The following activity is part of a series we created to support students, teachers, and caregivers, during this unprecedented time. If you try this activity with your student(s), we’d love to see what you do. Share your journey via the #Inspired2Learn hashtag on your preferred social platform.
Created by: Jenna Fournel and Aleta Margolis
Discipline: A useful activity across all disciplines, particularly as a precursor to collaborative learning.
Age level: Elementary through High School
Time: 20-30 minutes
Materials: A compelling image / Note-taking sheet
Using basic observation and listening skills, this activity can serve as a catalyst for building community in the classroom and deepening understanding of how each of your students thinks.
We are all individuals with different ways of being in and experiencing the world. But we teach and learn in environments that expect a kind of homogeneity when it comes to how we act and understand certain things. That expectation means that when we teach about a topic or assign students projects to work on toward a common goal, we often are surprised or frustrated by the ways in which misunderstandings, conflicts, and failure to reach these goals occur.
What can we learn from our students when we pause to learn more about how they perceive things? What can they learn from each other when they do the same? How might an activity that illuminates the vast differences in our perspectives serve to create a foundation of understanding, and empathy? How might such a foundation make the ways in which we need to differentiate and adapt our instruction more clear?
This simple activity will provide answers to these questions and it serves as a powerful example of the rich diversity that is present in all our ways of thinking. You can return to this activity again and again throughout the year as an introduction to different units of study – beginning your exploration with a group experience that illuminates what students are bringing to the table.
What to Do:
Choose an image for students to observe that is complex enough that it will take some time to study. New Yorker magazine covers are often excellent examples as they frequently feature allusions to current events and are all created by different visual artists who bring an array of styles to their work. But you can also start with images from books you are reading with the class, photographs that pertain to the units you are studying, sculptures, spaces within your school, signs in the hallways, etc. Below you will see some examples of images that would work well.
You will need 20-30 minutes for this activity depending on the size of your class.
- Explain to students: “We are all going to take 2 minutes to write down what we notice about an image I will project for you all to see. There is no right or wrong way to see this image, and each of us will notice different things when we look at it. Don’t worry about writing in complete sentences. For the entire two minutes write down whatever you notice and whatever it makes you think.” Give students a copy of this note-taking sheet.
- Put on some quiet music while students look and write for 2 minutes.
- Break the class into groups of 3-4 and explain: “Now you will each share with your group what you observed, reading directly from what you wrote. One of you shares at a time, and the other members of your group listen and take notes on what you hear in the boxes at the bottom of your note-taking sheet. What did your peers see that you also saw? What did they see that was different?”
- Give the class enough time for everyone to share, assuming each student in the group will need about 2 minutes.
- Invite students to begin the debrief in their groups with the following prompts:
- What did you notice about the observations from your group?
- What did this make you think?
- As a whole group then discuss (you may need to adjust language depending on the age group you are working with):
- What was it like listening to what your peers had to share?
- What did you hear that surprised you?
- Why do you think you all saw such different things even though you were all looking at the exact same image?
- How might these differences in perception affect the way we work together as a class?
- How might these differences in perception affect the way we work together as a society?
- How might our differences of perception be good for collaboration?
- What can we do to work together now, knowing that we all see things so differently?
Consider taking notes on chart paper as students respond to the last few questions and having these responses as a reference point when your class needs to work collaboratively or when issues arise.
Consider doing this exercise again when you introduce new content. For example:
- Sharing an equation that represents the work students will be learning to do in a new math unit.
- Showing a picture from a period in history you are about to study.
- Reading a few lines of a story you are about to read as a class and having students write down what struck them from what they heard. (This is different from a visual prompt but it might help to project the words on a screen so students can go back to them if they didn’t catch everything on the first read-through.)
- Showing a zoomed-in picture of an organism or scientific phenomenon (i.e. a supernova, or a plant cell)
- Giving each student the same small object to hold and observe and then write about (i.e. a marble, a leaf, a piece of fabric, etc.)
Inspired Teaching Connection
This activity is heavily grounded in Mutual Respect, one of the 5 Core Elements of the Inspired Teaching approach. Mutual respect occurs when the teacher and students recognize the value they all bring to the classroom and deepen understanding of each others’ ways of being and doing things in that space. It also involves Student as Expert, another of the 5 Core Elements, because students’ voices and experiences drive the entire exploration. Each of the 4Is, Intellect, Inquiry, Imagination, and Integrity, is at play as students observe, listen, and learn from the observations and wonderings of their peers.
See our instructional model here.