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Observation 101
By Lauren Goldberg

Kim Birge-Liberman’s sixth graders are paying attention–with all of their senses.

In the first weeks of the school year, Ms. B. is providing her science students with a full-immersion course in the essentials of observation–a set of skills necessary for success in field biology. Her lessons involve vocabulary, explanations, clear instructions about procedures and organization, and LOTS of opportunities to practice.

Tuesday’s class began with a discussion about the differences between quantitative and qualitative descriptions; the attributes of an object that can be counted or measured, and those that can be explained through aspects such as shape, color, or texture. Ms. B. made it clear that one form of description is not necessarily better than another, but the distinction between these types of details is important in science. In partner pairs, students presented each other with “what is it?” challenges, describing household objects in both quantitative and qualitative terms.  As students tried to identify the objects based on the clues their friends shared, laughter and exclamations of “ohhhhhh!” filled the room. Each example offered a new opportunity to make sense of the terminology and thinking skills that students will be using all year.

Next, Kim and teaching associate Andrew Zielinski introduced the main activity of the morning–a trip to the school garden to conduct a focused observation. The teachers explained the task: everyone would select one plant and prepare a series of drawings, called “zooms.” Each drawing would provide a closer and more detailed representation of a smaller feature of the previous image. Within minutes, the garden was nearly silent as students sat, focused, and sketched carefully. Over the next days, students will return to their spots to continue adding details and noticing additional features of “their” plants. A clearly organized “criteria sheet” reminds each budding scientist of the requirements of the project (an accurate representation of the leaf, of the fruit or flower; detailed observations about the texture and smell of the plant; measurements of various parts of the plant, and work that is “representative of a field biologist”).

In the meantime, outside of school, these 6th graders are completing a multisensory exploration of other familiar materials including lemon juice, eggs, ice cubes, glass and metal containers, and vinegar. For each of these items, students are asked to consider visual and sound features as well as smell, texture, and taste (when appropriate and safe). As they discuss their findings, Kim reinforces the meaning of words such as guessinference, and hypothesis: When is a conclusion or explanation based on evidence? When is it based on previous experience? How do these types of critical thinking help us become more accurate and careful in our observations?

As the year progresses, the class will explore increasingly unfamiliar materials and objects. They will examine microscopic samples and investigate new substances. As they approach these experiences, they will rely on, and refine, the observational skills that they are practicing this week. They are off to a great start.

Lauren Goldberg is Foote's curriculum coordinator.

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