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  • Writer's pictureSimon Brooks

Big Rock Number 3: Slow Looking

A couple of weeks ago I was pleased to spend a wonderful day at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia. Of the many wonderful works in the gallery, I found that one painting in particular spoke to me that day. It’s a work entitled Mount St Michael, Cornwall, painted by Clarkson Stanfield in 1830. Take a look for yourself, and see what you think.

This Blog entry is part four of an eight-part series exploring 7 Big Rocks for Educators keen to build a culture of thinking in their classrooms.

Standing in the gallery, I found myself drawn into this vivid depiction of nature’s raw energy. Something about the stark imagery really appealed to me. I felt compelled by the shipwreck narrative at the heart of this monumental canvas, intrigued by the notion that beside the might of nature, mankind’s efforts to tame our world pales in comparison. I found myself immersed in every aspect of the painting, wondering what these men were actually doing, speculating as to the history of the castle on the mount, trying to ascertain whether that is a barrel of some sort being tossed on the waves. Before I knew it, I began making connections in my mind to what I already new about Romanticism, to poems such as ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, and to Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’. I found myself thinking about what Burke and Kant had written about the sublime. I hopped online and read what John Ruskin wrote in 1843 about this painting: “One work of Stanfield alone presents us with as much concentrated knowledge of sea and sky, as diluted, would have lasted any one of the Old Masters his life.” Time became irrelevant for a while as I found myself lost in thinking and feeling, inspired by this painting.

However, I’m also aware that at other times in my life I have visited art galleries and museums with an entirely different modus operandi. It’s all too easy, I think, when visiting a gallery, to march ourselves through the experience, glancing at everything but seeing nothing, moving from painting to painting and exhibit to exhibit without really making a connection, driven ultimately by the thought of a scone and a nice cup of tea in the museum coffee shop before we leave.

In his book The Intelligent Eye, David Perkins from Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education has named this mindset ‘audience impressionism’, the tendency of museum-goers to look briefly at artefacts, noting only whether or not they like the artefact, and not much else. Perkins argues that ‘Audience impressionism is a special case of [a] general problem with human cognition: hastiness – a disposition to reach a quick resolution driven by the rapid intuitive mechanism of experiential intelligence. Such an approach will not disclose what awaits in a work of art, much less what it hides. Striving toward a richer experience of art means working against this deep and natural impulse. It means calling reflective intelligence into play to cultivate a contrary disposition. It means slowing looking down’ (David Perkins, 1994, p.36).

In a culture of thinking, many teachers consider slowing down the looking to be of central importance when it comes to connecting thoughtfully and heartfully with a learning experience, and developing deep, lasting understandings. This was certainly my experience at the National Gallery of Victoria. It was when I paused, slowed down and looked closely at one work of art, rather than tripping hastily over the surface of many, that I actually started to feel, think and learn.

This is true whether we teach Kindergarten or Senior students, infants or undergraduates, Maths or English, Science or PE.

A number of Mathematics teachers with whom I have been working of late are exploring how they might draw on the ideas of Jo Boaler, professor of Mathematics education at Stanford University. If you’re interested in learning more, I wholeheartedly recommend her books Mathematical Mindsets, and The Elephant in the Classroom (and as an aside, I wonder what you imagine the elephant in many mathematics classrooms might be…?) In ‘Mathematical Mindsets’, Boaler writes at length about how important it is to design Maths learning opportunities that ‘are opened for different ways of seeing, different methods and pathways, and different representations’ (Boaler, 2016, p.90). Amongst many other suggestions, she shares a learning opportunity called ‘Growing Shapes’, a powerful learning experience which leads ultimately to students developing deep understandings about patterns and algebra, but begins by having them slow down the looking in order to lay the foundations for rich insight.

Students are asked to describe how they see these shapes growing; how they see Case 1 becoming Case 2, Case 2 becoming Case 3, and so on. It turns out that there are many different ways that we might see these shapes growing, and that students are intrigued and excited by surfacing and exploring these methods. Before rushing on to numbers and algebra, children slow down and look closely for patterns, creating names such as ‘The Raindrop Method’, ‘The Bowling Alley Method’, ‘The Volcano Method’ and ‘The Parting of the Red Sea Method’ in order to describe how they see the growth happening . . . And in so doing, something magical happens. By slowing down, children engage deeply in the experience. They are fascinated by what they are doing. And beyond engagement, the foundations are laid for the rich algebraic understandings to come.

If you’re interested in exploring more ways to help students slow down and look closely, perhaps you’ll be interested to take a look at the Memory Draw thinking routine.

Memory Draw is a routine for looking closely to explore complexity, and might be used with students of all ages and across all subject areas. The steps are as follows:

The routine encourages learners to slow down, look closely, and appreciate the creativity and complexity embedded in the world around them. History teachers might use it to help students explore source material such as a political cartoon or photograph, English teachers to explore a page out of a picture book, Science teachers to look closely at a complex diagram, and Technology teachers to help students explore the creativity and complexity of a manufactured artefact. There is something about the act of reproducing from memory and then comparing back to the original that leads to incredibly rich insight. It turns out that we notice so much more and dig so much deeper when we begin to reflect on our own process of looking.

According to Shari Tishman from Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, ‘Slow looking means taking the time to carefully observe more than meets the eye at first glance. It implies lingering, looking long, being generous, almost lavish, with one’s attentional focus, in order to see beyond first impressions [and] uncover the complexity of things.’ (As another aside, I’d highly recommend Shari’s new book, Slow Looking, coming out soon…)

When teachers make Slow Looking a BIG ROCK in their classrooms, magical things can happen. I’ll leave the final word to Shari Tishman: “What different kinds of complexity might we see when we take the time to look at things slowly?”

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