Training ourselves to see better

Meena Kharatmal

Observation is one of the most important skills for school science learning even at the primary level. Textbooks also emphasize this objective of developing observation skills, among others, using simple activities. Using the context of general science in class three, we developed and conducted simple activities to meet this objective.

We organized a camp on activity-based learning, where 15 students between 10 and 11 years, from a nearby Marathi medium school participated. The activities were conducted in Marathi and students were provided with worksheets in Marathi.

The objective was to encourage students to observe animals. We conducted simple activities related to listing of animals, drawing from experience, observing animals, drawing by observation. The emphasis was on providing opportunities and encouraging students to develop observational skills. We illustrate these activities and provide glimpses of students’ responses from their participation.

Activity 1: Create a list of animals that you see in your classroom and school. Mention where you find these animals.
We began with seeking students’ prior knowledge about animals and their habitat. We asked them to create a list of animals that they see in their surroundings, along with their place of living/dwelling. It was interesting that students listed some animals/insects that are usually seen on vegetables and fruits. For example, larvae in brinjal, fruit fly in banana. Even though ants naturally dwell in soil, since students were recalling from their experience, they mentioned seeing ants in sugar. Overall, each student listed at least 10-12 animals and their habitat. Below is a compiled list of animals in their habitat, translated from Marathi.

• snail, earthworm, snake, rat – soil
• fish, crab, frog – water
• crow, parrot, monkey – trees
• lizard – wall

Their responses indicated that they have seen animals in their surroundings, but did they observe these animals? The listing of animals was followed by drawing of the animals based on their experiences.

Activity 2: Draw the animals that you have seen in your surroundings.
Young children like to draw! We used this interesting medium to understand the importance of observations among primary students. We shortlisted six kinds of animals/insects from their list – ants, caterpillar, earthworm, fish, fruit fly, snail. These are commonly found in our daily life and surroundings. Students were encouraged to draw any two animals/insects on the worksheets from their experiences.

We noticed that though students were aware of the animals and their habitat, they were not clear about the details of the animals and their body parts. A summary of their drawings is as below:

Ants were depicted with 4, 6, 8 legs, having four body parts.
Caterpillar was drawn as having a long cylindrical body with asymmetrical segments and legs.
Earthworm was drawn just like a hollow tube. Students mentioned that it was simple to draw, “just draw curves!” Their drawings missed the head end and tail end.
Fish were drawn either without any fins, or without any scales. Some drew only one fin showing asymmetry. Students mentioned that fish was easy to draw and yet they missed essential body parts in their drawings.
Fruitfly was a bit tricky to draw, so we suggested that they draw it like an insect, such as a housefly.
Snail was drawn with spirals for its shell. Their drawings also showed legs, two eyes and two asymmetrical antennae. It was interesting to see that eyes were drawn as two dots, though the eyes are located on the tip of the antennae.

Students’ drawings at this stage indicated their spontaneous thinking. It was interesting to note that students related some physical features of animals with some indicative shapes. For example, spirals for shell in snails, long tube like body for the earthworm.

However, their drawings also indicated that they missed crucial body parts while depicting the animals. For example, fins and scales in fish, number of legs in ants, etc. Therefore, in order to know their thinking process, we conducted a group discussion. We asked students how many legs an ant has and how many legs a crab has. Students mentioned that ants have 4, 6 or 8 legs, while crabs have 4 or 8 legs. This indicated that only a few students mentioned the correct answer. This led us to ponder whether students really observe at all! It is essential that all students have a correct understanding of animals and their body parts. We explained these details by showing photographs of animals.

Activity 3: Observe the animals and draw.
This activity had six kinds of animals/insects – ants, caterpillar, earthworm, fish, fruitfly, snail – with 12 photographs (two for each animal). Each student was provided with both sets of at least two animals. The students’ drawings were quite interesting. Most of the drawings resembled the animals they saw in the photograph closely.

A brief analysis of students’ drawings based on observation:
Ants: These were accurately drawn with six legs. Small squares were drawn for the sugar. Perhaps this was based on their discussion about the ants’ surroundings.

Caterpillar: This was drawn as a long slender body with legs. In one drawing the segments and legs were shown accurately as in the photograph. In one of the drawings, the legs were shown on both the sides, adding their experiences to their observations.

Earthworm: A detailed drawing of the earthworm was still a challenge. Perhaps the segments were not visible. However, at least the head was shown in their drawings and a circle at one end of the body was drawn to show the mouth. After some probing they drew the earthworm in the mud to depict its surroundings.

Fish: Fish was drawn quite well. They had left out the scales of the fish in the beginning. But based on their observations, their drawing of fish showed fins, tail fins, and even scales. Some drew long curved lines on the body for scales. A few drew minute scales on the body. Students drew curved lines for water to show the habitat.

Fruitfly: This was drawn in some detail. The head, thorax, abdomen were drawn quite appropriately. Upon probing about the second pair of legs, they mentioned that they were overlapping with the wings. Though, in the fruit fly all the legs emerge from the thorax, the third pair of legs was shown emerging a little from the abdomen. However, this was corrected when they were asked to observe these details.

Snail: Children enjoyed drawing the snail as they said, “We have to draw circles and circles!” and that it was simple to draw. Snail’s shell, body, tentacles were drawn and matched with the photographs. Even their surrounding of grass was drawn. Eyes were drawn as two dots although they were located on the tip of the tentacles.

The main objective, to encourage students to observe, was getting accomplished. We could establish this from their drawings, as there was quite a good amount of accuracy and detailing in their observation-based drawings. Students themselves noticed details while observing and drawing. Initially, they only drew the animals. Then they were prompted to also draw their surroundings. So they added mud, water, leaves, stones, sugar, grass, etc., in their drawings. In fact, just to show that “fish is alive, they drew bubbles coming out of its mouth!” The observing and drawing activity was fun and enjoyed by all the students.

This activity turned out to be quite participatory as we conducted discussions while they were observing animals. If we thought they were not looking in the right places we prodded them to. The students saw the difference in their drawings before and after observing the animal photographs.

This activity led us to understand how students think about animals. Now that they observed the details of the animals, they were keen to have a discussion on each animal. This indicates that providing opportunities for observation can lead to generating curiosity in animals. They asked several questions based on their observations of the animals. We asked them to list their questions on animals. We managed to provide answers to most of their questions in the group discussion.

A brief analysis of students’ questions
We believe that their detailed questions about body parts, development, growth were triggered because they had keenly observed the details of the animals. The kinds of questions asked by the students on the six animals were – “Where do they live?”, “What do they eat?”, “What is their colour?”, “How many types of fish are there?”, “How does the snail get its shell?”, “How do fish swim?”, “What is the earthworm’s skin made of?”, etc. A few questions were related to the eyes, legs, head, development, types, species. The general questions that emerged were based on their curiosity about the animal, while specific questions about body parts, etc. were raised after their observation of the animals in the photographs.

The curiosity of students was apparent by questions such as – “Why does the earthworm burrow in soil?”, “How does the snail go inside the shell?” Now the students seemed to want to understand animal behaviour and survival mechanisms in depth. Even, “How do fish see?” was a wonderful question to ask by a primary student! These kinds of questions can also be seen as one way of transitioning from general to specific questions and from fact-based to process based questions.

Although we have only demonstrated how drawing can develop observation skills among students, teachers can use several other techniques as well to instigate observation. A simple way can be by using picture books. Teachers can create or select pictures from any book that has a story of a market place, a festival, a visit to a zoo, or village, town, etc., and ask questions that require observations in details. Often, children enjoy looking at pictures. Therefore, this can be used to ask inquisitive questions from the story. For example, if the picture is of a market place, then the questions can be – list the number of birds on the trees, list the varieties of fruits you see in the market, list the kinds of vegetables being sold, are there more varieties of fruits or vegetables, are there more men or women in the market, how many children (boys or girls) are visiting the market, etc. While trying to find answers to these simple questions, students will need not only to observe, but also count and compare things. Teachers can encourage students to carefully observe the picture and record their answers.

We use our senses of vision, sound, smell, taste, and touch for observation. Just by using the sense of sound, spotting of birds can be developed as an activity. Similarly, using the sense of touch, students can observe and find the types of texture, material, fabric, etc., of objects.

Teachers can hang a bird feeder on a tree and assign students to observe how many birds visit the tree for food, what kinds of birds visit, etc. Similar activity can be developed by keeping a vessel full of water and assign students to observe the birds. Teachers can encourage students to observe the kinds of butterflies that visit their school or garden. As students enjoy watching birds and butterflies, we can make use of their interest to develop simple activities to encourage observations of our surroundings.

Some observations can be done over a period of few days. Students can be encouraged to plant a seed and observe its growth daily. Students can measure the amount of rainfall by collecting rain in a container over a period of time.

Observation requires us to create a record of the things and events that are observed. Students’ observations from various activities can be collectively discussed to generate questions or classroom discussion around the topics related to plant growth, germination, types of birds, types of butterflies, rainfall, etc.

Developing observation skills is one of the goals mentioned in textbooks at the primary level. Observation skills can be developed by simple activities that students engage with and are fond of.

This workshop was also a learning experience for us. Applying simple activities for observing can lead to generating questions and raising curiosity in school science learning.

Acknowledgement: Happy to acknowledge the enthusiastic participation of the students!

The author is with the Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education (TIFR) and is involved in developing teaching learning modules at school and college levels. She can be reached at [email protected].

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