Observation is Foundational for Science

.“Children should be encouraged to Watch.––Children should be encouraged to watch, patiently and quietly, until they learn something of the habits and history of bee, ant, wasp, spider, hairy caterpillar, dragon-fly, and whatever of larger growth comes in their way. ‘The creatures never have any habits while I am looking!’ a little girl in some story-book is made to complain; but that was her fault; the bright keen eyes with which children are blest were made to see, and see into, the doings of creatures too small for the unaided observation of older people.” CM volume 1
She goes on to talk of the value of an ant farm at home for personal observations. I was reminded anew of the value of first hand observation all over again when I collected my little shield bug last week and shared a photo here. I ended up keeping the bug over night, and from time to time I would go back and watch it a bit more. I thought I had seen all there was to notice the first fifteen minutes, but everytime I returned and watched it moving, I would notice something new- a patch of colour or a pattern I’d missed, a joint in the legs, a opening, the way the head moved, the fact that the legs were so jointed the bug could do what looked like pushups….
Books are great for filling things out, preferably later, for reference, for help in seeing what to notice, for instructing your observations. But nature study is about learning to see and think and wonder about what’s real and right in front of you in full rather than pictures on a screen or a page (which pictures can be helpful references later, but should not replace or outweigh personal observation).
Above is picture of a pair of sea urchin shells my son brought me after a snorkeling trip (he never brings me flowers, he brings me cool things like these)- I looked them over and felt them, and attempted a crude sketch (no, you cannot see it), and examined them with a magnifying glass and a pocket microscope, and looked again, just because I admire them so, for a few minutes every day. On the 3rd day I noticed the inside protuberance something like a tooth- which I am sure it is not, but I don’t know yet what it is.
I think when we first look at something it’s like walking into a crowded booksale- we are overwhelmed, there is so much to see the details blur and we look everywhere. The more times we come back and focus on just one area, the more we notice. This simple, round empty shell of a sea urchin looks deceptively devoid of detail- one feels one could observe all there is to see about it in five minutes. And perhaps, with much practice, one can. But most of us and our children are just starting out. So take time to observe, and then come back and observe again, and again. Make these observations first and firsthand, in real life, with real things, not books, youtube videos, and other flat, one dimensional resources.

“…It would be well if we all persons in authority, parents and all who act for parents, could make up our minds that there is no sort of knowledge to be got in these early years so valuable to children as that which they get for themselves of the world they live in. Let them once get touch with Nature, and a habit is formed which will be a source of delight through life. We were all meant to be naturalists, each in his degree, and it is inexcusable to live in a world so full of the marvels of plant and animal life and to care for none of these things.” ”

“…the quickness of observation natural to a child should not be relied upon; in time, and especially as school studies press upon him, his early quickness deserts the boy, but the trained habit of seeing all that is to be seen, hearing all that is to be heard, remains through life. Volume 3, page 109

Science.––In Science, or rather, nature study, we attach great importance to recognition, believing that the power to recognise and name a plant or stone or constellation involves classification and includes a good deal of knowledge. To know a plant by its gesture and habitat, its time and its way of flowering and fruiting; a bird by its flight and song and its times of coming and going; to know when, year after year, you may come upon the redstart and the pied fly-catcher, means a good deal of interested observation, and of; at any rate, the material for science. The children keep a dated record of what they see in their nature note-books, which are left to their own management and are not corrected. These note-books are a source of pride and joy, and are freely illustrated by drawings (brushwork) of twig, flower, insect, etc. The knowledge necessary for these records is not given in the way of teaching. On one afternoon in the week, the children (of the Practising School) go for a ‘nature walk’ with their teachers. They notice for themselves, and the teacher gives a name or other information as it is asked for, and it is surprising what a range of knowledge a child of nine or ten acquires. The teachers are careful not to make these nature walks an opportunity for scientific instruction, as we wish the children’s attention to be given to observation with very little direction. In this way they lay up that store of ‘common information’ which Huxley considered should precede science teaching; and, what is much more important, they learn to know and delight in natural objects as in the familiar faces of friends. The nature-walk should not be made the occasion to impart a sort of Tit-Bits miscellany of scientific information. The study of science should be pursued in an ordered sequence, which is not possible or desirable in a walk. It seems to me a sine quâ non of a living education that all school children of whatever grade should have one half-day in the week, throughout the year, in the fields. There are few towns where country of some sort is not accessible, and every child should have the opportunity of watching from week to week, the procession of the seasons. Geography, geology, the course of the sun, the behaviour of the clouds, weather signs, all that the ‘open’ has to offer, are made use of in these walks; but all is incidental, easy, and things are noticed as they occur. It is probable that in most neighbourhoods there are naturalists who would be willing to give their help in the ‘nature walks’ of a given school.
We supplement this direct ‘nature walk’ by occasional object-lessons, as, on the hairs of plants, on diversity of wings, on the sorts of matters taken up in Professor Miall’s capital books; but our main dependence is on books as an adjunct to out-of-door work––Mrs. Fisher’s, Mrs. Brightwen’s, Professor Lloyd Morgan’s, Professor Geikie’s, Professors Geddes’ and Thomson’s (the two last for children over fourteen), etc., etc. In the books of these and some other authors the children are put in the position of the original observer of biological and other phenomena. They learn what to observe, and make discoveries for themselves, original so far as they are concerned. They are put in the right attitude of mind for scientific observations and deductions, and their keen interest is awakened. We are extremely careful not to burden the verbal memory with scientific nomenclature. Children learn of pollen, antennae, and what not, incidentally, when the thing is present and they require a name for it.”


First hand observation instills a sense of wonder, as well, and there’s nothing like wonder to season the appetite for science.

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One Comment

  1. Posted April 14, 2017 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    We have sea biscuits (thicker than sand dollars) that are tumbled ashore by the incoming tide. . . I’ve learned so much as we’ve picked them up and taken them home over the past six months.

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