Thursday, May 5, 2011

A powerful question

A powerful question I have learned to ask students is, "What do you notice?"

One of the reasons why this question is so powerful is because students can't be wrong. Only a student can know what they notice.

I first picked up this question in an education talk about poetry. The speaker asked us "What do you notice about the poem?" NOT "What do you think the poem means?" Collectively, we noticed rhymes. We noticed rhythms. We noticed themes. We noticed alliteration. We noticed contrasting words. We noticed metaphor. We noticed allusion. We noticed a shift in mood across stanzas. We noticed repetition. We noticed imagery...

Out of our noticing, meaning of the poem emerged.

And so, too, I have learned to ask this question in science. Present students with phenomena and ask what they notice... not to predict what will happen. Not ask them to explain. Not solve for a number. Simply ask them to notice and ponder and let questions and meaning emerge.


  1. Nice! I've used "what did you observe," but I like "notice" even more, as it implies that we can be looking for more-- such as hidden assumptions and simplifications that might complicate our analysis in the future. Actually there might be one kind of wrong answer: "I noticed nothing because, although physically here, I was not present." Only kind of wrong, because after giving that answer, I bet the student is totally present!

  2. Yeah, it's an thing odd, but, "What did you observe?" and "What do you notice?" are very different, despite their seeming surface similarity.

    If my wife walks in (from getting a hair cut say), she doesn't say, "What do you observe?" she says, "Do you notice anything different?"

    I also think "observe" comes with lots of bad baggage from "the scientific method". Because of this, it sounds like an observation could be wrong. I can imagine someone saying, "No, that's not what you observed".

    Lastly, I think notice comes with a sense of intrique or puzzlement or creativity. People often want to notice something unique or insightful, where people tend to want report to observations that are concrete and objective. In my experience, notice taps into the best parts of the learner.

    Maybe the difference is one is divergent and one is convergent? Not sure.

  3. As soon as I hear "what do you notice" I think of teaching expert-like thinking. In one of his talks Dan Schwartz talked about how novices and experts will notice drastically different things in a relevant picture. Carl Wieman has an example of this [page 13 of the slides for this talk] where he shows a picture and discusses all the things that he notices that allowed him to deduce that it was an atom trap.

    Anyway "what do you notice" seems to always trigger novice-expert differences in my brain. But stepping back from that, I really like this idea of "notice" meaning that they can't be wrong, that only they can know what they notice.