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Looking Harder: Inspiring Close Observation

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A student looks closely at details of the Library’s Thomas Jefferson building

This is a guest post from Anne Savage of the Library of Congress.

The excitement in the air was palpable as students moved purposefully around the Great Hall of the Library’s historic Thomas Jefferson Building, hunting for details.  As I watched the fourth graders participating in the LOC Box learning activity–binoculars glued to their faces and fingers pointing at their discoveries–it occurred to me that they could not possibly be more intensely engaged in the process of observation.

I was wrong.  Two girls working together to find clues were both focused on the same stone carving.  Suddenly one girl shouted, “I see a fish and a net!  I think this is a fisherman!”  The second girl let her binoculars fall to her chest and exclaimed, “Oh, my gosh!  I need to look harder!”  Whereupon she lifted the binoculars back to her eyes and did just that.

“Look harder.”  I was struck to overhear this child’s description of the process of deep, purposeful observation and thinking.  I realized I had witnessed a touchstone moment: that instant when a child decides, of their own volition, that they want to investigate more, learn more, think harder.

We want students to want to think critically when they examine primary sources.  How can teachers inspire this desire while lifting the process of observation and discovery above the treasure-hunt level–where students look for specified details, factoids, or answers–to the level of personal engagement and inquiry?

Here are a few ideas:

Provide a meaningful purpose for observation; for example, have students:

  • look for details that provide evidence of their thinking
  • look for clues to the authorship or time period
  • make personal connections to the item

Help students focus on small areas first, by using:

  • binoculars or magnifying glasses
  • frames of cardboard with a square cut in the middle
  • two L-shaped pieces of cardboard
  • a sheet of paper held in front of an LCD projector to capture a section of the image
  • a highlighted area on an interactive whiteboard

Create an environment where students’ ideas are respected and students feel safe to share.

  • As a Summer Teacher Institute participant put it, “Reinforce [that] this is about what the student thinks, wonders.”
  • Teach students to support their ideas with evidence (I think_______, because_______.)

When this happens, there is no such thing as a “wrong” response; every student can be authentically proud of his or her thinking…all the more incentive to “look harder.”

Visit the Library of Congress Teachers page to find the primary source analysis tool and teacher’s guides to help your students examine primary sources.

In your experience, what strategies or classroom factors do you think make it more likely that students will want to look harder and think harder?


Comments (5)

  1. Wonderful post! I can’t wait to share this with other teachers! I would like to add the idea of having students create their own question prior to investigating, individually or in pairs, as a way to invest in what they want to learn prior to observation. Thank you for the post!

  2. A real teacher and model to education!
    Don’t ever stop!

  3. I really enjoyed this post and I look forward to sharing this information with my co-workers.

  4. Using “I wonder…” inquiries can lead to some great student-generated questions when we encourage our students to “look harder” at primary sources.

  5. I believe that as a future educator it is very important to have visual representations, hands on activities and individual exploration activities so that students have the ability to get inspired to observe different objects. Also, I believe that incorporating artifacts and objects that connect to their background is important to engage their observational learning as well.

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