Cultivating Keen Observers

By Eve Pranis, June 23, 2008

Inviting students to closely inspect materials and phenomena in the natural world can spark their interest and generate compelling research questions.

Observation is also one of the primary tools we use to gather information and make sense of the world. It is a skill that many teachers assume students have, but without guidance, tools, and adequate time, student observations often lack detail and precision.

By routinely asking questions during plant investigations such as What did you observe that leads you to conclude that...? What do you notice about...? How is it different than...? you can help students become keener observers and distinguish between what they actually observe (evidence) and what they infer. By focusing on different aspects of observation -- details, similarities and differences, sequences, and patterns -- learners develop tools for making sense of their own experiences.

Consider trying some of the following activities to enhance students' ability to be keen observers, and in so doing, to think and act like scientists.

* Early in the year, have the class brainstorm a list of the types of observations and measurements they might make during plant investigations. Their list might include stem or leaf width or height, growth rate, root mass or length, stem or leaf color, number of leaves, evidence of disease, and so on. Post the chart for student reference throughout the year.

* In each of several sessions at the beginning of the year, have students focus their observation on one aspect of plants: size, shape, texture, color, and so forth. Give students time to observe the trait closely, then share words they can use to describe the trait. Discuss why some words are more precise than others. As a group, select the most descriptive words and place them on charts in the classroom (e.g., a shape chart, a size chart, and so on).

* Ask students to imagine they are an insect observing a particular plant or plant part. Have them visualize how they might see things differently and record their ideas in words or drawings.

* Have students closely observe a plant with one of their senses, then draw or write about it in as much detail as possible. Invite them to add another sense, then another, and discuss how their descriptions are enhanced.

* Give small groups of students an unusual plant-related object (such as a pod) and allow a couple of minutes to record their observations. Next, give each group a hand lens and allow them to continue adding to their observations. Discuss how the tool (hand lens) and extra time affected their observations.

* Routinely place plants, flowers, or other plant material at a science center or at different spots throughout the room. Post questions that invite students to look more closely or think about specific aspects of what they see, such as What do you notice about ...? What purpose do you think ... serves? Use the student responses as springboards for investigations.

* To encourage more in-depth observations of plants, challenge students to add five new observations to their notebooks or observation sheets in a set time period.

* Help students distinguish between observations (which are made by the senses and can be verified by other people) and inferences (interpretations of observations, which can vary greatly among people). Do this by setting out a wilted or otherwise "unhealthy" plant. Ask students to first make a list of observations, and list which senses they used to back up their statements. (If they can't cite a sense, it's probably an inference.) Then have them list inferences they can make based on their observations. Do all students make the same inferences?

* Conduct the activity "Flowers Up Close" or "Plant Private Eyes" from GrowLab: Activities for Growing Minds to help students practice observation skills.

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