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What Do You See?


There’s a big difference between looking and seeing. In the simplest terms, the Merriam Webster dictionary suggests that to look is to direct your eyes in a particular direction. For those of us fortunate enough to be sighted, looking is something we do all day long. Our lives consist of looking at a never-ending stream of objects, people and things; finding satisfaction in their “being as they are.” We don’t spend too much time looking at any given thing, perhaps due to the nature of our reality which is robust with visual stimulation.


Students do a fair share of looking in their classrooms. “Look up here.” “Look at the diagram on page 16.” “Look at the example that has been written on the board.” The instructional experience they encounter involves a chain of looking: “Look at the reaction that occurs as we combine these two elements.” “Look how I solve this equation.” Students use their eyes to acknowledge what is placed before them, in a steady stream of content, facts and sequences that make up the curriculum of study. They will be considered successful if they dutifully “look” and pay enough attention to what they’re looking at to recall it on demand sometime later.


But, are they seeing?


There’s a lot about looking that is passive and automatic. It doesn’t require much effort. But seeing is a different matter. To see something or someone is to become aware and to attend to it. Alli Berman in her Brain Fitness blog puts it this way. “Seeing is not only noticing that something is, but understanding it, attending to it, and looking past the obvious to enjoy its meaning and nuances.”


Students in American classrooms don’t spend a lot of time seeing. That is a sad indictment because the opportunity to “see” is a vital key to genuine learning.


Rarely do teachers take the time to ask their young charges “what do you see?” Such open-ended questions hold the potential of being risky, as the script is not directed or controlled by the adult in the room, But, what a marvelous opportunity to engage kids in a personal thinking exercise, while affording the teacher useful insights into the experiences, perspectives and reasoning patterns of their students. “What do you see? Describe that to us. Why do you see it that way? What is it made of? How does it work?” And maybe, “How does it relate to other things around it?” Through encouraging children to “see,” we are engaging their creativity and curiosity. We are drawing on their prior learning, based on both academic and life experiences. Again, referencing Alli Berman: “We know that (children) do not see with eyes alone, and that it is instead a combined effort of the eyes and the brain, which work together to sort out visual input and arrange it into meaningful images, full of context and significance.”


I made a bold pronouncement earlier in this article when I suggested “the opportunity to ‘see’ is a vital key to genuine learning.” To defend that notion, I refer to the University of California: Berkeley.


The UC Berkeley Center for Teaching & Learning defines “learning” as a process that occurs within the construct of five discreet characteristics, each drawn from research.

  1. Learning is a process that is active - “Learners build knowledge as they explore the world around them, observe and interact with phenomena, converse and engage with others, and make connections between new ideas and prior understandings.”

  2. Learning is a process that builds on prior knowledge - “where one’s knowledge base is a scaffold that supports the construction of all future learning.”

  3. Learning is a process that occurs in a complex social environment - “It is necessary to think of learning as a social activity involving people, the things they use, the words they speak, the cultural context they’re in, and the actions they take; not limited to being examined or perceived as something that happens on an individual level.”

  4. Learning is a process that is situated in an authentic context - providing “learners with the opportunity to engage with specific ideas and concepts on a need-to-know or want-to-know basis.”

  5. Learning is a process that requires learners’ motivation and cognitive engagement “to be sustained when learning complex ideas, because considerable mental effort and persistence are necessary.”

I ask. What did UC Berkeley CTL describe or advocate? Looking or seeing? As they define it, learning is active and depends on prior knowledge as a fulcrum to build new insight. It is an “us” enterprise, not a solitary pursuit. Finally, authentic learning is rooted in the curiosity of the learner; their need-to-know or want-to-know as the key driver of discovery that will hold personal meaning for their learning.


Looking is easy. Seeing must be encouraged, if not taught.


Look at this image. What do you see?

  • I see a red background.

  • I see an apple that’s been eaten.

  • I see a green apple.

  • I see a clean graphic representation.

  • I see composition.

  • I see symmetry.

  • I see the satisfaction of hunger. (I wonder if hunger is truly satisfied.)

  • I see two faces. (What races are represented by these faces?)

  • I see a masculine face. (How do you know?)

  • I see a feminine face. (How do you know?)

  • I see compelling images. (What makes them compelling?)

  • I see gentleness.

  • I see affection.

  • I see conflict.

  • I see a dark colored stem. (Why is the stem dark? Does it mean anything?)

  • I see . . . so many things.

Given the opportunity, kids will see many, many things. It is through the practiced and patient act of “seeing” that insights are developed, questions are raised and theories are examined. Seeing takes time. It is in that sweet spot of lingering long enough to ponder where the magic of understanding resides.


“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”

Henry David Thoreau


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