SPECIAL EDITION EDITORIAL: Drawing is Thinking
Michelle Fava, Andrea Kantrowitz and Angela Brew
This collection of papers came about as the result of on-going discussion between contributors to the Thinking through Drawing symposium series. The first symposium, in 2011, highlighted the growing ability to describe and explain the phenomena of drawing in the language of cognitive science. We learnt of established and innovative practices that use drawing to enhance and facilitate cognition across many disciplines. A renewed interest in drawing as a medium for thinking was noted, emerging from these new understandings and from interdisciplinary collaborations between artists, designers and experts in other domains, such as medicine. This led us to consider whether such developments are, or could be, successfully integrated into curricula and teaching practices.
In 2012, we invited practitioners from a broad range of disciplines to share experimental and innovative uses of drawing, and discuss the broader implications of such developments. We were particularly interested in uses of drawing outside of art and design, and the potential for creative exchange and blurring of disciplinary boundaries. We invited contributions that addressed uses of drawing in STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths). Our theme “Drawing in STEAM” was inspired by the STEM to STEAM initiative, championed by Rhode Island School of Design and U.S. educators who advocate for the infusion of Art and Design into STEM education. We received proposals from surgeons, dentists, computer programmers, and many others who put drawing to a vast range of uses. Some were experimental and innovative, others drew from long-standing traditions and conventions.
Some drawing methods have stood the test of time, while others are declining and new practices are emerging. In the meantime, drawing’s presence in our schools, colleges and universities waxes and wanes. While artists and art teachers have long defended the value of drawing practice for visual thinking, it’s only recently that the scientific community has taken an interest in drawing and cognition, and now begins to offer evidence to demonstrate and explain that value, strengthening arguments that drawing can facilitate thought. These arguments are not new, but are now able to make use of the language of empirical sciences as well as that of the arts and humanities. Even with little drawing ‘skill’ or experience, drawing can enhance performance in cognitive activities such as problem solving, ideation, invention, memorisation, way-finding, arithmetic, analysis, decision making, and skill acquisition. Pencil and paper extend the mind: externalising ideas, increasing working memory, crystalising emerging ideas, enabling discovery as drawers respond, elaborate and revise evolving marks on the drawing surface, allowing margin for invention to be born from ambiguity. Even gesturing in the air without pencil or paper has been shown to enhance cognitive functioning, but ideas and gestures spread about a page can be seen all at once, by many eyes, and across language boundaries. Situated and embodied cognitive paradigms unlock new understandings of the potential of drawing as a powerful tool for thought.
These understandings can inform current debates around the role of drawing across curricula. Are we making best use of drawing as a resource for facilitating cognitive development? Are we preparing students adequately for engaging with the world, equipping them with perceptual and visual thinking skills? Concerns about ‘visual literacy’ are voiced by Raquel Pelayo, who acknowledges younger generations’ different relationships to visual information. Such positions invite us to re-consider traditional notions of literacy to include non-verbal modes of reasoning and communicating. Such arguments can be strengthened by evidence based studies, and it seems there is much scope for educational innovation that capitalises on visual intelligence.
Gemma Anderson’s collaborative project invites us to examine drawings of ideas as well as of things, illustrating how drawing can be used both to communicate mathematical reasoning, and to demonstrate mathematical proof. While the drawings in Anderson’s collaborations reflect the “different logics of the artist and the mathematician” we are also presented with their common grounding in visual/spatial reasoning. We are reminded that the formal presentation of mathematics often omits the visuo-spatial concepts underpinning mathematicians’ thinking. As such, the project invites us to consider the potential for further cross-fertilisation between disciplines in both research and education. In this vein, Lynn Goldsmith et al. advocate the development of “boundary crossing minds” and challenge “contemporary education’s self-imposed segregations” in their study of geometric reasoning. Their study marries empirical evaluation with propositions for educational innovation that acknowledge the contribution of drawing and visualisation in geometric reasoning. They anticipate further steps that use findings such as theirs to inform teacher education, and the rolling out of useful drawing practices across curricula. Similarly, Sheilagh Carpendale and Jagoda Walny analyse how sketching is used to aid a variety of tasks, in order to inform the development of interactive visual thinking tools.
Katherine Garner’s analysis of protein interactions is a perfect example of ‘drawing as learning’ in biomolecular research. Her project demonstrates how drawing can play a key role in every stage of the research cycle: “from digesting the wider scientific literature and conceiving new hypotheses, planning time and experiments, to the integration of experimental results within the existing framework of understanding”.
Drawing as a facilitator of reasoning is a central theme here, but traditional representational and observational practices are also of renewed interest. Lucy Lyons’ work shows us how simple observational practices have potential to benefit biology students and researchers by offering a slow and direct engagement with primary subject matter. Pelayo illustrates the importance of visual attention in observational drawing ability, shedding light on the perceptual complexity the skill involves. Linda Carson and James Dankert offer an objective measure for assessing representational accuracy, a tool that can perhaps help de-mystify the assessment of observational skills in both teaching and research. Howard Riley et al. are also among those who value representational skills, recognising their continued (but perhaps changing) relevance, and art & design students’ continued desire to acquire them. Riley et al.’s teaching strategies acknowledge the “growing body of psychological evidence for perceptual enhancement in drawing” (Riley et al.) and draw from a cognitive understanding of the perceptual processes they seek to enhance. However, we are also reminded that those perceptual abilities might very well remain confined to drawing activity unless their transferability is made explicit. Goldsmith et al. encourage drawing instructors to “make explicit the connections across disciplines.” They suggest teachers from Arts and STEM disciplines might teach common principles together.
Cognition involves more than rational, conscious thought processes. Harriet Edwards describes ‘supra-rational’ modes of practice: “intuitive, tacit, material and so forth”, considering their role in both drawing and writing. Edwards reminds us of the ineffable aspect of creative thought.
David Kirsh discusses the role of our moving bodies in thought and learning: they are able to make understated gestures with an implicit understanding of what is known and what still needs to be rehearsed, a pared down ‘sketching’ though gesture. As well as thinking with our bodies, he discusses thinking with “other things”, describing a cycle of ‘creating, projecting and creating structure’ reminiscent of Barara Tversky’s concept of ‘constructive perception’. In this cycle we use the external world to anchor and support creative thinking, extending the capacity of our minds through tangible interactions.
These studies and findings are also complemented by reflective accounts of drawing process given by practitioners themselves. Eduardo Corte-Real reminds us here of people’s widespread and ongoing desire for the ability to make graphic representations He argues that observation is the core of drawing practice in general as the skill involves ‘knowing’ how to draw on many levels: procedural, geometrical, abstracted, gestural, cultural, interpretive and reflective.
In addition, we are presented with a touching reminder that drawing can facilitate not only cognitive, but affective learning. Mario Minichiello, Liz Anelli and Diedre Kelly’s collaboration for Birmingham Children’s Hospital Liver Transplant Unit responds to the need for non-verbal communication in difficult and sensitive medical situations. Clearly, learning to understand and face life’s challenges is as vital as any other kind of learning, even if it is hard to measure the impact of such interventions. In their project we see how even distressing experiences can be made easier by drawings. Likewise, Jill Journeaux and John Burns’ work shows us how drawing can help adults come to terms with illness and suffering: by understanding, labelling and communicating it non-verbally, metaphorically and even aesthetically. Their drawings and animations offer an account of a personal journey that is both insightful and inspiring.
Together these contributions represent a broad spectrum of considerations that point to a shift in the way we consider the value of drawing and visualisation across disciplines and curricula. The contributors to this volume continue to explore this shift, and together offer a glimpse of ways in which drawing practices will continue to be relevant and useful in the future
e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Andrea Kantrowitz
Teachers College, Temple University, Philadelphia
e-mail: email@example.com Angela Brew
University of the Arts London