It’s school holiday time here in Sydney, Australia. The cicadas are singing, and long, hot summer days abound, with plenty of opportunities for spending valuable time both with my family and also some incredibly worthwhile books!
Top of the list in this regard is Slow looking: The art and practice of learning through observation, by Shari Tishman, a book that I wholeheartedly recommend to all my educator (and non-educator!) friends. Tishman is a Senior Research Associate from Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and has dedicated much of her career to developing the inspiring, transformative and practical ideas presented in this book.
According to Tishman, ‘The definition of slow looking is straightforward. It simply means taking the time to carefully observe more than meets the eye at first glance’ (2018, p.2). I’ve written about the concept of slow looking in a previous blog entry, and specifically the concept of ‘audience impressionism’ (Perkins, 1994, p.36), the tendency of some museum and gallery-goers to move quickly through exhibits without pausing to linger on individual items, missing the opportunity to become absorbed in reflection on the richness and complexity of individual artefacts. Tishman argues that some museum practices perhaps stand in the way of such slow looking, with wall text telling us what to notice and what to think, and minimal seating designed to keep us moving rather than encouraging us to pause for a moment (Tishman, 2018, p.79), though she also provides some wonderful counter-examples such as Washington’s National Gallery of Art, where slow looking practices underpin the way visitors are encouraged to interact with exhibitions.
As teachers, it is all-too-easy for us to design units of work with comparable pedagogies of ‘coverage’ in mind. As an English teacher, I’ve certainly felt the pull of ‘getting through the content’, designing units of work which, in hindsight, were underpinned by the desperate goal of achieving coverage rather than facilitating students’ engagement with ideas through developing the disposition to be slow lookers.
So, with these ideas in mind, and to honour Tishman’s work, I’ve decided that this will be a ‘slow review’ of Slow Looking. Rather than attempting to cover everything, I shall instead deploy the technique of ‘Scale and Scope’, and zoom in on five key ideas explored in the book that I find particularly interesting and helpful, with a nod both towards interesting ideas of pedagogy and practical strategies for classroom teachers. (NB – ‘Scale and Scope’ is one of Tishman’s ‘Strategies for Looking’ (2018, p.8), actionable guidelines supporting learners to go beyond first glance and look at one thing closely.)
1. Why Slow Looking?
In Chapter 1, Tishman shares the story of how she came to be interested in slow looking, by chronicling the story of her visit of many years ago to a fifth-grade classroom at the beginning of the school day. As the students arrived, the teacher told Tishman that she planned to have them spend the next half hour looking at a painting by Matisse. ‘I nodded politely,’ recalls Tishman, but ‘What I was really thinking was this: Tell a group of fifth-graders to sit still and look at a painting for 20 minutes, and you will very quickly have a classroom of squirming, restless kids’ (Tishman, 2018, p.3).
However, this was a teacher who was armed with the type of slow looking strategies that Tishman outlines in her book . . . and through use of these strategies, these fifth-grade children became incredibly engaged in their learning, exploring the structural complexity of the artwork, detecting ambiguities, and wondering about interpretations (Tishman, 2018, p.3).
As time passed, Tishman ‘became fascinated by how intrinsically engaging slow looking could be with just a little bit of structure to sustain it’ (2018, p.3). Perhaps, Tishman wonders, part of slow looking’s power to engage lies in the fact that it is the learners themselves who are doing the looking. It was the fifth-graders themselves who looked at the painting directly, rather than listening to their teacher describe it to them. However, ‘much of education is about learning about what other people describe – usually experts – rather than looking for oneself’ (Tishman, 2018, p.65). For Tishman, the drive to look ‘is irrepressible and ubiquitous’ (2018, p.68), a central facet of the human condition, an underlying drive at the heart of who we are. Later, Tishman explores the pedagogy of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi and his object lessons, reflecting on Pestalozzi’s belief ‘that it was natural for children to want to make their own observations, and that they could acquire true and deep knowledge by doing so’ (2018, p.95).
For Tishman, ‘the impulse to look at things for oneself is natural and intrinsically engaging’ (2018, p.95). Opportunities for slow looking lie at the heart of learning experiences which are emotionally and cognitively engaging.
For an account of what this might look like in the Science classroom, have a read here about Jenny Stephens’ Year 10 Science class.
2. Practical Strategies
If slow looking is a fundamental human impulse, and the provision of opportunities for slow looking a big rock in the classrooms of teachers interested in nurturing their students’ emotional and cognitive engagement with learning, then HOW might we do this? What strategies might teachers deploy?
Well, since this is a slow review, I’m going to reflect on just ONE of these strategies in detail. However, with knowing nod to audience impressionism, I’ll briefly mention some of the others first!
Colour, Shape, Line – a strategy to guide the eye, p.9
Looking 10 x 2 – a strategy for inventorying, p.16
Juxtaposition – a strategy for bringing forward certain features through comparison, p.24 and p.135; calls to mind ‘Memory Draw’
Taking on different personas – to see things in a new way, p.60; calls to mind ‘Circle of Viewpoints’
Making the familiar strange – looking at something from a vantage point that defamiliarizes it, p.59; calls to mind de Bono’s work on provocation operations in Serious Creativity and other books
Physical Vantage Points – altering one’s physical perspective to see and describe things from a different angle, p.58; calls to mind Mr. Keating in Dead Poet’s Society: ‘I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way.’
However, I’ve decided to focus in a little more detail here on the thinking routine Parts, Purposes and Complexities (p.130). In her chapter on ‘Slow Looking and Complexity’, Tishman reflects on the fact that a significant payoff of slow looking is that ‘When people take the time to look slowly and closely at things, they come to discern multiple ways that things are complex’ (2018, p.124). Parts, Purposes and Complexities is a routine for observing the complexity of parts and interactions, and is an incredibly powerful tool for helping learners come to appreciate the complexity or constructedness of the world around us.
In workshops with teachers, I frequently deploy Parts, Purposes and Complexities to have teachers look closely at the constructedness of a guitar (see below), and they are typically amazed not only by how much they see that they have never noticed before, but by their own growth of understanding in terms of a guitar’s functionality, with no explanatory input from me. There is so much learning to be done when we slow down and discover for ourselves ‘the intricacies of objects, systems, and relationships’ (Tishman, 2018, p.150).
Moving beyond ‘just’ appreciation, Tishman also suggests that ‘by learning to see the parts and purposes behind the objects and systems that surround them, students will be more inclined to re-envision, redesign, and reinvent those objects and systems’ (Tishman, 2018, p.131). In other words, slow looking has the power to lay the foundations for ongoing creativity and development.
For more on Parts, Purposes and Complexities, click here.
3. Out of Eden Learn
‘I learned that there are so many different and amazing things around the world and that if we just stop to look around us and take notice we will see all the amazing things just outside of our houses’ (Aged 12, Accra, Ghan)
‘I used to think that there is usually just one way to look at something. For example, I often go down to the river and look at it. When I looked at it this time I noticed every detail from water spiders to the reflection of trees… There are so many things you can see in one little thing, you just have to look’ (Aged 10, West Hartford, CT, US)
These are reflections of students involved in Out of Eden Learn, an online cultural exchange program that connects students around the world, the brainchild of Tishman and her colleagues at Project Zero, inspired by Paul Salopek’s Out of Eden Walk and supported by The Abundance Foundation.
According to Tishman, ‘over twenty thousand students in over one thousand classrooms across fifty-seven countries have participated’ (2018, p.33) in this free online program. As they undertake the 12-week curriculum, they take slow walks through their neighbourhoods, document what they see, conduct interviews, listen to stories, post ideas online and interact constructively with other students around the world. At the heart of Out of Eden Learn is a belief in the importance of slowing down to observe the world carefully and listen attentively to others.
It is fascinating to read Tishman’s reflections on the sense of ‘philosophical well-being’ experienced by the slow lookers in Out of Eden Learn. ‘Put simply,’ writes Tishman, ‘students report that slowing down reminds them of what’s important in life’ (2018, p.43). It appears there are a plethora of benefits to slow looking, and many pay-offs to having students participate in Out of Eden Learn. If you’re interested in finding out more or getting your students involved, I recommend reading Slow Looking, or visiting the Out of Eden Learn website.
4. Information and ‘Folding’
As I move towards the end of this slow review, I want to focus on the interesting way in which Tishman explores the place of information in inquiry-based approaches. This is an age-old debate in the world of education. Should we share what we know with young learners as they engage with visual or other-sensory stimulus materials? We know ‘stuff’ about what they’re looking at, after all, so shouldn’t we share it in order to enhance their learning?
Tishman enters this debate by summarising the positions of two US museum educators, Philip Yenawine who ‘prefers not to transmit any information to young viewers before they engage with a work’, and Danielle Rice ‘who believes that her job is to share her own knowledge and expertise in order to enhance viewers’ experience’ (2018, p.84).
According to Tishman, ‘neither extreme is tenable over the long term: a constant feed of information will eventually stultify the impulse to look for oneself, but looking for oneself over time often leads to a desire for more information and it would be counterproductive to withhold it’ (2018, p.85).
This is where Tishman’s metaphor of ‘folding’ comes in. It’s a powerful metaphor, I think. Although Tishman acknowledges her own stance to be toward the ‘less is more’ side of the spectrum (Tishman, 2018), she believes that ‘educators need practical approaches for how to fold external information into students’ experience of direct observation in ways that enhance rather than subvert the gains from slow looking’ (2018, p.86).
But how might we do this? What exactly does good folding look like? It’s wonderful when books about education leave educators with even more big questions for us to ponder…
5. Is slow looking a form of thinking?
Tishman’s book concludes with some interesting reflections on whether it is even correct to conceptualise slow looking as a form of thinking. Readers familiar with the book Making Thinking Visible will know that ‘Observing closely and describing what’s there’ is understood by the writers to be a thinking move in service of fostering understanding (Ritchhart, Church and Morrison, 2011). But can slow looking really be conceptualised this way? Is it thinking, or is it something else entirely?
Well, in the spirit of the classic cliff-hanger, I’ve decided not to share Tishman’s conclusion on this one. If you want to know the answer, you’re just going to have to go ahead and buy the book!
Slow Looking by Shari Tishman is an important book for all educators to read. For Tishman, slow looking ‘is an epistemic virtue: its value has to do with gaining knowledge’ (2018, p.46). When educators deploy strategies to help children look slowly at the world around them, they build a classroom culture where noticing and appreciating complexity is at the heart of how learning gets done. When these strategies become absorbed into the daily and even hourly fabric of learning, it is entirely possible that children will begin to develop the disposition to be slow lookers, not only able to do it, but inclined to do so, and sensitive to occasions when it makes sense to enact the behaviour (Tishman, 2018).
I wonder . . . what would our world look like if more of us . . . maybe all of us . . . became slow lookers?