School Pictures

August 01, 1995 5 min read

“Think about the teachers and the kinds of things you do in your classrooms,’' the students were told. “Draw a picture of one of your teachers working in his or her classroom.’' The carefully worded prompt was designed to elicit the youngsters’ images of school, not of a particular teacher.

The reform project the researchers were examining is called Co-NECT, otherwise known as Cooperative Networked Educational Community for Tomorrow. Developed at Bolt Beranek and Newman Inc., a Boston-based communications-technology firm, the initiative is one of nine currently being funded by the New American Schools Development Corp.

At the schools that had just implemented the Co-NECT model, most students drew their teachers standing at a blackboard in front of the entire class or seated behind a desk. The majority showed the teacher working alone; if students were pres-ent at all in the pictures, they were most often seated in rows. Only a small percentage of the sketches portrayed students working together.

The drawings were somewhat different at schools that had more experience with Co-NECT, which stresses the use of technology and group work. At those schools, students drew themselves at computers or working in groups with other children.

Walt Haney, a senior research associate at Boston College’s Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation, and Educational Policy and director of the Co-NECT assessment project, says the drawings captivated the teachers at the schools, even more than measures of their academic performance. “What was so striking,’' he says, “was how engaging these drawings were for the teachers.’'

Children’s drawings have a rich history in educational and psychological research. But they have typically been used for one of three purposes: to study the development of drawing skills, to test intelligence in a nonverbal manner, or to make psychological inferences.

Rarely have researchers used drawings to provide a window into what students think about their own schooling. In fact, Haney claims that nobody has done anything quite like the Co-NECT evaluation, which used children’s drawings to illuminate, as he puts it, “the educational ecology of a school.’'

Haney’s own experience with drawings dates back to the Vietnam War. As a volunteer teacher in Southeast Asia, he interviewed hundreds of Laotians to reconstruct the bombing of Northern Laos. A friend suggested that he ask people to draw what had happened. The resulting pictures proved so powerful they were later published in a book titled Voices From the Plain of Jars.

Haney returned to the United States and eventually became a college professor and researcher. He didn’t do anything more with drawings until five years ago, when he began asking his doctoral students to draw pictures of schools as part of a course on qualitative research methods. “I found it to be a very useful exercise in getting people to realize some of their deep-seated assumptions about what schools are,’' he explains. The graduate students often drew pictures of a bell tower, a clock, or an American flag; some sketched a building surrounded by a fence.

So when educators involved with the Co-NECT project asked the research team to measure students’ attitudes about education as part of the assessment program, Haney knew just what to do.

After the students completed the drawings, the researchers typically presented them to teachers in small discussion groups of four to five people. They asked the teachers to flip through the pictures and look for patterns, speculate about their causes, and think about what they might do differently.

The researchers also devised a checklist to keep track of the various features in each drawing. For example, were the teachers depicted alone or with students, were they addressing the class or assigning homework, were they teaching a particular subject?

Although some teachers are skeptical about the drawings and what they offer, others admit that they were doing more lecturing than they had realized. “The group I was with did a lot of laughing,’' says the principal of one of the schools. “The kids did some comical things with the drawings.’' But ultimately, he adds, the pictures show that “we do have to change our ways of delivering instruction.’'

Although most of the teachers in this principal’s middle school had received six to 10 days of training in cooperative learning techniques and indicated that their students often worked in groups, the drawings told a different story. Some 73 percent did not even include students.

Others involved in the project suggest that the drawings don’t reflect reality as much as they tap into students’ strongly held conceptions about education. “Most kids have come out of such a traditional projection of the classroom as a really passive place,’' another principal says. “I’m interested in seeing if that changes over time.’'

Haney acknowledges that the drawings may, in part, reflect students’ stereotypes about education. But, he adds, “We’re finding some differences between schools that really do reflect what we know about the schools. So it’s clearly representing something that’s real, not just kids’ stereotypes.’'

At one school that emphasizes math and science instruction, for example, those two subjects were most commonly illustrated in the drawings. At another where students test well on basic skills, the preponderance of drawings showed teachers lecturing. At schools that have stressed the use of technology in education, a prominent feature of the Co-NECT design, more pictures depicted teachers and students working at computers. Says Haney: “I remember one very vividly that shows the kid working at a computer and the teacher looking over the kid’s shoulder saying, ‘Great work.’ ''

Haney suggests that the drawings, in combination with other data, can provide schools with a powerful tool for evaluating themselves. Still, he cautions against using the pictures for any outside evaluation of a school. “Clearly, these sorts of drawings could easily be manipulated by teachers with just some indirect hints of what kids might want to depict,’' he warns. “I think they would really lose their value if you tried to use them externally to evaluate a school.’'

“What we’re trying to do,’' he adds, “is create some models of broad-ranging assessments that schools, with a little experience, could really do for themselves. That’s the nice thing about the drawings. It’s really so simple. It’s kind of an unobtrusive way of really getting at the organization of the classroom from the perspective of students.’'

--Lynn Olson

A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1995 edition of Teacher as School Pictures