Teaching students to observe is one of the most important skills that students learn in science. Students learn to build their own knowledge of the world around them, ask questions, and observe what is really happening in front of them. Teaching students to observe can be quick and simple at first but should be embedded into all science units. So, how do we teach students to observe?
Teaching students to observe using their five senses
One of the first lessons in teaching students to observe must be teaching them to use their five senses. Students need to learn what their five senses are and how they are helpful in observing the world around them. I have found that most preschools or pre-k programs are teaching about the five senses, so I never need to spend too long on this. However, whenever I have students observe, I connect the observation to at least four of their senses. We do not share food with students to protect students with allergies, so taste is not one of the senses we ever use in science. I use these observation sheets with students to encourage them to think of what their senses are telling them.
Start teaching students to observe with something simple
Teaching students to observe is best done initially with something that the students are already familiar with. In New England, where I teach, I like to take fall leaves and have each student practice observing it for a science period. We talk about our senses, and I think aloud to them about what I am observing. I model what scientists do when they observe and questions they might ask. Then we practice our accurate drawings. Starting with something that students are already familiar with help students focus on the process of observation instead of focusing on learning more about an unknown object.
It may seem simple to us, but an important teaching point when teaching students to observe is teaching students to draw exactly what they see. I give the example when I am practicing with the leaf, or any science activity where they are observing, that I love rainbows, so I am just going to draw a rainbow in my picture, or I am going to color the leaf rainbow. The kids always yell, “no! That’s not the color!” and this helps them to remember what I already told them – to draw exactly what they see. This saves a lot of mistakes in future observational drawings but be prepared to remind students each time you do an observation activity.
I teach students how I like to use colored pencils or crayons instead of markers because I can more accurately draw the exact colors I am seeing. In the fall leaf, I think aloud how the colors are starting at one color and then blending into another color. I might even hold the colored pencil up to the leaf to find the best match.
Give students sentence starters and vocabulary
When teaching students to observe, we want to support their writing and labels by giving sentence starters and vocabulary. This strategy supports all students, but especially students who are learning English. We can use vocabulary cards, visuals, or a word box to help students label the different parts of what they are observing. I also love to use sentence starters on my observational pages to help start the sentence. I like to use “I observe” or “I see” or even “I hear,” “I feel,” and “I smell” depending on what they are observing. Using visuals next to the sentence helps all students understand what the sentence starter is saying.
Teaching students to observe is an important first focus for science. This will help you use observational drawings and activities in later units to help students grow their own knowledge. Every time you are having students observe, these are important teaching points and supports to come back to again and again.