Cultivating curious observation

Saturday 8 November 2014

On a recent visit to the Barcelona aquarium with my family I noticed a striking difference in the behaviour of my two sons. One, the eldest, wanted to see everything and to understand what the animals were doing in every tank and my youngest son want to see the tiger sharks and nothing else really caught his eye, unless it looked like a tiger shark.

This got me thinking about school visits and how to prepare the students for what they are about to see. Is it best to tell students what they will see, give them definite tasks and guide their visit or should we as teachers leave our students more freedom for curious observation. There are definite advantages to a guided focused approach. It is more efficient when time is in short supply. It is easier to remember a few key points than a general impression of the whole. This approach is clearly a good way to revise and often achieves higher marks in exam questions.

The IB guide states this about the Nature of Science, "1.5. Many scientific discoveries have involved flashes of intuition and many have come from speculation or simple curiosity about particular phenomena." I recently heard Brian Cox (UK. Physicist) talking about the importance of his Royal Society research fellowship in allowing him the freedom to pursue his natural curiosity and to lead research in his field of quantum mechanics. I am beginning to think that there needs to be more encouragement of curious observation in IB Biology lessons. This is easy to do if we give students freedom to collect flies and spiders and observe them under the microscope, it might also be possible in carefully chosen dissections, or in problem based learning tasks or open ended research. Perhaps it is also possible in the IA investigation?! Who knows? It may be more difficult in a topic about biochemistry or genetics.

What can be learned from the behaviour of my two sons? The eldest was on his second visit to the aquarium and his first ( a school trip) had been a quick rush through without enough time to see things in detail. He had been frustrated by not seeing everything the first time. I think this may be the key to a method of cultivating curious observation. Like a good writer who spends time incorporating enough suspense to keep the reader turning the pages a good teacher should incorporate suspense in a topic by introducing students to the wonders of a biology topic at the beginning without giving away all the details. Could this motivate students to 'turn the pages' themselves in a lesson to find the answers.

Perhaps this won't work for all students, sometimes we should encourage those who like to run through a task looking for their "tiger sharks", but I'm tempted to try a bit of suspense in lessons. Watch this space for some resources to try if it goes well?


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