Learning to Look

In the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, three groups of four children each (ages between 5 and 6) hover over the assortment of rocks placed in front of them to test for color, luster, texture, magnetism, and hardness. As they wriggle their bodies and lean over to get a good close look, they collaboratively share observations before hypothesizing about the ‘rock under examination.’ Perceiving and attending to patterns as they run their little fingers over the contours of the rock and look closely to detect nuances, they learn to categorize based on what they see. Stretching their imagination to describe what they see, they scour through their vocabulary and learn to use words in context.

Consistent with the cognitive approach, the hands-on activity provides children a scope to make sense of what they see as they infer and hypothesize; and to this end, looking becomes a process that is rooted in thinking, analyzing and meaning making.

What does a Learning Behavior Look Like?

Student: (examining a rock’s physical features) Sparkles…
Teacher: What does Sparkle indicate? Luster, color, streak, or scratch?
Student: Luster!
Teacher: give another ‘luster word.’
Student: shine! gleam!
Student: rough edge but surface smooth and slippery.
Teacher: Rough is a ‘what’ word? And smooth and slippery?
Student: Ummmm….both are texture words.
Student (describing another rock): like a metal…feels like that one (pointing to another rock in the tray).
Teacher: how…in what sense?
Student: its smooth, I mean the texture is like that one…and like a crystal it glows if you slant it.
Teacher: Unique attribute? Place all together and go one by one. Student: flat, soft, round, smooth, edges- white flakes of color, sparkles. Student: The other rock’s sparkling too- so this couldn’t be a unique feature. So the white streak is a unique feature. Metallic…
Teacher: Why?
Student: because it’s dark….
Teacher: What else?
Student: has white spots.
Teacher: What do you think about the edges?
Student: Bumpy
Teacher: Is it hard or soft? How can you tell?
Student: (uses a paper clip to scratch it) leaves an inundation, so its soft.

Inquiry Triumphs over Outcomes

An environment that prioritizes inquiry over outcome, where what takes a back seat to how, propels children to drop inhibitions and freely think through a problem, reflect over responses (others’ and their own), and share ideas as they discern that thinking is valued. Unlike a judgmental environment that puts a stricture on children’s thinking by making them conscious of “getting it wrong,” an environment that emphasizes process over outcome encourages ideas to cascade freely as children engage in thinking. Instead of shooting down ideas, when students are asked to look for evidence to justify their claims, they become aware of their own thinking as they reflect over it while sharing observations to explain their hypothesis.

Metacognition, or thinking about one’s thinking, involves fairly complex ideas and processes (like being aware of the effectiveness of specific learning strategies, planning an approach to learning etc.) that students acquire when exposed to challenging learning experiences.

Triggering the Propensity to Reason & Reflect

Interestingly, when children’s right and wrong responses are followed by ‘why,’ they reflect on their observation and hypothesis, possibly discover gaps, consequently reaching new understandings proactively. They learn to value inquiry to comprehend the relationship between their observations and scientific data (e.g., inferring that a rock is hard through experimenting, followed by learning that it’s granite that is used in kitchen slabs etc. for its hardness). Learning to engage in scientific thinking and hypothesizing makes them recognize thinking as a tool to reach those understandings.

Learning to Categorize

A student shares his observation that the rock ‘looks like glass,’ and on being asked why, explains ‘because of the luster.’  In doing so, he is able to find connections and relationships that enable him to categorize on the basis of properties he observes, and this awareness of the organizational structure of the material (rocks) facilitates learning. In another instance, when students notice three rocks to have rounder edges unlike the sharp edges in the other rocks, their observation becomes a basis for hypothesis through questions like, “what reminds you of this property?” “It could be scratched!” And what can be scratched? “Remember, I told you that diamond is so hard that only another diamond can scratch it?”

Clues woven in questions not only allude to the right responses but also support and scaffold thinking. Questions like ‘how could the edges have become soft?’ make them wonder about the possible causes behind the softened edges- as some of them hypothesize, “The wind,” or “could it be gushing water?” Eventually, by virtue of their thinking, they develop an understanding of erosion!

Educational Implications

How we shape the environment is key to developing intellectual ability. In addition to developing Reading and Math skills, education must broaden its focus to promote broad thinking abilities that cover a wide scope of subject/areas. We cannot reshape the curriculum or the way we teach until we conceptualize what we want to accomplish through education. Experientially rich public environments like museums induce thinking by providing scope for individuals to observe, reason, reflect, and hypothesize. Here, thinking and learning thrive.

About me

I specialize in facilitating learning and cognition through research-based motivational techniques that enhance the learning experience of individuals in formal as well as informal settings like Museums and out of school programs.

Anu Bhatia

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