How 'Slow Looking' Can Help Students Develop Skills Across Disciplines

Statue of Liberty (Jonathan Barbour/iStock)

Eight seconds — that’s the latest estimate of the length of the human attention span. The push to cover more material in the same amount of classroom time also provides a challenge, especially when teachers are told that the skills (like critical thinking and creativity) their students will need in order to compete in the 21st century are ones that take time to develop. For educators working with a new generation raised in a world of rapid information exchange, it may seem difficult to hold students’ attention when it comes time for extended observation.

As an antidote, Project Zero researcher Shari Tishman offers “slow looking" — the practice of observing detail over time to move beyond a first impression and create a more immersive experience with a text, an idea, a piece of art, or any other kind of object. It’s a practice that clears a space for students to hold and appreciate the richness of the world we live in.

How "Slow Looking" Can Support Students

Slow looking helps students navigate complex systems and build connections

Activity: Take something apart, whether it’s a physical object or an idea like “family.” What are the different components and how do they function together?

“Looking at physical or conceptual systems and how they’re put together and how they can be taken apart is a powerful strategy for close looking,” says Tishman, the author of Slow Looking: The Art and Practice of Learning Through Observation. Tishman has her graduate students take apart everyday objects in small groups, think about the purpose of the different parts, and make an inventory of the pieces they find. In this activity, students develop an appreciation for complexity and how small pieces can come together to form a larger whole — and in turn, can inspire students to use what they know to design new systems.

Slow looking fuels empathy and self-awareness

Activity: Change your vantage point. That might mean looking with the naked eye and then through a microscope, asking students to think about what a glass of water might look like to an ant, or examining eating utensils from around the world.

“When you look for a while, you become aware of how a thing might look to somebody else; you also become aware of your own lens,” says Tishman. Through slow looking, “students come to an understanding of the multi-perspectival nature of knowing things in our world.” Slow looking allows students to understand how they see something through their own lens — and opens them up to how others in the world and in the classroom may see the same object or idea differently. It also provides a space for them to notice the commonalities in different perspectives.

Students can build off the ideas of others and think together

Activity: Have the class look at an object or image. Go around and have students each say one thing they notice about that object. They can’t repeat, but they can add on to what a classmate has said. Reflect on what students have picked up on: What’s the same or different? What questions do they have?

“Many of the slow looking experiences are really powerful when they’re done in groups because it builds on the excitement that gets generated when it’s your turn or you hear what other people have to say,” Tishman says. Often, a member of the community will share something that will spark new thinking or bring eyes to something other people may not have picked up on originally.

Students learn to describe in detail

Activity: Descriptions don’t just have to be written. Have your students draw something multiple times. What did they notice the first time? Was there something they picked up on the second time? What did they notice as they kept studying the object?

“Sometimes, slow looking can take the form of finding more and more things to notice,” Tishman says. “You might look for things that come forward across time. Notice what strikes you as obvious, your first impression, what’s hidden, what you can discover.” While instructors may often ask students to write down these observations, drawing can provide the same kinds of meaningful insights, especially if you emphasize that the point of the activity isn’t to draw an accurate picture, it’s to notice more detail. You may even ask students to turn their drawings into a written piece that includes the same level of detail as the drawing.

This post originally appeared in Usable Knowledge, which translates education research and well-tested practices so they're accessible to practitioners, policymakers, and parents. Usable Knowledge is based at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. 

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