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February 1, 2013
Vol. 70
No. 5

The Power of Noticing

When we teach students to focus and notice, we help them gather the raw material for creative thinking

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Our students are so creative! How can we help them use that creativity to learn?" This question haunted me while I was teaching art in a K–8 public school. In art class, I frequently saw students demonstrate refreshingly original ideas in their drawings and paintings as well as innovative problem solving related to their projects. They were engaged, productive, and eager to learn. But these same students often lacked motivation and struggled in their academic classes. My challenge was to analyze the kind of thinking they were using in art class and determine how they could use it to be more successful academically.

Gathering Information

One of the first things I observed was how intensely my creative students were able to focus when they looked at things they wanted to draw. For example, in a 7th grade class, I asked the students to look at their hand, try every possible position, select one, study it, and reflect on what they noticed—all before they tried to draw it. After a few minutes of quiet, Angie became so excited that she jumped up, holding her left hand in a relaxed pose, palm up and fingers slightly bent: "Ms. Garner, it's always been there, but now I really see it!" She couldn't wait to start drawing. Many other students had a similar aha moment. By first taking in sensory information (seeing with their eyes), and then noticing details and relationships (seeing with their minds), they could make that information their own.
This exercise illustrates how noticing provides the first step in a process that can ultimately lead students to deeper understanding. Because students frequently scan things superficially, I found it more effective to teach my art students to see instead of teaching them to draw. As they noticed relationships of parts to one another and parts to the whole, they discovered they could draw just about anything.
I explained that noticing relationships was a secret that could help them in other subjects, too. For example, I encouraged students, instead of just trying to memorize spelling words, to carefully notice interesting things about the words they wanted to learn. I wrote the word investigator on the wall chart and asked them what they noticed about it. They said things like, "It starts with a vowel," "It has 12 letters in it," and "I see 'gator' and 'invest' in it." I asked them to tap out the syllables, and then I wrote in–ves–ti–ga–tor and asked what they noticed. After a long pause, one student finally said, "Three syllables have only two letters, and two have three letters." Someone else commented, "Look, each syllable has a vowel in it!"
I asked the students to notice which vowels were used and how they sounded, and then to close their eyes and picture the word in their minds and mentally hear the sounds as they tapped out the syllables. When they opened their eyes, one said, "Wow, I always hated trying to spell long words, but this is easy." Another said, "Would this work with all words? I mean, does every syllable always have a vowel in it?"
I encouraged them to be investigators and see what they noticed about their spelling and vocabulary words in their other subjects. At the next class, several students came in with lists of difficult words they had learned to spell by noticing things about them. Sam said, "When our teacher was explaining how to multiply and divide decimals, I noticed there was a pattern of just moving the decimal point." Sandy commented, "In science, when we were doing an experiment, I really watched closely to notice details about what happened. I was an investigator!"
When I shared what we were doing with classroom teachers, many of them reported that they had observed students applying this approach in their classes and that these students had become more careful in completing their work. One teacher commented, "I don't have to repeat directions as often. When I give the students an assignment, it's like they actually hear what I say and watch me more closely when I explain things."

Gathering Sensory Data

To really notice something is a matter of focusing attention, suspending judgment, and reflectively taking in as much sensory data as possible. We can collect data about who and what (persons, objects); how many and how much (quantities); where (spatial orientation, size, shape, perspective); when (orientation in time); how (influences, cause and effect); and why (relationships, interactions). Learning to focus attention, suspend judgment, and become reflectively aware of sensory input applies to all the senses, and this awareness supplies the raw material for creative thinking. In every content area, we can access and nurture this ability to focus and gather sensory data by starting a lesson with artifacts, pictures, texts, videos, worksheets, or manipulatives and asking students, "What do you see?" and "What do you notice?"
One teacher, Sylvia, was a little nervous about using this approach with her second-semester Spanish students, but she decided to try. At the beginning of a class, she displayed a selection of regular verbs with various conjugated endings that represented changes in person, number, gender, and tense. She asked, "What do you see?" Dead silence. Sylvia waited, resisting the temptation to tell students what to look for. Someone said, "I see a bunch of words." She persisted "What do you notice? Talk in your small groups about your 'notices'."
After a few minutes, she asked the groups to share with the whole class. When they reported organizing the verbs into categories with similar endings based on person, number, gender, and tense, Sylvia was as excited as they were. She told me, "It was like they were teaching themselves the things I had tried over and over to help them remember." Students were creating meaning rather than just memorizing information.
When we first try this approach, students may try to guess what we want them to see, and we have to resist the temptation to point out what is important. When students realize we are sincerely inviting them to bring something to the learning process and that we are interested in what they have to say, they learn to trust their senses, focus their attention, suspend judgment, and gather as much data as possible. This kind of cognitive engagement stimulates curiosity and creativity. Instead of being in a passive-recipient mode and just trying to remember what we tell them, students invest in their own learning. Starting to wonder and asking questions activate creativity.
In addition, when students share what they notice, they provide us with information about their background knowledge of the content, their vocabulary, their interests, and their questions. These give us the links we need to introduce a new concept in a way that is relevant and meaningful.
For example, as Kristie prepared to introduce a unit on water and the environment with her 4th graders, she displayed many water-related pictures around the room, including waterfalls, floods, water purification plants, rain, snow, oceans, lakes, rivers, tsunami waves, icebergs, fountains, clouds, rainbows, and so on. She invited the students to examine the pictures to see what they noticed and to write down what they wondered about or what questions came to mind. The students were actively engaged as they milled around the room and pointed out things of interest to one another. She then asked them to discuss in small groups what they noticed and what they wondered about.
When they came together for a whole-class discussion, Kristie was able to assess the students' background knowledge, vocabulary, and areas of interest, which helped her connect the key concepts of the lesson with students' levels of understanding. Too often, we make connections for the students instead of letting them enjoy the challenge of creating meaning for themselves.

Using Creative Visualization

Most young children enter school bright-eyed, full of questions, eager to learn, and willing to try anything. All too soon, they learn that their imaginative ideas and questions are not valued in the classroom as much as following directions, giving the right answers, and getting good grades are. By the time they get to middle school, too many students have relegated their imagination to "fun" activities unrelated to academics.
That's unfortunate, because imagination is the beginning of the cognitive process through which we create meaning. In our minds, we automatically filter the data we gather through our values, beliefs, and feelings, translating them through visualization into images, numbers, words, sensations, sounds, and actions. Visualization enables us to frame a problem and use our creativity to envision possible solutions.
Dwayne, a 7th grader who was an outstanding artist, had been disengaged in school since 2nd grade. Although he was not disruptive, he did barely enough work each year to squeak by with mostly Ds. However, he wowed other students with his creative drawings. When I asked him how he learned to draw so well, he smiled and said, "I picture in my mind what I want to draw, move it around to see different ways of looking at it, project it onto the paper, and then just draw it."
I asked him if he had ever thought of doing that when he was reading, working on a math problem, or doing a science assignment. He looked puzzled, then said, "You mean, like seeing pictures in my mind of what I'm reading about?" His classroom teachers and I had assumed he was doing that all along. He leaned forward and said, "I think I could do that! It would be kind of like making a mental video or figuring out how all the pieces of a puzzle fit together, right?" I assured him that his imagination was a powerful tool that would make his schoolwork much more enjoyable and meaningful.
Dwayne later reported that when he was studying the American Civil War in social studies, instead of just reading the words, he used his imagination to picture the battles and to make the people involved come alive in his mind. He said, "I could even feel like I was one of the slaves trying to run away to freedom." His parents and his teachers were amazed when the change in Dwayne's approach to his work resulted in his ending the year on the honor roll.
To help students understand how their imagination is connected to comprehension, I give them some words like love, conflict, fire, and confusion and ask them to make a quick sketch of what they see in their minds when they hear each word. They draw symbols or stick figures without any difficulty. Then I give them an unfamiliar word, like agrimony, and everyone stops, asking what it means. I explain that they can quickly recognize that they don't really understand a new vocabulary word's meaning if they cannot make a mental image of the word. Of course, some abstract words are difficult to visualize, but I've been amazed how some students find a way to picture words they understand.
When students are starting a new text, I ask them to scan the pages and use visualization to identify which words they wish they knew better. This nonthreatening invitation gives them the opportunity to self-assess and create meaning when they read the text.
As students learn to reflect and actively visualize information, they get in touch with their inner spirit; they become more free to generate new ideas, create new insights, and deepen understanding. Tony Wagner interviewed scores of successful young innovators—"budding engineers, scientists, artists, musicians, and others who have started companies or worked for some of the most innovative companies in the world, as well as social innovators and entrepreneurs who are seeking better ways to solve societal problems." In all cases, these innovators emphasized the importance of their ability to visualize original concepts and mentally map procedures to achieve their goals.
Wagner documented their stories to explore how we, as teachers and parents, can develop the capacities of young people to be creative and entrepreneurial innovators who can find solutions to national and global problems that threaten our survival. He stated that our overemphasis on test scores may be depriving our students of the opportunity to develop the essential qualities of creative innovators in the 21st century—curiosity, imagination, collaboration, persistence, the ability to think critically for accessing and analyzing information to solve problems, and the willingness to take risks and tolerate failure.

Activating Learning

Because our students function in a world of media overload, bombarded with images, sounds, texts, and experiences, they tend to passively accept what is presented instead of generating their own mental images. If they are to trust their own creative ability, we have to teach them to slow down and gather relevant sensory data, notice relationships, and use their imaginations to visualize. We also need to nurture a spirit of wonder and questioning so essential for critical thinking. When students stop to reflect and visualize what they are hearing or seeing, they are able to make it their own.
At the beginning of each art class, I would ask students to close their eyes for one minute and picture a beautiful thought to stimulate their visualization and creativity. I asked them to picture something that made them relax, or something they were going to draw, paint, or construct in that particular lesson. Sometimes I read a poem to them or described imagery related to the project. Then we had a brief time to share things they noticed or imagined.
For example, a 1st grader said, "We were sitting in a traffic jam last night, and my dad was all mad; but I looked at the shapes and colors of the cars overlapping." A 4th grader said, "I looked at a beautiful, velvety red rose and noticed how the petals overlapped one another as they unwrapped." A 7th grader said, "I was inside a blue bubble that was inside a red bubble, and I saw everything purple." An 8th grader said, "You know Einstein's theory of relativity? As matter approaches the speed of light, it increases in mass. What if we found out we are slowed-down light?"
We can access this amazing ability to visualize in the classroom by simply taking a few minutes after we explain a new concept to have students close their eyes and picture what they just heard, saw, or experienced. By doing this, we encourage students to activate their cognitive processing by making connections with prior knowledge and experience, finding patterns and relationships, formulating predictable rules or outcomes, and pulling out general principles that transfer to many different applications. We also enable students to enjoy a few moments of quiet thought (a rare gift in our hurried, noisy environment).
Before students started a project to design posters on bullying, I asked them to take a few minutes to visualize what they wanted the finished product to look like, to make a sketch of it, and to picture what they had to do step-by-step to complete the project. The students worked in groups to decide what the message would be, how to best communicate the message, what media to use, and how to evaluate whether the finished product met their expectations. During every step of planning and decision making, they used their creativity and visualization to select the best outcomes.
They also engaged in some intense discussions about the topic. Cornell said, "If bullies just thought about what it was like for the other person, they would probably act differently." Josh said, "Yeah, but they don't stop and think about that." "It's like the perspective we were talking about the other day," said Cheryl, "being able to picture stuff in your mind from different points of view."
I encouraged the group to make some sketches to illustrate their thoughts. Sam drew some big stick figures intimidating a smaller figure. Rosio said, "No, no, we don't want to show what not to do, we want to show what to do." They each made several thumbnail sketches and gradually combined their ideas to show a group of kids hiking up a mountain, two were reaching out to help a third who had slipped near the edge of a cliff. The caption read: "Together we reach the top!" The process of visualizing and planning helped them create, clarify, and express their thinking.

The Habit of Noticing

Although we often think of create as meaning to produce something from nothing, creation always starts with some form of sensory input through sight, hearing, smell, taste, or touch. This input builds a mental database of information, experiences, ideas, processes, relationships, interactions, images, sounds, and symbol systems that become the raw material for creative mental processing. Reflective awareness of sensory input and visualization become the touchpoints between the outside material world and the inside mental world.
Nurturing students' creativity is both challenging and rewarding. It is most effective when integrated in every content area to encourage innovative and critical thinking. We can use every instructional experience to help equip our students to systematically gather sensory data and reflectively visualize information. This habit of noticing helps students identify details and determine their relevance. Playfully experimenting with multiple relationships among the data through visualization helps students create patterns, ideas, and new possibilities.
Copyright © 2013 Betty K. Garner
End Notes

1 Roam, D. (2008). The back of the napkin: Solving problems and selling ideas with pictures. New York: Penguin Group.

2 Wagner, T. (2012). Creating innovators: The making of young people who will change the world. New York: Scribner, p. xvi.

Betty K. Garner is a professional learner who continues researching metability as a process of learning, creating, and changing. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree from Barat College in Lake Forest, Illinois; her Masters in Educational Processes from Maryville University in St. Louis, Missouri; and her Doctorate in Learning and Instruction from the University of Missouri-St. Louis. During her 40 years as an educator, she has served as a classroom teacher, art teacher, psychological examiner, professional learning coach, university instructor, researcher, and international consultant. She has been involved in numerous privately and publicly funded innovative professional development projects and continues to conduct seminars in her research, including an annual series of extended seminars in Europe. In the St. Louis area, she was a leader in facilitating candidates for National Board Certification, worked with adults who couldn't read, conducted hundreds of case studies with students struggling in school, facilitated workshops for parents, and trained teachers and administrators to become reflective practitioners and develop their metability. She is currently president of the Aesthetic of Lifelong Learning, a not-for-profit corporation designed to enhance the creative potential of educators, parents, and children.

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