is without authorship or viewpoint – not at all, but there’s definitely something in the art of scientific illustration…

  2. Second picture after “Archaeology provides many good examples, e.g.” doesn’t work for me? No active link, just a picture placeholder.

    • telescoper Says:

      Thanks. The website I linked to in the original post seems to have vanished off the face of the internet, so I replaced it with a random alternative.

  3. To frequent incomprehension, I have students in astro lab classes draw a lunar crater right at the eyepiece. Not just overlapping circles, but taking note of the pattern of light and shade that show them what the topography is. This does seem to work as a sort of training in paying more attention to what s actually being seen, decoupling the image from the interpretation a bit.

  4. The act of drawing sketches, arrows and scribbles tends to mimic more the way the brain takes and stores information in links and flows (or at least mine), rather than say an linear sequence of characters (or text), which takes longer and needs to be interpreted. When you look back at your notes you can not only see what was being said, but how you were thinking.

    Particularly useful when trying to follow a game of Mornington Crescent.

  5. Monica Grady Says:

    My son is a right-handed art student. One of the first exercises he had to do was to learn to sketch with his left hand. This was to make him think more about what he was drawing, and what were the most essential features that had to be captured to produce a realistic image. Engaging the brain, and not just an automatic process

  6. Paddy Leahy Says:

    My old geology lecturer used to talk about the four “R”s: reading, writing, ‘rithmetic, and ‘rawing.

    As for Galileo’s Moon drawing (actually woodcut), there is quite a literature about why it is so spectacularly inaccurate. We are lucky enough to still have Galileo’s original inkbrush sketches, which were considerably more lifelike. The published woodcuts seem to be “cartoonised” to emphasise the key features Galileo wanted to emphasise: there is a nice paper by Gingerich and van Helman about it.

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