Honing our Observation Skills - Mid-Pacific Institute

3/4 LeBlanc

Honing our Observation Skills

Posted on September 17, 2017

by Ms. LeBlanc on September 17, 2017

This Thursday will be our first learning trip to the Board of Water Supply to begin our investigation into Hawaii's Water Shed. In preparation for our trip and our delving into our understanding of Hawaii's water supply and the issues we face, I decided we needed to hone our observation skills since we are taking a different and more in-depth approach to inquiry this year.

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I began by asking the class what it means to observe and how both scientists and naturalists use their observation skills to learn. The results of this discussion were not only fascinating but on point. Both the 3rd and 4th graders knew that observation skills are extremely important to scientists, that they observe with their senses, that they draw and write what they observe, and that they try make sense of what they are observing. As a former 1st and 2nd grade teacher, I knew the types of observations my 6-8 year old students would make when we went on nature walks and did experiments in class, so I was very eager to observe my 3rd and 4th graders and how they conduct observations with very little guidance from me.

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I did ask how we should conduct ourselves when on a nature observation or a learning trip and they agreed unanimously that we are to be as silent and still as possible, to respect others' work, to be patient and wait for live creatures to show themselves and use exact and precise vocabulary to describe what we see. I then posed the question of what scientists do with their observations, and many students shared that they can make predictions, come up with theories or hypothesis, and sometimes come to conclusions but that 'real' scientists will do more observations, experiments and research to see if they are right. I then had to step in to the conversation and pose the question, "Aren't students "real" scientists when they do observations of their own?", and don't the observations and research that we conduct in school lead us to real learning and discoveries? One student shared that the type of learning we do in school will prepare her to be a scientist when she grows up but that she never thought of herself as a scientist already which makes me realize that this year is going to change how she views herself as a learner.

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Once I felt the class was ready, I gave them a choice of observation sheets, they grabbed their clipboards and we headed outside. Quite quickly did they settle on a spot, some in pairs, some in close proximity to others and some wanted to be completely alone. They sat on the ground or on benches and began by being still and keenly looking and listening. As I walked around I observed students drawing and writing. The types of notetaking I observed were quite varied from lists, to webs, to phrases and to full paragraph narratives. Some drew rough sketches while others drew detailed illustrations. Every now and then a student would wave to me and motion to me to come over because they wanted me to observe what they were seeing themselves. And then I'd jot my own notes down. A few asked me to take photos of what they were observing.

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After about 45 minutes, we decided to head back inside to discuss what we observed and this was where an intense and intellectual conversation took place. The observation of animals seemed to lend itself to an interesting conversation. One boy started off by commenting on how noisy the birds were and it surprised him because at his house the birds are noisy at dawn but he never hears them in the afternoon. To which another boy replied that since we are at school in the afternoon, maybe the birds are making noise at his house. For the rest of the conversation I'm simply going to list the quote:

Maybe you should listen for the birds this weekend at your house.

What kind of noise were they making?

A loud squawking sound.

Was it a happy sound?

I think so and there were lots of them in the tall Christmas Tree.

Could you see them?

Not really but I'd see some wings moving every now and then.

Do you know what kind of birds they were?

No, but I want to watch for them again next week.

We saw some birds too, and it was a Kolea. And it was very interesting because we were observing him and he was observing us.

What did you observe him doing?

Well, he was stalking some worms. He'd watch the worm and then he'd turn to look at us?

Why do you suppose he did that?

Maybe he thought I was going to steal him worm and he wanted to make sure I wasn't going to take it. He also kept looking around to the left and to the right.

Why do you suppose he did that?

I think he wanted to make sure no other birds were going to steal his worm.

I also noticed that the Kolea only stepped on the grass or twigs, he never stepped on the cement. And when I think of all the Koleas I've ever seen here at school I NEVER see them walk on the cement.

Why do you suppose that is?

Maybe because that's where the worms are.

Actually I've seen lots of birds and I think it's the design on their feet that they are meant to grab and hold onto branches and grass.

Also, I think their skin is very fragile on their feet.

Actually all birds have very delicate feet and they can get hurt very easy.

Do they have anything to protect their feet?

No, so they have to watch where they walk and land?

How do your feet feel when you walk barefoot on hot cement?

OH! I can barely stand for 30 seconds, same with hot sand at the beach so I have to run in the water.

OH, that's why they stand on the grass because the hot cement would burn their delicate skin?

How's THAT for a scientific discussion? And one girl thought she wasn't a scientist yet! We will do one observation this week before Thursday's learning trip, but to me, the class CLEARLY demonstrated not only do they know how to conduct observations, but they can ask questions, hypothesize, and make inferences based on their observations. Clearly we are off to an amazing start with inquiry and I am excited that we have multiple trips planned to revisit sites so instead of just having one day's worth of observations, we will have more data and ideas to compare. What an exciting time to be an educator!