Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Observation - a missing skill?

A book by educator/ botanist Bill Clarkson that every teacher who wants to help students learn to observe closely and then to ask insightful questions needs to have. Contact me for a copy NZ$15

Walking into any classroom these days it is easy to get distracted by the latest piece digital technology - these days more often than not an electronic whiteboard.

Those who really value students deeper understanding need to really look around the room to see 'evidence' of students focused observation, their in depth thinking about whatever they are studying, their 'voice' in their personal writing, and the creativity of their artistic expressions.

All too often visitors will be disappointed.

Helping students develop their observational skill is a simple way to remedy the situation. Bill Clarkson's book 'Observation at the Outset' offers insightful and practical ways to make use of observation in the classroom

Drawing, Bill writes, is an ideal way to introduce a study to the class. His book provides a number of ways to make use of drawing to develop student's thinking.

Observation he notes is a facility scientists have developed as they exhibit their need to know about their world. From their observations arise questions, preliminary ideas and theories. Young children have the same innate capacity to explore their world and need similar opportunities to explore their world, to ask their own questions and have their views taken seriously.

This curiosity, or need to make meaning, is the basis of a constructivist approach to learning where children 'prior views' are challenged and new understandings developed.

Students need to be taught to observe carefully, to notice things and to ask good questions. Children's questions, Bill states, provide the most valid openings to a child centred path of learning.

The act of drawing is an ideal way to begin the learning process. Drawing, another educator writes, is a way of asking questions and drawing answers. As well drawing is the ultimate reflective act because as the 'artist' draws his, or her, mind is free to wonder about what it is is being observed. In an age of attention deficit behaviour this is a valuable activity.

The act of drawing, whatever is chosen, helps develop a 'mental set' to get things started. Bill Clarkson suggests drawings fall into four categories to sustain inquiry:

Direct drawings from living things.
Direct drawings of inanimate abjects such as museum artifacts and man made objects.
Indirect observation through drawing photographs or other illustrations.
Drawing from memory.

I might add one other, extending observed information into the imagination.

Bill makes it clear that drawing requires close and sustained observation; that the process of drawing develops a sense of ownership and heightened personal interest, curiosity and desire know more about the object; that there is intrinsic satisfaction to be gained through the act of drawing; and, finally, when children draw from memory( before or after the study) their drawings will reveal a lot about what they understand to be true.

Memory drawing at the beginning of a study indicates what students already know about the study . Observational drawing from real life, or a photograph, fosters curiosity and leads to the development of possible study questions to select from ( Bill suggests selecting two or three to focus research). Some drawings provide valuable data such as the growth stages in bean seed germination. For activities such as studying an old house drawings are a way of gathering information that can be used as the basis for further research at school, or to extend into imaginative art or language. Imaginative work, writes Bill, 'rings true' when it extends, transcends, enriches, or personalizes perceived realities. Drawing is also a means to facilitate and strengthen factual or descriptive writing and, while drawing, students can be encouraged to make inferences about things they notice.

It seems there is more to drawing than what meets the eye.

The teachers role in the process of students drawing is vital.Students need to be encouraged to take their time ( to 'slow the pace' of their work) to allow details to be noticed. At first students may rush their work but as they gain experience they learn that time is required for quality results. It is important for teachers to appreciate that every student has their own way of drawing and that this individuality needs to be valued.

In classrooms where observational drawings are valued the results will be clear to see. Little equipment is required ( pencils, black biros, coloured pencils and perhaps watercolour paints).

In such rooms digital technology an be easily integrated with observational experiences to research questions ( those that are unavailable to be researched through first and observation) to extend and share what has been learnt.

And, when established, observing nature becomes a life time activity and contributes to the valuing and protecting of the environment in natural way.


Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Bruce!

For as much as I want to agree with you, I can't admit that it is the only way.

If you analyse what it is in the mind that drawing does, the same can be said for writing or playing a musical instrument.

Being someone who has attempted all three of these to differing degrees of accomplishment, I can tell you that they all have improved my own perception (observational skills if you like) in leaps and bounds.

So what am I saying here? Simply that creativity and the free expression of it, by whatever means (drawing, writing, or playing music) requires the development of observational skills.

There is a school of thought that believes that every student should learn to play the violin. When I first learnt of this, it made me wonder what on earth was behind it all. But of course, I had already learnt to play the violin so I took it for granted, as I did learning to draw and learning to write creatively.

But it is implicit in what you have said about the place of observation and its worth to the learner. For like writing and drawing, playing a musical instrument requires a manual coordination to translate, through physical action, that which is in the imagination into forms that are concrete and can also be observed.

Ka kite
from Middle-earth

Bruce Hammonds said...

Kia ora middle-earth

I thought you might have reacted to my cynicism towards information technology?

Although I agree with your comments about the value of playing music and writing the point I was making was the value of observational art in creating a bond between children and the natural environment.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Bruce!

I'm immune to cynicism towards information technology.

Ka kite

Bruce Hammonds said...

I guess I just see ICT used so badly and, in the process, diverting teacher and student energy from in- depth inquiry learning that I can't resist having a dig . When in-depth inquiry takes happens then integrating ICT is great.

Ka kite ano