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Look Again: Challenging Students to Develop Close Observation Skills

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Today’s Teaching Strategies post is from our Library of Congress colleague Stacie Moats, who works closely with the Library’s Teaching with Primary Sources partnership program.

Students observing features of the Library’s Great Hall

Despite my training as a museum educator, I’m guilty of sometimes passing by priceless artifacts or works of art on exhibit without a second glance. Not surprisingly, students often do the same, whether observing primary sources on a field trip or digitized versions in the classroom.

How can we help students develop close observation skills?

In my experience, the most successful approach with students of all ages is to combine fun “looking” challenges with richly detailed primary sources. Such activities can greatly improve students’ observation skills, which are essential to primary source analysis. If students do not closely observe primary sources during this process, they may miss important details and, ultimately, the bigger picture in terms of critical thinking and constructing knowledge.

Based on past work with K-12 students and teachers, the following are suggestions for helping students more closely observe primary sources:

  • Challenge students to a “30 second look” using an image such as a photograph, map or work of art. Project or distribute your selected image, giving students only 30 seconds to memorize as many details as possible without talking or taking notes. Afterwards, hide the image while students individually record observations. As a class, compare and discuss observations, particularly any conflicting or missing details, before observing the image again.
  • Early elementary teachers (K-3) can challenge students to a game of hide and seek using an interesting photograph such as this photograph of a Washington, D.C. classroom. Invite students to pretend to be as small as a fly and find a secret hiding place within the projected image. Model an example (“I’ll hide inside this desk”) before students individually locate their own hiding places. Act as the “seeker,” identifying possible hiding places in the photograph; students must raise hands when “found.” Encourage students to describe what they see, hear, touch or smell in their hiding places.
  • When working with upper elementary and middle school students, challenge them to practice close observational skills by putting together pieces of a map such as the 1507 World Map by Martin Waldseemüller. Students may work in pairs or small groups to observe details that will enable them to recreate the map. For a PDF version of the Waldseemüller map, printable in pieces, refer to the lesson plan Waldseemüller’s Map: World 1507.
  • Challenge high school students to observe evidence of the creative process by identifying and comparing differences, however subtle, between draft and final versions of the same manuscript, such as Langston Hughes’ “Ballad of Booker T.” Student pairs or small groups should consider possible edits to vocabulary, style, formatting, etc., to “observe” the creative process. For PDF versions of Hughes’ poem, refer to the Harlem Renaissance primary source set.

Visit the Library of Congress Teachers page to find ready-made primary source sets that provide primary sources in a variety of formats and subject areas for use in observation activities.

What strategies do you use to help students observe closely when teaching with primary sources?

Comments (3)

  1. Stacie,

    Your exercise with the Waldseemuller map reminds me of the nineteenth-century practice of having kids put together puzzles made out of maps as a way to learn geography. There’s a description of this in Margaret Drabble’s Memoir, The pattern in the carpet : a personal history with jigsaws, and it’s also mentioned in Jane Austen’s novel, Mansfield Park. I wonder if we have any of these map-puzzles in the collection here.

  2. Julie,

    Your comment inspired me to do some further investigating of our collections on this topic. Our Geography & Map colleague, Ed Redmond, confirmed that the Library has many 18th, 19th and even 20th century “dissected maps.”

    According to Ed, “These are traditional continent or country state shaped maps that have been cut into puzzle pieces for the purposes of teaching geography.” See for a sample bibliographic record.

    Geography and Map staff have not scanned any of these items to date. Unfortunately, these maps can only be displayed as a whole, therefore scanning the individual pieces would be of little use.

    Many thanks for the great related topic!

  3. Formerly working at a Museum, I had the privaledge of having gifted students repeatedly visit for 18 weekly half-day science classes. As a warm up, arriving students would find natural history objects in the center of their table. They were asked to write down ten observations. Eventually we also incorporated inferences, but always gave attention to observation. In younger grades the message that hlumans have scientific equipment on their bodies (our senses) which help us learn about the world. It makes the verb ‘observe’ a most attractive action. I use these activities commonly in all grades now.

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