• Drawing-Thinking-Meaning: Dr Margaret Brooks

  • "Rational, intentional conveying of experience and thought to others requires a mediating system, the prototype of which is human speech born of the need of intercourse during work" (Vygotsky, 1962, p. 6).

    This paper will outline the basic principles underlying one of Vygotsky's theories; that language plays a central role in mental development. Using one child's series of drawings as an example, I will describe how an adaptation of this theory has provided me with a tool for analyzing children's drawing.

    While Vygotsky listed a range of mediation tools such as symbols, algebraic systems, art, writing, and diagrams, oral language was the primary mediation tool on which he focused his studies. For Vygotsky language was a meaning-making tool that was uniquely human. While "language" is the word commonly used in translations, in fact "speech" might be a more accurate translation. Vygotsky proposes that it is in "word meaning" that thought and speech join to become verbal thought and that through the study of meaning making we might find ways to understand children's thinking. He proposes that it is, "in meaning (that the) answers to our questions about the relationship between thought and speech can be found" (Vygotsky, 1962, p. 5).

    Vygotsky began his analysis of word meaning by clarifying the need to study the relational properties between "word" and "meaning." He argued that if each were studied as separate elements then there was little possibility of one coming to a better understanding of the development of thinking (1962, p. 4). He developed a new and different method, one that analyzed the "unit," i.e. word meaning, rather than the "elements," i.e. the word and the meaning. By "unit" he means "a product of analysis which, unlike elements, retains all the basic properties of the whole and which cannot be further subdivided without losing them" (1962, p. 5).

    Vygotsky uses water as an analogy to explain further. When trying to discover why water puts out fire, a division of water into its elements of hydrogen and oxygen for further examination would not help solve the problem. Hydrogen burns and oxygen sustains fire. In this kind of analysis one is left to speculatively reconstruct the vanished properties of the whole.

    Figure 1 The Vygotskian Metaphor of Water (Wink & Putney, 2002).

    My study of young children drawing examined one mediation tool that, as yet, has not received much attention. I explored the notion that in drawing there may also be evidence of a relationship to thought and that this might also become visible through the study of meaning-making processes.

    One might view drawing as a unit which, when studied within the context of its' production, may yield some clues as to the connections between thought and drawing and the development of thinking and meaning. A drawing has the simultaneity of a unit in as much as all the information is contained in the whole and present at the same time. However, like language, drawing has suffered a similar history of elemental analysis. Curricular models for elementary art education retain the legacy of instrumentalist (Lowenfeld, 1947) art education, which draws heavily upon Piagetian developmentalism and may lock the child into an individualistic and sequential framework. Internationalization and developmental categorization of images that are separated from their contexts, such as described by Kelogg (1969), might also be viewed as elemental. More recently, Discipline-Based art education has promoted an essentialist agenda that separates the elements of art. I would like to suggest that an approach that examines the relational properties between "drawing" and "meaning" might better serve young children's drawing and learning.

    Vygotsky wrote about two forms of meaning; meaning as reference and abstraction and meaning as contextualized personal sense (Wertsch, 2000). There are two basic assumptions about meaning as reference and abstractions. One is that, "Language meaning is a matter of referential relationships between signs and objects," and the other is that, " the development of meaning is a matter of increasing generalization and abstraction" (Wertsch 2000, p. 20). Vygotsky believed that an understanding of the difference between what he termed a child's spontaneous concept and a child's scientific concept depended on one's understanding of these two assumptions. It is in the spontaneous concept, which occurs in a child's first encounter with an experience that the referential use of language plays an important role. However, for meaning to develop further into abstraction the child has to move beyond this direct linking of referent to object to a more generalized meaning. Objects are grouped into categories rather than remaining single objects.

    Vygotsky believed that a child's spontaneous concept differs from a child's scientific concept; particularly in the path the child takes in his or her thinking.

    The birth of the spontaneous concept is usually associated with the child's immediate encounter with things . . . In contrast, the birth of the scientific concept begins not with an immediate encounter with things, but with a mediated relation to the object. With the spontaneous concept the child moves from the thing to the concept. With the scientific concept, he is forced to follow the opposite path - from the concept to the thing. (Vygotsky, 1987, p. 219)
    It is the referential nature of the relationship between the sign and the object that is the key to understanding the differences between everyday spontaneous concepts and more abstract, scientific concepts.
    The key difference . . . is a function of the presence or absence of a system. Concepts stand in a different relationship to the object when they exist outside a system than when they enter one. The relationship of the word "flower" to the object is completely different for the child who does not yet know the words rose, violet or lily than it is for the child who does. Outside a system, the only possible connections between concepts are those that exist between the objects themselves, that is, empirical connections . . . These relationships mediate the concept's relationship to the object through its relationship to other concepts. A different relationship between the concept and the object develops. Supraempirical connections between concepts become possible. (Vygotsky, 1987, p. 234)
    The following table summarizes the relationship between a spontaneous concept and a scientific concept.

    Spontaneous concept Scientific concept
    Referential relationship between signs and objects. Increasing generalization and abstraction.
    First, or immediate encounter with an experience. Mediated relation to the object.
    Referential use of language. Objects grouped into categories.
    The child moves from the thing to the concept. Child moves from the concept to the thing.
    Absence of a system. System in place.
    Empirical connections between objects. Supra empirical connections between concepts become possible.

    Vygotsky also suggests that, "A word does not refer to a single object but to a group or class of objects. Each word is therefore already a generalization" (1962, p. 5). A drawing seems to hold a similar generalizability. A drawing of a cup relates not only to that particular cup but also to all other cups that preceded it and to all others in relation to it. My experience finds that young children use drawing to communicate ideas and thoughts as well as to create a sense of meaning for themselves and for others. Vygotsky suggests that a "closer understanding of the development of understanding and communication in childhood, however, has led to the conclusion that real communication requires meaning - i.e. generalization" (Vygotsky, 1962, p. 6). He states that it is not enough to have labels for objects in order to think and solve problems, but what is also needed is an ability to manipulate these labels across contexts that will allow for connections that promote higher levels of thinking.

    True human communication presupposes a generalizing attitude, which is an advanced stage in the development of word meanings. The higher forms of human intercourse are possible only because man's thought reflects conceptualized actuality. That is why certain thoughts cannot be communicated to children even if they are familiar with the necessary words. The adequately generalized concept that alone ensures full understanding may still be lacking. (Vygotsky, 1962, p. 7)
    It is in the formulation of ideas, or the expression of our ideas, that we can bring something more clearly into consciousness. His focus is on the activity of speaking and of finding adequate expression. It is in this process that meaning is constructed. I am interested in the ways that drawing might help children to construct meaning and I think there may be parallels between Vygotsky's notion of language and thought and my notion of drawing and thought.

    Having a word label for a concept is different from having had the experience of it. It is different to read and talk about the word "swim" or "hatching" than it is to do it or be there when it is happening. There is a difference between knowing about something and experiencing something. Some ideas appear to take more processing than others do. It appears that the process of drawing can help with the processing of ideas.

    The diagram below illustrates Vygotsky's theory of the connection between thought and speech and the development of verbal thought.

    Figure 2 Verbal thought (Bodrova & Leong, 1996).

    If we consider drawing to be a language of sorts then we can begin to consider how drawing might contribute to the formulation of thinking and meaning.

    In drawing, as in oral language, we can focus on what it is we are considering and through the formulation of a clearer description of what we are thinking come to better understanding of it. In addition, drawing could provide a connection to thinking that may have some advantages over speech or writing.

    Thought does not consist of individual words like speech. I may want to express the thought that I saw a barefoot boy in a blue shirt running down the street today. I do not, however, see separately the boy, the shirt, the fact that the shirt was blue, the fact that the boy ran, the fact that the boy was without shoes. I see all this together in a unified act of thought. In speech, however, the thought is partitioned into separate words. Thought is always something whole, something with significantly greater extent and volume than the individual word. Over the course of several minutes, an orator frequently develops the same thought. This thought is contained in his mind as a whole. It does not rise step by step through separate units on the way his speech develops. What is contained simultaneously in thought unfolds sequentially in speech. Thought can be compared to a hovering cloud which gushes a shower of words . . . the transition from thought to speech is an extremely complex process which involves the partitioning of the thought and its' recreation in words. (Vygotsky, 1987, p. 281)
    While the production of a drawing may have a temporal order to it which is similar to speech production, I feel there is a simultaneity in a completed drawing that very much parallels Vygotsky's description of thought. An image is seen as a whole. If we were to look at a drawn image of a barefoot boy in a blue shirt running down the street then all the parts of the drawing would be there simultaneously in the way he has described thought. Perhaps drawing more closely represents thought. There are also some advantages to drawing that are not readily possible with oral speech. Drawing leaves a more permanent record that can be shared with others as well as revisited, compared and re-evaluated.

    Extending Vygotsky's principle, that language plays a central role in mental development, to include the notion that visual thought might also play a role in mental development, is a new and interesting idea that adds a different dimension to analyzing children's drawing.

    Jenn's drawings Using Jenn's drawings of the growth and development of a Painted Lady butterfly as an example I will now illustrate some of the connections between thought and drawing. I will tell the story of one child, Jenn, examine the drawing records she kept and discuss the learning that occurred for her.

    The children in my Kindergarten class were studying the growth and development of Painted Lady butterflies as they progressed from tiny caterpillars to larger ones, then chrysalis, finally emerging as butterflies. On one very large table I had placed pencils, crayons, small squares of drawing paper, resource books on caterpillars and butterflies, as well as the small, clear plastic containers that held the food and the individual caterpillars we were going to study. Several children decided to adopt a caterpillar, observe, discuss, and represent its growth and development.

    Jenn's First Drawing

    Figure 4 Jenn's first observational drawing.

    Several children are gathered around the table to look at the caterpillars. They are discussing where the caterpillar's food comes from, what it is made of, how much the caterpillar might eat and where the mother caterpillar might be. Jenn has chosen to adopt a caterpillar and is completing her first drawing of it. In her drawing I can see that she has drawn the food with a graphite pencil and placed it at the bottom of the clear plastic container. She has managed to show just how much food was actually in the container by only coloring to a certain level. The marks she uses to draw the food seem to convey the mashed up consistency of the leaves. Her line rendering of the container suggests that it is made of clear plastic while the elliptical cover might indicate that the lid was round.

    The rendering of the various elements illustrates some of the cultural conventions Jenn has learned through looking at other drawings and illustrations. When making this observational drawing, the process of drawing has mediated Jenn's attention. The act of making an observational drawing has focused Jenn's attention to specific features, in this case the food that has been provided for the young caterpillar. The process of drawing also mediates the experience of taking care of the caterpillar and of paying close attention to it. The careful and prolonged looking that observational drawing requires has elicited several interesting questions and has helped Jenn formulate the beginning of a theory about the care and growth of a caterpillar.

    Jenn's Second Drawing (the Fat Caterpillar)

    Three days later, before working on her next drawing of the caterpillar, Jenn re-examines her previous drawing from her drawing portfolio. As she looks at her drawing she reviews aloud for herself her cumulative knowledge about the caterpillar. She uses her previous drawing as a point of reference that assists her review; she takes stock of what she has done and learned. This helps her compare the caterpillar's previous state against how it looks now.

    I hear from her comments that she notices the caterpillar is much bigger now. She also comments on a couple of tiny, black, hairy deposits in the container. The child sitting next to her has the same deposits in her container. Together they discuss what they might be. The children ask me what I think they are and we all look at a reference book. The book tells the progressive story of the caterpillar's growth. We read that the caterpillar's skin does not stretch as it grows like our skin does and that caterpillars split and shed the old tight skin for a new one. We deduce that the deposits must be the old skins. Jenn draws a fat caterpillar that she tells me is struggling out of it's skin while her peer draws what looks like the deposits of shed skin in her container.

    Figure 5 A fat caterpillar struggling out of its skin.

    I notice that Jenn's caterpillar is drawn with lines that are more random and energetic and give a sense of the struggle of the caterpillar. The body of this caterpillar is colored in black, perhaps in recognition that the skin deposits are black. In fact, the body of the caterpillar is dark brown with a faint orange stripe. In this drawing the food is drawn in a less significant manner than the last drawing. This suggests to me that perhaps it is not so much the focus of her attention this time. She continues to use the same elliptical convention for drawing the lid.

    Revisiting the previous drawing mediates between events and ideas for Jenn. Re-examining the previous drawing helps Jenn remember what it was she noticed about the caterpillar previously and connect that event with this new drawing. The drawing records allow a comparison to take place and she notices that the caterpillar has grown. Jenn's new observation is extended to also include ideas about skin and size. Drawing and observation has prompted new questions.

    Jenn's Third Drawing.

    A few days later Jenn's caterpillar crawled up to the lid of her container and spun a web around itself to secure itself while pupating. The chrysalis no longer looked like a caterpillar although what was inside the chrysalis would sometimes wriggle and move. At this stage there was much speculation on the part of the children as to what was happening. Jenn used watercolor crayons to represent the chrysalis attached to the underside of the lid. She was able to take the lid off the container and place it flat on the table beside her while she made her drawing.

    Figure 6 Jenn's chrysalis.

    The transformation of the caterpillar has prompted Jenn to use a new medium, one that allows her to explore color. A close observational drawing has assisted Jenn with the careful identification of many details about the new object. In this context Jenn is moving from the object to the concept through her drawing. As Jenn drew and discussed her drawing with her peers more questions were raised.


    While the chrysalis were transforming we took the children to a butterfly house to see other species and to talk with an entomologist. This gave the children a chance to make some connections between what was happening in their classroom and what was happening in another context. In the butterfly house the children were able to see, and draw, many different kinds of caterpillars, chrysalis, and butterflies. They were able to see differences, but perhaps more importantly they noticed the similarities amongst them. They noticed that while each caterpillar grew and developed in a similar series of stages they could take different amounts of time to complete the growth cycle. While each stage had similar features, each species had its own set of peculiarities. In this setting some of the species had samples of each stage of development. I felt that these comparative complexities again might challenge some of the assumptions Jenn had about caterpillars and butterflies and cause her to re-evaluate some of her thinking.

    The visit to the butterfly house exposed the children to a more general understanding of butterflies. They had an opportunity to experience larger categories of butterflies as well as some of the professions and organizations concerned with butterflies and their habitats. The labels containing butterfly names introduced a whole new vocabulary, the Latin origins, and a scientific language that helped to structure thinking about butterflies on a more global level.

    At this stage Jenn was exposed to a supra empirical concept and had to extend her own concept of the growth and development of her particular butterfly to also include the many different species of butterflies she now encountered.

    Jenn's Fourth and Fifth Pictures

    There was great excitement when our butterflies began to emerge. Jenn and the other children stood transfixed as they watched them struggle out of their chrysalis. We put the butterflies in a glass aquarium and kept them for several days so that the children could continue to watch them. Jenn did two more drawings.

    Figure 7 Jenn's drawing of how butterflies look to us.

    Figure 8 Jenn's drawing of how butterflies look to other butterflies.

    Apart from the almost exaggerated size difference the two drawings were identical, so I was led to believe that she drew the same butterfly from two different points of view, one close up and one farther away. It was only when she asked me to write the captions for her that I fully understood what she was trying to convey. One drawing is from the point of view of the child looking at the butterfly; the other drawing is from the point of view of the butterfly looking at other butterflies. In these drawings Jenn is moving from a concept to the butterflies. She is engaging in higher level thinking that is facilitated by her drawings. I learned the value of entering into a conversation about the concept behind a drawing. I was surprised that she would consider points of view both visually as well as cognitively. I was also surprised that she would use a cultural convention like comparative size to communicate her idea in her drawings. Jenn seemed to be showing her reflexive relationship with her audience as well as an awareness of other in the social context. I was reminded about our tendency to underestimate what children are capable of when it comes to drawing.

    Jenn's Review and Reconstruction of Her Drawings

    When we released the butterflies Jenn seemed to miss watching them. She took her portfolio of drawings and decided to make a small book out of her series of drawings. It seemed to me that, in her own way, she might perhaps be trying to give some permanence to the event. In my classroom we often made books about memorable events and placed them in our class library to be revisited. She laid out her drawings and then sequenced them. Then she made a title page and stapled the pages together and brought the book to me to read. As I finished reading she looked at me in wide-eyed amazement as if discovering something for the very first time, and exclaimed, "Now I know what happens!" Jenn then dashed off to the writing table where she quickly recreated the elements of her book anew and then brought this version for me to read. "This happens over and over again, doesn't it?" she said. Jenn had not only physically ordered and put together her representations of what had occurred but she had also put together all of her prior knowledge and made a huge cognitive leap. She had, in her hand, a new socially, culturally, and historically created artefact that contained, for her, tangible evidence of the transformation of her thinking.

    Figure 9 Drawings from Jenn's original book.

    Figure 10 Drawings from the reconstructed book.

    When Jenn made the observational drawings of the growth and development of a caterpillar, its' chrysalis, and eventually the butterfly there was an assumption on my part throughout this process that Jenn knew what "life cycle" meant. It was a term that was used frequently in class conversation and teaching. However, it was not until Jenn assembled her drawings into a sequence that she was able to fully understand the concept. She understood it well enough to be able to transfer the information into a different context and redraw the sequence from memory. She was able to show me how a caterpillar's life cycle was a recurring event. She was also able to understand that this cycle might sometimes be broken.

    As a teacher I gave Jenn all the labels and words she needed to describe the process of a life cycle. However, her understanding could have remained at the level of recitation without any real understanding. It was through observation, dialogue, drawing, redrawing, and retelling of events that real understanding happened for Jenn. The support lent to Jenn by myself, the teacher, was as a sounding board and as a facilitator with space, time, and materials. My interactions with Jenn were responsive and as well brought the focus of discussion around the drawing process to the intent of the drawing and the meaning Jenn was trying to make of her experiences.

    I have proposed that the simultaneity of drawing closely matches the simultaneity of thought. If we can consider drawing to mediate thought and ideas both within context and across contexts then we have a powerful tool for learning. I have explored the notion that it is in meaning that the answers to our questions about the relationship between drawing and thought can be found. When drawing is recognized as a meaning making process, supporting drawing then becomes central to the teaching and learning of young children.

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    Dr Margaret Brooks,
    Early Childhood Education,
    University of New England,
    New South Wales,

    My personal web site with all the components of my thesis, Drawing to Learn: www.une.edu.au/Drawing/main.html