Deep Observation

Toriah Duffy of Champstown High in Hull, UK, had a problem. “My students were simply not able to generate investigatory responses. One group would perform a role-play and I would ask the other students what they saw. I’d get nothing.”

Toriah was not alone in finding that the skill of observation was not fully developed in some of the Champstown student body. After connecting with colleagues across the faculties, they discovered that they had a common problem. “Students were just not seeing,” As Toriah put it. That is when we began our work together.

I quickly brought Toriah to the realisation that it wasn’t a case that the students were not seeing. After all, they were not walking around and bumping into walls. The problem was more that students were only seeing at a surface level. They could observe what was on the surface but they could not see beyond that. They were unable to observe deeply.

The skill of observation is one that is utilised in areas as diverse as chemistry, the visual arts and the media. It is a critical skill that 21st century learners need and that will be essential for performance in 21st century jobs. Yet, how much of our time is devoted to developing such a critical skill?

Principle Two: Deep Observation

Visit Champstown today and you will see science lessons where the students gather around a heated beaker, watching the water boil. “The focus is to pause and reflect,” Says Toriah. “We encourage the students to look first; just look and take it all in. Sometimes they take notes but that’s not essential. The important thing is that they have the opportunity to observe deeply.”

Deep observation is not rushed. It’s success depends upon the application of a number of core think-points. At the Extraordinary Learning Foundation™, we have summarized these think-points on the Deep Observation Tree™ which Toriah now uses as a key visual stimulus:

Deep Observation

Observations may be quantitative or qualitative. With a qualitative observation, the focus is on reflection and description. With a quantitative observation then numbers need to have a relationship with a scale. The key questions here become; what is the number and what is the scale? Crucially, all deep observation requires empathy. This can be brought out of students with hooks like, “Who is…? Why is…? How would it feel…?”

On my most recent visit to Champstown, I wandered out into the school-yard. A group of visual arts students sat in a loose group, gazing at the trees that line the boundary fence. I asked a vital-looking ruddy teenage girl about the task that she was engaged in. “We’re just looking at the trees,” She said, “Just Looking…”

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