The study already has yielded more than 7,000 drawings that have offered a compelling view of youngsters' attitudes toward teachers, tests and learning, according to project director Prof. Walter Haney (SOE) of the Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation and Educational Policy.
Haney said the Spencer grant is one of the largest individual grants to have been given by the private foundation in Chicago. The award was welcomed by Haney as a vote of confidence in a research approach - the study of children's drawings - that some have regarded as unorthodox.
"Some of our faculty colleagues have raised their eyebrows at this sort of inquiry," said Haney, who began the study four years ago. "Frankly, getting a half-million-dollar grant from a major foundation has inspired people to think a little differently."
The drawings, generated from about 50 schools across the country, have been studied by Haney and his principal team members, Asst. Prof. Lisa Jackson (SOE) and CSTEEP Research Associate Michael Russell.
Children have been asked to do drawings of themselves or their teachers in various classroom activities, such as reading or doing math problems. Researchers say the resulting pictures have offered unique insights into the way pupils view the learning process.
Prof. Walter Haney.
"One of the most wonderful things is that they really make visible kids' perspectives as to what's going on in classrooms," said Haney. "We have an awful lot of outsiders saying how schools should be reformed. It's remarkably rare for kids to be actively engaged in judging the progress of school reform."
Russell said one of the more memorable drawings he has seen was done by a pupil at a school that had been reformed so that youngsters directed their own learning. "The teacher was drawn with her head spinning as she answered questions and did 15 things at once," he said.
The project has already resulted in two completed doctoral dissertations in SOE, with at least three more underway.
The researchers are trying to determine whether the drawings represent actual snapshots of classroom experience or more fanciful images of specific memories or stereotypes.
"A common finding that has surprised a lot of people is the large proportion of drawings that show teachers alone at the blackboard in front of class saying, 'Blah, blah, blah,'" said Haney. "One of the questions we want to get at is the extent to which these drawings reflect typical practice."
Word of the project is spreading among the nation's schools, Haney added. "We've had principals call us up to ask if they can try this. People are systematically taking it up and reporting back their findings. And educators are adapting the approach to ask different questions.
"It's a very low-tech way to get at the heart of kids' opinions on what is going on in their classrooms."
(Haney tries his theory out on himself)
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