Learning Through Observation: 10 Tips

“Take out your book and turn to page 78.” Visit schools around the country and we still hear such statements dominate classroom conversations, lessons driven by content experienced in a paper or digital text. Learning through text is certainly a valuable form of study, but a series of recent events drew my attention to the experiential side of learning as well, especially learning to “read” the world around us. Imagine all the things we can learn by simply observing the world around us! What would happen if we spent a bit more time helping students develop this power of learning through observation as well?

Visit classrooms around the world, and you will still see time for silent reading of books, but what about times for silent observation of the world around them, whether it be observing nature, groups of people, or even cultivating the skill of being more observant of our own thoughts, words, and behaviors?  What do you see, hear, smell, feel, and taste? Now look closer, listen more carefully, take careful note of what is happening around you. What can we learn from such observations?

Learning to observe the world around us and extract meaning from those observations is a powerful aspect of growing as a self-directed learner. It offers lessons for formal education along with a myriad of important life skills. With this in mind, consider the following 10 possibilities to help cultivate learning through observation in ourselves and others.

  1. Head to the Art Museum to Hone Your Attention to Visual Details – Consider this article about “Teaching Cops to See” (“At New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Amy Herman schools police in the fine art of deductive observation”). This article tells the story of how one teacher is helping policy officers nurture their eye for important details through a certain approach to observing details in art.
  2. Keep an Observation Journal – It can be field notes of nature observations, observations about one’s day, observations of interactions among different people, or anything else. At first, you may find yourself writing down your judgements, assumptions and assessments. You might write, for example, “a boyfriend and girlfriend are arguing.” However, there are tons of assumptions in such a note. How do you know their relationship to one another? How do you know this is truly arguing (and not acting, for example)? Learning to observe and objectively document what you see and hear will develop your observational skills, and soon you will be noticing things that previously went overlooked. There are tons of tricks and methods for observation journals, and they can be used across disciplines, even in the study of recent history through the observation of photographs, maps, and other artifacts from a given era.
  3. Keep a Photo Journal – While snapping quick pictures is commonplace in our era of cell phones and iPods, many promote the power of learning to see through photography: noticing shading, space, shape, color, perspective, and relationships between different objects.
  4. Learn About and Use Ethnographic Research Methods – It may sound like a big word, but ethnographic research methods are all about learning to see and learn from the world around us, especially the social world. There are wonderful examples of teachers helping students to develop skills a ethnographic researchers and using them to explore important topics and issues. Consider some of these examples of student-led research on schools.
  5. Get Novel Experiences of People Engaging in Desirable Behaviors – Bandura’s concept of observational learning is about the idea that we learn by observing others. Make this intentional. Think about what you want to learn and find a chance to observe others who have already learned it. Invite students to seek out such experiences, and have them follow up with formal or informal interviews with the people they observe.
  6. Find Opportunities for Formal and Informal Apprenticeships – These are authentic contexts where we can observe, interact with, obtain feedback from, and try out desirable behaviors and practices.
  7. Learn to Notice the World of Nonverbal MessagesPaul Ekman’s books are a wonderful primer, giving us insight to the many messages and emotions that people communicate without saying a world.
  8. Learn to Watch Media with a Critical Eye – It is an old book, but Postman’s book on How to Watch the TV News is a wonderful guide to understanding how messages are crafted and communicated, and how they work on us. It helps us to deconstruct the messages that bombard us daily, and to see them in a different light.
  9. Develop Your Detective Skills – Web sites like this one offer fun in interesting tips on how to develop the observational skills of a great detective. Try them out and see what we happens.
  10. Stop and Pay Attention – We can be so rushed, glued to our cell phones, or driven by a particular goal or task that we miss much of the world around us. Simply cultivate the habit is pausing several times a day (even if just for a few minutes) to look and listen to what is happening around you.