Three prompts for deeper nature observation

Imagine you are seeing a bird for the first time. The novelty of the experience helps us concentrate and focus more carefully than the familiar House Sparrows that are always in your garden. Now imagine how hard you might look if you knew you were seeing something for the last time. How can you bring that focus to every observation that can be employed in your own nature observations or with students? Telling yourself or your students to “look carefully” or “look hard” is not very helpful. The human brain quickly clears itself of any details that are not necessary for survival. This is useful because it frees up working memory for new things. You will find that you can observe a bird with a group of students until it flies away, and then if you ask them what they saw, you will only get a few superficial responses. We want students to really see what is happening in front of them and we assume it is just a matter of looking harder, but deep observation is a skill which must be learned. Developing this skill will change the way you and your students experience the world. These techniques will enhance the experience of field sketching but also can stand alone. There are three prompts you can use in any nature observation to help you or your students get more out of any observation session. These are: I notice, I wonder, and it reminds me of. Here is how to use the prompts and why they work.

I notice…

When making a nature observation, ask students to say all of their observations out loud. Do not filter. Anything that you observe (structure, behavior, color, interactions with other species) you should say out loud. If you are gathered in a group of classmates or nature explorers, you can also listen to the observations that are said by other students and embellish or modify what you hear. This makes nature observation a social activity. By describing what you see, your brain also processes each observation more deeply. This is reinforced by the auditory feedback loop of hearing your own voice describing what you see. You will find that the things that you say remain in your working memory much longer than what you think quietly to yourself. By the time the bird flies away you will have access to a rich and detailed set of observations. Give it a try. You will be surprised how much more you see and remember.

I Wonder…

As you say your observations out loud, be aware of any questions that occur to you. Ask these out loud to the group (or yourself if you are alone). Do not be afraid of asking questions. The point is not to answer them now but just to get them out there. Saying the question aloud will help you remember it later. A good scientist should be able to ask many more questions than they have answers. Some of the questions you can answer with further observation. Some questions you will be able to research, or explore how one might go about answering the question with research or observation. There are other questions that can not be answered because they are outside of the realm of science. All questions should be asked. If no questions come to you, try saying “I wonder…” and see what fills the silence afterward. A question may come when prompted. If you make this a regular practice, questions will flow more easily. You can make yourself a more curious person!

It reminds me of…

In addition to questions, ask yourself what this set of observations reminds you of. Try to come up with as many connections as you can. Go into your own network of memories and see how this new set of observations fits in. Is this like something you studied before, observed in another context, or saw on a nature special? Have you seen this bird before or similar behavior? Can you make an analogy or metaphor that ties to a new observation? Why does this new observation reminds you of that? Connecting this new observation to those already in memory will help you remember what you are seeing. Connecting with existing memories can also help you develop more interesting and deeper questions. Say your “it reminds me of’s” out loud as well.

This process keeps observations in conscious working memory long enough for your brain to convert them to long term memories. Memories are formed by the connections of neurons in your brain. The more of these connections you make, the stronger and richer your memories will be. Now, when the bird flies away, you can ask your students: ”What were some of the most interesting observations that you made or heard one of your classmates say?” ”What were some of the most interesting questions that came up? ”What things did this remind you of?” Responses will come flooding back. The trick is to make a habit of exploring these three aspects of observation and to share what comes up out loud (even if you are alone). In fact, try it right now. Pick up an object near you and give it a try. Talking to yourself will feel strange at first but overcome this self-consciousness and see how much more you can take in.

Here is a fun visual way to remember and teach “I notice, I wonder, it reminds me of.”

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To further investigate this approach and integrate it into your classroom activities, explore The Private Eye. This outstanding curriculum uses 5x jewelers loupes to focus observation and inspires open-ended questioning and analogies.