by Pam Arlund
I was always the kid who avoided art class at any cost. Who would have guessed that now I would be known as the “Picture Drawing Lady?”
I was always the kid who avoided art class at any cost. My aversion was so great that I was the one who would ask if calculus (something I was also terrible at!) was an acceptable way to avoid art class! I even tried to reason my way out of drawing pictures of the Bible: “Surely other adults would find it too childlike to draw pictures. People already think stories are just for the kids. People will really think that if I have them draw pictures.”
Who would have guessed that now I would be known as the “Picture Drawing Lady?” Even more, I’ve grown to enjoy the process of drawing pictures while studying scripture, but it was something I settled into only begrudgingly, and only because I saw that it worked, first for others and then for myself!
Now I’m embarrassed to say that I am a linguist, and mostly a cognitive linguist at that. This means that I know all the research behind why drawing pictures works, and why we should all be doing it. But I shied away from it. And, I still have not done any highly scientific experiments utilizing control groups proving the merits of pictures. However, I can say through personal experiment and experience that drawing pictures has enlivened and invigorated Oral Bible Storying in the circles I have tried it in.
People from many countries and all levels of education (I’ve experimented from kindergarten to post-docs) all seem to like to draw pictures. And almost all felt that when they drew their own pictures, they learned scripture better, remembered scripture better, and enjoyed sharing scripture better (which means more Jesus stories got passed on).
How it Works (The Practicals)
There are probably a thousand good ways to use pictures in Oral Bible Storying. In fact, I’m sure my own methodology that I have developed has stolen good ideas from many other people in the field. However, there are some main principles to keep in mind when working in groups that are creating an oral Bible.
The same principles that apply to all Oral Bible Storying still apply here too: Stick to stories (as opposed to letters or something similar), be accurate, keep the stories short (usually ten verses or less, check the Gospel of Mark first since his tellings are almost always shortest), divide long stories into lots of little stories (like Moses or Joseph), and help people organize the stories into categories (we organize around the seven general commands of Christ: repent, baptize, break bread, love, pray in the name of Jesus, give, go and make disciples).
We also need to make sure that we do not introduce any outside materials that are not locally reproducible. The pastors, missionaries, and church members often keep a notebook of stories that they are drawing and working on. All notebooks should be purchased locally and usually should be cheap. It is counterproductive to bring notebooks from the outside that are nice but not accessible to the locals.
It is also important to draw the pictures ourselves on local paper. Outside professional pictures (even if printed in country) are usually too complicated and are not reproducible. Occasionally, even local paper is considered too expensive and remote. In this case, we just use dirt, sand, or plastic bags or paper we scrounge from the trash (there’s a new church activity for you!).
Also, if there is someone in your church or on your team who is good at drawing, he or she should not be allowed to create the drawings that will be used up front. If the upfront drawings are good, then most of the crowd feels that they can’t draw their own pictures. Keep the upfront pictures to stick figures or the like.
If the locals are poor, then keep the drawings to one color. Color does help people to learn more (Jonides 1995), but it is not reproducible where people are poor. Stick to one color in poorer areas, but use color in areas where people are wealthier and can afford to buy their own colored writing utensils.
It is best to have one piece of paper available for each church member. If foreigners are coming in for the first time, then they should buy some locally available cheap paper. If a church has formed, then this should be part of what their giving pays for. This way, each person can leave the church meeting with their own flashcards and can use the flashcards as a memory jogger when telling the story to others.
Using flashcards as a recall to memory has proven to be far more effective than recalling information without flashcards (Houts 2006). Over time, people often develop a habit of bringing their storytelling notebook to the church meeting.
Utilizing Pictures in a Gathering
Below are nine ways to utilize pictures in a gathering. These should be done in sequential order.
- Tell the story two times using (usually four) large pictures.
- Act out the story using audience participants. Hold the large pictures up.
- Hold up the first picture and ask the crowd, “What happened here?” Ask a number of questions based on just facts. Do not try to interpret the story yet. Repeat these kinds of questions with each of your four pictures. Stick to questions like “Who is this?” “What is that?” “What did he say?” “What happened next?” etc. Continue this through all four pictures.
- Pass out the four pictures to four different people in the meeting. Ask each person to explain what is happening in his or her picture. If he or she can’t explain about the picture, then get the crowd to help. If the person requires help from someone else, give him or her help, but make sure that the first individual says the words out of his or her own mouth. He or she doesn’t get to pass completely.
- Each person holding a picture gets to pass the picture on to someone else. The new person holding the picture says what is happening in his or her picture. Use the same rules as above. If he or she needs help, he or she can get it.
- Gather up the large pictures and ask if anyone would like to use the pictures to tell the whole story. Correct any errors that pop up in the telling.
- Ask Discovery Bible Study Questions: What did you learn about God/Jesus? What did you learn about humans/yourselves? How do you think you ought to respond to this? How will your life be different as a result of what you have learned here today?
- Have each participant draw his or her own pictures of the story. This usually means using one piece of paper and folding it into four quadrants and drawing four pictures. (We often have snack time at this same time. People draw and munch on cookies at the same time.) If time is tight, have people get into pairs and tell their story using their cards.
- If time allows, and the group is small, wait while each member of the group tells the story using his or her cards. Make sure each group member gets to tell the whole story at least one time (preferably twice!) before he or she leaves the meeting that day.
Guidelines to Follow when Creating Pictures
- Make sure the pictures are big enough for your group to see.
- Use locally reproducible items like paper and drawing utensils.
- Draw no more than four pictures.
- Make sure your pictures can represent every word in your story as much as possible.
- Label the pictures in order as 1, 2, 3, 4 because you are about to mix them up.
- Be sure to list the Bible reference on the first picture.
- Keeping the pictures simple is far more important than them being beautiful. In fact, if they are too nice, then the locals might not want to draw their own pictures later!
Why It Works (The Research)
Recent research in how people learn has concluded that we have three main systems (usually called buffers) that work in our short-term memory: phonology (information heard), visual-spatial (information seen), and episodic (the coordinator of the other two) (Baddeley 1974).
In fact, MRI research shows that different parts of the brain get ‘fired up’ when it is carrying out the different functions (Jonides 1995). So, just telling the story only activates one part of the brain (the left hemisphere). However, by adding an opportunity to see information through drawing pictures, using hand motions, or acting out stories, the rest of the brain (the right hemisphere) also gets in on the action as the visual-spatial buffer is activated. The more of the brain involved, the more the active working memory should be able to take in.
Once the working memory has been fully activated in the processing, information needs to be sent to the long-term memory. This moving process is accomplished through elaboration and distributed practice (Huitt 2003). Elaboration is the process of connecting new ideas to old ones. It is also the process of creating more detail to ideas—a process that picture drawing is very good at providing.
Drawing pictures requires people to imagine the details and to figure out how to draw the details. Distributed practice means to put things into smaller chunks and time periods and to return to them again and again over time. The process of putting the story into four pictures automatically begins to activate distributing the story and also might help the episodic buffer mentioned above.
Finally, the long-term memory organizes information in three ways: declarative (information we can talk about), procedural (how to do something), and imagery (pictures) (Huitt 2003). Drawing pictures means people are able to cross-reference the Bible stories in two different categories of long-term memory, increasing their likelihood of being ‘sticky’ and also the likelihood of being activated through different stimuli (Adams 2011).
It seems that pictures in learning might be even more relevant for adult learners than for kids. Adults need to have a stronger sense of community, have more fun, and be able to relate what they are learning to their ‘real’ lives much more quickly than kids (O’Connell 2005).
In several studies, adults who drew pictures did better on tests than adults who didn’t (Alesandrini 1984). Using flashcards (cued recall) to recall complicated medical information increased adult recall abilities by 70% when compared with just spoken instructions (Houts 2006).
Learning the Bible is hard; however, it’s worth the effort. I believe God has given us an amazing brain and an amazing ability to internalize the written word of God. Throughout much of human history, the favored means of passing on culture, ideas, and information has been to find a living, breathing individual, not a book (Carruthers 2008). Even in the information age, this has often been the case. People who learn still often go to classrooms (either virtual or actual), seek out teachers, and phone a friend when they want to know something.
After all, Jesus’ covenant is designed to be written on hearts (Jer. 31:33; Rom. 2:15). Utilizing pictures in learning scripture is just one more tool to cooperate with our God-breathed design to help us to get this amazing word of God written on our hearts.
Adams, Heather. 2011. “Information Processing Theory.” PSYSC613.
Alesandrini, K. L. 1984. “Pictures and Adult Learning.” Instructional Science 13(1): 63-77.
Baddeley, Alan D., and Graham Hitch. 1974. “Working Memory.” In The Psychology of Learning and Motivation. Ed. Gordon H. Bower, 47-89. New York: Academic Press.
Carruthers, Mary. 2008. “Mechanism for the Transmission of Culture.” Translatio, the Transmission of Culture in the Middle Ages, 1-26.
Houts, Peter S., Cecilia C. Doak, Leonard G. Doak, and Matthew J. Loscalzo. 2006. “The Role of Pictures in Improving Health Communication: A Review of Research on Attention, Comprehension, Recall, and Adherence.” Patient Education and Counseling 61(2): 173-190.
Huitt, W. 2003. “Educational Psychology Interactive: The Information Processing Approach.” Educational Psychology Interactive: The Information Processing Approach.
Jonides, John, and Daniel N. Osherson. 1995. “Working Memory and Thinking.” In Thinking: An Invitation to Cognitive Science. Ed. Edward E. Smith, 215-266. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
O’Connell, Kathleen. 2005. “Motivating Adult Learners – Motivational Strategies.”
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Dr. Pam Arlund is the director of training for All Nations Family. She trains and coaches believers to ignite church-planting movements. Previously, she lived among an unengaged people group and helped to bring the first people to Christ.
EMQ, Vol. 52, No. 4. Copyright © 2016 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism. All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.