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  • Writer's pictureJulia Reeve

Drawing deeper into research

Updated: Sep 23, 2020

This post reflects on my experiments with drawing as part of the research process.

Drawing deeper into research - sketches of nature
Recently I was lucky enough to have a two week DMU Centre for Academic Innovation Sabbatical Fellowship where I focused on the synergies between playful learning and positive mental health. During this project I drew upon (pun intended) my playful, visual pedagogic approach, using activities including drawing in various forms to deepen, clarify and inspire my thinking. This work will feed into an upcoming article for a Special Issue of the Journal of Play in Adulthood: 'The Playful Academic'.


Csikszentmihalyi's concept of Flow: the sense of being fully immersed in an activity, where 'time flies' and you experience neither boredom through too little stimulation or anxiety through too much pressure, was a central theme in my research. Some of you may experience a Flow state through playing a musical instrument or taking part in sport: think of a time when nothing else was in your head apart from the task at hand. A major part of being a Lego Serious Play facilitator is keeping participants 'In Flow': activities are carefully timed so that everyone stays 'on task' and participants often comment that they can't believe how quickly time has indeed 'flown' by.

Sunflower photograph

I decided to use drawing as a way of getting into flow as part of my research process: as mentioned in a previous post, this was a favourite childhood activity, and indeed a central part of my design job before I moved into education. I hoped that this activity would enable me to 'switch off' my analytical brain, and allow some time for new creative insights to bubble up from my subconscious. My reading had led me to lots of plant-based analogies to do with flourishing and nurturing, so I decided that drawing from nature was a good plan. I wanted to draw something complex that would need lots of concentration, so chose a sunflower, first sketching in pencil, then adding black pen.

I'd love to tell you that I instantly fell into a state of Flow, but it took a little time: when taking part in a creative activity it can be difficult to switch off the critical voice, and often we 'judge' or efforts as not being 'good' enough. Resisting the urge to screw up my paper and start again, I stuck with the drawing, and spent a couple of hours painstakingly trying to capture every curve of a petal and twist of a leaf in all their gorgeous glory.

Sunflower black and white drawing

During the drawing process I dipped in and out of the Flow state: at times the mental chatter took over, but I certainly experienced periods of full immersion in the activity. I also noticed that drawing from nature was a very mindful activity: I was able to 'be present' in the current moment, and get a little distance between myself and my circling thoughts. There was also a strong element of embodied cognition here: my senses were heightened, and I was aware of the scratching sound of pen on paper, the smooth feel of the paper under my fingers, and even the (not too pleasant) smell of the sunflower in front of me.

After spending time focusing solely on observational drawing I felt calmer in both body and mind: my swirling thoughts about the research at hand were a little quieter, and I felt that I had given my brain a much-needed 'mini-break' from analytical thinking.

Mind Mapping

Some of you may be familiar with a form of mind mapping called Reframing that I have used a great deal in various learning and research contexts. This time I wanted to use a looser, hand-drawn mind mapping technique to pin down the diverse themes and ideas sparked by from my reading and practice. Although I would describe myself as a highly visual learner, drawing mind maps is not something that I often do, often preferring to use post-its to organise my thinking instead. I decided to try mind mapping my thoughts using pencil in a sketchbook, to see if the kinaesthetic activity of drawing out shapes and connections helped me to move forward with my research.

Mind map from sketchbook

Starting in the centre, with my central topics of playful learning and positive mental health, it was initially an enjoyable process to map out the key themes arising from my reading so far. Unexpectedly, I drew a heart as my central shape: on reflection I thought that this visually communicated the fundamental importance of compassionate pedagogy and the affective domain in my work. Soon my page became very full, and I struggled to fit everything in as more and more connections and relationships became apparent: I began to wonder whether a more structured form of mind mapping such as Reframing might have been more useful.

I decided to put the mind map to one side and come back to it later (visual techniques like this can be such a useful vehicle for reflection). On re-visiting the densely-populated sheet of inter-connected shapes, following another read through of my research notes, I highlighted the words that resonated the most strongly with me.

This was more helpful: the key themes were starting to shine out from the chaos, and there was even an over-arching analogy coming through (the clue is in the drawing of a leaf next to 'Growth').

Models of Learning

When thinking about pedagogic theory, I'm always drawn to those that have a clear visual message: from Kolb to Bloom, the image stays in my mind much longer than the words. So in developing a pedagogic model of my own for my article, I was attracted to not only the content, but the format of particular examples.

Creative learning spiral - Mitchel Resnick

Mitchel Resnick's use of The Creative Learning Spiral to convey the creative process in Lifelong Kindergarten was an inspiring case in point. The playful feel and naive, hand-drawn quality of the model attracted me just as much as the content, which again maps closely to the Lego Serious Play method.

My own sketchbook pages, containing source material for both content and visuals combined with doodles from nature, have helped me to draft an initial learning model blending playful, mindful and compassionate pedagogies. This isn't something I was actively seeking to develop at the start of this journey: one of the many benefits of using a creative method such as drawing as an antidote to more traditional research activity, is that unexpected things can happen!

Sketchbook page - collage and drawings

Drawing has definitely played a useful part in my research process so far, and I'll continue to experiment with different ways to incorporate it into my work. If you would like to try some creative experiments of your own, whether for reflection, creative thinking, or simply as mindful exercises, there are some lovely ideas in Advance HE's Reflection for learning: a scholarly practice guide for educators: see the 'Drawing with two hands' activity on page 64.

It's a reluctant return to the world of text for me now, as I try to find the words to complement and explain my visual ideas...I'll be back soon, just as soon as I've met that article deadline...


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