Sunday, 24 May 2015

Observations... the Sherlock Holmes approach...

Sometimes something catches your eye and you just have to read it... my two 14 year old daughters love Sherlock Holmes, so when I saw the post by Brain Pickings on Konnikova: Mastermind: How to think like Sherlock Holmes, I just had to give it a read.

... and I am glad I did... as I started seeing parallels to my work as a preschool teacher... in that observations and how we observe and analyse what we have seen can allow us to deduce what is the best continued path for the children's learning journeys.
Konnikova writes:

Observation with a capital O — the way Holmes uses the word when he gives his new companion a brief history of his life with a single glance — does entail more than, well, observation (the lowercase kind). It’s not just about the passive process of letting objects enter into your visual field. It is about knowing what and how to observe and directing your attention accordingly: what details do you focus on? What details do you omit? And how do you take in and capture those details that you do choose to zoom in on? In other words, how do you maximize your brain attic’s potential? You don’t just throw any old detail up there, if you remember Holmes’s early admonitions; you want to keep it as clean as possible. Everything we choose to notice has the potential to become a future furnishing of our attics — and what’s more, its addition will mean a change in the attic’s landscape that will affect, in turn, each future addition. So we have to choose wisely.

Choosing wisely means being selective. It means not only looking but looking properly, looking with real thought. It means looking with the full knowledge that what you note — and how you note it — will form the basis of any future deductions you might make. It’s about seeing the full picture, noting the details that matter, and understanding how to contextualize those details within a broader framework of thought.

In other words it is important to know why you observing and to take the time to think about how you are observing - especially when it comes to documentation... after all documentation is a collection of your observations... unlike Holmes there are few of us that can remember everything and recall it at will... therefore there is a need to document... there is also the need to document to make the observations visible to others, not least to the children themselves.

This brings me round to another important element of the "Holmes Approach" - that we need to be objective - we need to think about our mindset from the beginning, not only being objective but also selective in what we are observing... after all it is not going to be possible to observe everything. By knowing goals beforehand can help direct our attention resources properly, but this does not mean that you go looking for/reinterpreting facts to mesh with what you want or expect to see - thinking objectively means being open to what you see and not clouding it with your own perspective.

Four years back I was running a bilingual preschool here in Stockholm and I set up language weeks (twice a year) where all observations were concentrated on the children's use  and understanding of language. It was a fantastic way to learn more about the children, but also about observations and documentation as every memeber of staff was observing the same thing in the children and we were able to share strategies of observations, documentation and analysis of the collated information. This enabled the staff to become more proficient in their every day observations of the children and their documentation of them - it also enabled them to deduce how to meet the needs of the children's language development.

I have often approached documentation/observations in this way - from the perspective of gross motor skills, gender equality, fine motor skills etc etc - by focussing my attention for a short period of time on one particular area of a child's development then I give myself a better chance of really understanding it.

Observation means paying attention and paying attention is about every one of your senses: sight, smell, hearing, taste, touch. It is about taking in as much as we possibly can.  It is about learning not to leave anything out — anything that is relevant to the goals that you have set. And it is about realizing that all of our senses affect us — and will affect us whether or not we are aware of the impact. Of course this must sound rather strange after writing about being selective - but it is not so much about not leaving anything out, I suppose, as to not leaving out any of the senses in the observations that you are making - and to being open to all possible observation eventualities. Listening, for example, is done with more than the ears - as I have written in many posts previously and talked about at workshops... listening with ears, eyes, heart and mind contributes to our observations in order to understand and to collect the information and to make deductions - we are trying to deduce each child's learning and how to best offer provocations, challenges and support to ensure the children continue on their learning journey.

We need to recognise the complexity and capability of others... never underestimate them.


Understand how to read a situation - the Sherlock Holmes way. There are three parts to reading a situation:
  • See. What do you see that is happening?
  • Observe. What do you notice that is different?
  • Deduce. What does this imply?
 I think this could be a good approach to have in our own observations of children - what do we see them doing... does it differ from previous play/learning?... does this difference imply anything - that the child needs more stimulus, needs more support, needs new materials... etc etc.

Say it aloud.

Holmes and Watson, talking it through.
Holmes talks to Watson about everything.
The telling helps, Holmes says. "Nothing clears up a case so much as stating it to another person."
 Konnikova,
"Stating something through, out loud, forces pauses and reflection. It mandates mindfulness. It forces you to consider each premise on its logical merits allows you to slow down your thinking." 
I totally agree with this - by entering a dialogue with colleagues we are able to understand our own thinking btter... not only by hearing your own words out loud, but also by being questioned and having new perspectives shared with you.
An observation can then be more easily deduced and the way forward to meeting the needs of the child can be more easily reached.

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