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Enhancing talk with visual representations to understand children’s ideas about celestial phenomena

Simon Taylor and Barbara Whyte

This article provides a snapshot of assessment for learning in action. It introduces the drawings made by children who had been studying “Planet Earth and Beyond”—Matariki as a context in science in a New Zealand primary school. The visual data are drawn from the Te Ao Hurihuri project (The Changing World) in which students were offered structured opportunities to represent their thinking with visual constructions. The wide range of constructions created by the students, as well as their associated talk, provided teachers with an effective way of checking on developing conceptual knowledge and understanding. Students became partners with their teachers, sharing power and responsibility for their learning and assessment. Such a partnership has the potential to assist teachers to navigate possible learning trajectories and next steps for the students.

Enhancing talk with visual representations to understand children’s ideas about celestial phenomena

Simon Taylor and Barbara Whyte


This article provides a snapshot of assessment for learning in action. It introduces the drawings made by children who had been studying “Planet Earth and Beyond”—Matariki as a context in science in a New Zealand primary school. The visual data are drawn from the Te Ao Hurihuri project (The Changing World) in which students were offered structured opportunities to represent their thinking with visual constructions. The wide range of constructions created by the students, as well as their associated talk, provided teachers with an effective way of checking on developing conceptual knowledge and understanding. Students became partners with their teachers, sharing power and responsibility for their learning and assessment. Such a partnership has the potential to assist teachers to navigate possible learning trajectories and next steps for the students.


Drawing and assembling visual images can provide young people with their first means of making a tangible and communicable record of their ideas. Through drawing, children are not only able to see what they are thinking, they are also able to interact with, and transform, their ideas. This means that drawing can also be a problem-solving endeavour (Brooks, 2009). When children draw celestial phenomena they can enact the process of reasoning and associated talk (Plummer et al., 2014; Tytler et al., 2020). That is, they can engage in science communication where this comprises complex knowledge of vocabulary, numeric and symbol systems, and conventions. Such communication is part of the Nature of Science strand in The New Zealand Curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2007) (NZC). Drawing is one means that teachers can use to help students understand science ideas, how ideas can be communicated, and how scientific knowledge can inform everyday decisions and actions.

Psychologists have long used drawings by children to gain insight into their thinking (DiLeo, 1983; Ganesh, 2011). However, the use of student drawings is not the norm as part of assessment for learning (Farmer et al., 2018). In this article, we argue that drawing and talking, activities that may not be accessible in formal tests or stand-alone interviews, can add a “richness of information” (Armstrong, 2004, p. 4) to our understanding of children’s thinking. Drawings and visual constructions allow students to communicate their thoughts through marking, colour, shape, and line (Anning & Ring, 2004; Lodge, 2007), which may be more developmentally appropriate than traditional assessment methods (Chang et al., 2020).

In our experience, schools in Aotearoa New Zealand currently underuse drawing as a means to assess children’s understanding of science concepts. Consequently, teachers may miss out on crucial data coming directly from young people. This article uses two children’s drawings as snapshots that illustrate developing understandings of relationships between the sun and Earth. It demonstrates how children’s drawings can play a role in assisting teachers to interpret their children’s thinking. When the children are encouraged to adapt, revise, and dialogue through and with their drawing they are able to represent and explore increasingly complex thinking.

Explicating the value and potential of visual representations

Drawing as children learn requires abstract and metaphorical thinking about the content. This then helps them understand and retain their thinking in more sophisticated ways (Brooks, 2009). Students who draw as they learn consider the following: How should I represent the relationship between these parts; how large/small should I draw these parts; what shape should they be; where do I place each part? Importantly, as students make decisions as they translate content into visuals, teachers can uncover their preconceptions, their misconceptions, the depth of their understanding, and what excites them about the content (Miller, 2021).

When we see children’s thinking, we discover the subtleties in what they do and do not yet understand, so we can better prepare to solidify their understanding and build on it in our next lesson (Cowie, 2005, 2013). Formative assessment is based on the understanding that assessment can inform and not just sum up learning. Sadler (2010) proposes that feedback is central to formative assessment. He describes desirable feedback by its functions: to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the current performance of a learner, and to provide advice on how to improve the work. Within assessment for learning “the learner is a partner in learning, not a passive recipient . . . they have a stake in and a responsibility for their own learning” (Clarke, 2004, p. 5). In this study, we used drawing and visual construction to help children make their ideas visible in a way that opened up opportunities for feedback.

Research design

The drawing and construction activities outlined in this article were part of a 2-year project called Te Ao Hurihuri (The Changing World). The snapshots are drawn from the second stage of the project that followed on from an exploration of how the teachers conceptualised learning through their own drawings. The research was undertaken in a primary school in the Bay of Plenty region of Aotearoa New Zealand. We worked with four Years 1–4 classes (5–8-year-olds) across two cohorts to encourage student and teacher voice about learning.

Classes were chosen because their teachers had developed a teaching unit titled Matariki, as part of a programme of tātai arorangi (astronomy). The unit programme covered ideas from the “Planet Earth and Beyond” strand of NZC, which describes the interconnecting systems and processes of Earth, the moon, and the other parts of the solar system. It integrated mātauranga Māori knowledge system understandings of celestial phenomena and aimed for students to develop their understanding of the significance of Matariki to the Māori New Year, as well as cultural explanations of the seasons and navigation by the stars.

As part of the unit, the younger students (aged 5–6 years) were learning to share ideas and make observations about day/night, the sun, moon, and their physical effects on the heat and light available to Earth. The older children (aged 7–8 years) were building their understanding of: the seasons through the maramataka (Māori lunar calendar); appreciation of the distances between the sun and Earth; the planets of the solar system; and with cultural emphasis to the constellation Matariki.

We visited the classes in April–June 2022, and on each occasion we took photographs and video recordings of the discussions between students and their teachers. The involvement of the children began in August–September 2021 when we provided disposable cameras for them and the teachers to use to take photographs related to their learning. The photographs were used to investigate how the students collaborated in the physical spaces of the learning environments, and, importantly, how they used visual materials to augment talk. We identified that the teachers made substantial use of pictures and images accessed from books, newspapers, and the internet. They used images to stimulate student curiosity, marshall student interest, co-ordinate talk, and inform talk. When we returned in 2022, we wanted to find out how students used their own drawings and visual constructions to support their learning. We asked the children to draw their understanding of, for example, “Why do we have night and day or why do we have seasons?” Most children did not appear to find any difficulty in assembling the visual media and making individual choices about their constructions of these ideas. We collected 36 drawings and collage constructions and 15 video recorded interviews about student drawings. In this article, we also draw on our field notes from earlier visits to the school.

We appreciated that, when students speak, they do not always make what they know explicit. They can struggle to talk about their ideas, and also about how their drawings illustrate their ideas (Brooks, 2009). To help students with this, we used carefully worded questions to guide their dialogue. The project extended the metaphor of visual language (Wagner, 1979) to a metaphor of visual discourse, where students were provided with opportunities to view and voice their visual representations. Discourse, as used in this research, refers to a series of interpretations, metaphors, representations, images, and stories that in some way establish a collaborative, interpretative version of events (Burr, 1995). Through such discourse, we were able to interrogate the drawings and accompanying dialogue (Gee, 2011) used by children when undertaking different roles and activities in learning environments. Our data analysis employed grounded and mixed-methods techniques (Cohen et al., 2018).

Snapshots of student understanding of celestial phenomena: Visual representations enhanced by talk

We were interested in the way in which the students choose to represent and express their understanding of celestial phenomena through their visual representations. The explanations that accompanied students’ visual depictions during their “Planet Earth and Beyond”—Matariki study served to highlight their conceptual interpretations and misinterpretations of the science understandings of moon phases, day and night cycles, seasons, the spherical Earth, and orbital paths. The choices made by the students about what images and symbols to include or omit in their drawings, clarified by their talk, indicated the way in which they were developing solutions and resolving problems of representation. Matrices of celestial understandings (Trundle & Hobson, 2011; Young & Guy, 2008) provided a useful guide for the teachers, and for us as researchers, to interpret the varying levels of student comprehension. Categories that ranged from ambiguous, incomplete, partial, to developed understanding of the celestial concepts were created and applied to each of the 36 visual representations produced during the study.

Ambiguous Understanding: Incorrect, or confused ideas.

Incomplete Understanding: Some parts are accurately described but other parts are inaccurate or incorrect.

Partial Understanding: Generally, ideas are described correctly. Begins to compare celestial objects and talk about spatial position and orbits.

Developed Understanding: Well-developed and clear descriptions with robust reasoning. Includes all parts and details.

These categories assisted us in recognising conceptual progression in terms of position, size, and movement of spatial objects through interpretation of the student explanations.

We now introduce two examples of student visual representations created and described during a series of lessons involving Years 1–2 and Years 3–4 students where the teachers used drawing and collage activities to help develop student understandings of day and night, planets, seasons, and the moon phases. Each snapshot includes a photograph of the student’s image, a summary of the student’s dialogue explaining the image, and researcher commentary on the student’s science understanding, and it identifies which of the categories indicated above that the understanding falls into.

Figure 1. Sarah’s drawings of day/night (Ambiguous Understanding)

Figure 2. Michael’s drawing of seasons and why it is warmer in the summertime (Incomplete Understanding)

Sarah (age 5 years, Year 1) drew trees, stars, clouds, a garage, the sun, and the moon as objects in her pictures (Figure 1). She described the reason why we have day and night as being due to where the sun rises in the morning and how it moves through the sky in the daytime. Stars and the moon appear in the darkness of the night when the sun goes out. She explained that the ground where the house and trees are drawn is where she lives. She said the sun and moon are moving objects in the sky but the stars are stationary objects. We consider this drawing and explanation to be in the category of Ambiguous Understanding because there are confused concepts, but nevertheless she describes her observations clearly and uses correct names. For Sarah, drawing as a reasoning process involved linking her emerging science ideas with her daily activities.

Michael (age 8 years, Year 4) drew the top part of Figure 2 and explained that in summertime the side of Earth facing the sun gets hotter than the side facing the opposite way. He has used lines that he describes as “rays” from the sun. He explained, “They carry warmth to that side”. In his second picture below the top drawing, he has redrawn the sun/Earth system. He described how Earth moves around the sun in an orbit, the top of the orbit is hotter and as Earth moves to the bottom of the orbit Earth gets colder. We consider his explanation of the seasons as Incomplete Understanding because he has a mix of correct/incorrect concepts. For example, he has drawn a series of lines to denote radiant light from the sun but there is no mention of the tilt of Earth and no associated angle of light. He is beginning to use appropriate scientific terms such as rays, and there is evidence of a developing understanding of the Earth/sun position in terms of orbit, and centrality of the sun.

Teacher perspectives

The teachers in our study considered that drawing their ideas helped their students to focus their attention, encouraged and supported talk specific to celestial phenomena, and allowed for the formation and revision of ideas. Student production of visual representations illustrated that drawing can anchor and augment talk in support of the development of a shared student–teacher understanding of the conceptions student have of ideas embedded in a particular learning context. Our teachers commented that the drawing methods they observed often provided students with rich opportunities to express their ideas verbally. They noticed that, for students who struggled verbalising their ideas, the drawing process allowed time for them to pause and think over explanations. They came to the view that the drawing process was an important tool in forming ideas because it allowed students to construct and revise their thinking, as illustrated by students who erased their initial drawings and began again. In this way, our findings echo those of Tytler et al. (2020) who found that children can use drawing as a meaning-making tool that allows ideas to be recontextualised, revisited, and reasoned with. Importantly, our teachers reported that the student drawing produced an external representation of students’ thoughts and ideas, meaning it was possible for teachers to interact with students about their ideas. The process of drawing supported teacher assessment of a student’s understanding of concepts and consideration of where to next (Brooks, 2009).

In developing the study, we were conscious that any shifts in student interpretations of celestial understanding may not be linear across time and that individual conceptual development related to a particular idea can be haphazard and context specific, and this proved to be the case. For the teachers in our study, the opportunity for students to draw and construct was an effective tool for examining student learning throughout the course of the unit. It specifically created an opportunity to identify student misconceptions and conceptions and conduct ongoing formative assessment of the teaching and learning. Compared with other methods of generating assessment data, teachers found drawing could be easily facilitated. Using a whiteboard, or a sheet of white paper, or coloured cardboard, and pens, children could complete their visual constructions in class time. Moreover, this approach did not require the teachers to compose a formal test or survey.

Others have found that visual processes are associated with developing student voice for personal accountability (Brooks, 2009; Cook-Sather, 2014) which can enable learners to share responsibility for their own and others’ individual learning and provide possibilities for engagement in meaningful contexts. The teachers in our study also reported that students drawing, revising, and discussing their ideas helped develop student confidence in speaking in small groups and in discussion as a whole class. Both the examples discussed above provided a forum for student–student as well as teacher–student dialogue.

Concluding thoughts

As indicated earlier, students in school science need to learn how to “interpret, make, coordinate and integrate meanings” (Prain & Tytler, 2022, p. 806) using multimodal visual representations. In our Aotearoa New Zealand setting, this aligns with offering students opportunities for developing the communication aspect of the Nature of Science (Ministry of Education, 2007). Offering students multimodal opportunities to represent and develop their ideas is also recommended as an assessment strategy that contributes to the quality of the evidence teachers have to use to inform their interactions with students (Cowie et al., 2013). It is recommended as a way of increasing access and equity in the assessment process (Hipkins & Cameron, 2018), which proved to be the case in our study. Our study has highlighted that asking children to draw or visually represent their ideas and encouraging them to talk about their visual representation is a productive way of eliciting ideas and promoting dialogue; in this instance, with a focus on learning of celestial space objects.


We would like to acknowledge the support of the school’s leadership for their ongoing interest and input into the project. We would like to thank the teachers and students who have contributed to the rich discourse.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.

Ethics approval

Division of Education Research Ethics Committee Application Approved FEDU033/21.


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The authors

Simon Taylor, Division of Education, University of Waikato, New Zealand.


Barbara Whyte, Division of Education, University of Waikato, New Zealand.