|As the Director of Professional Development at the American Museum of Natural
History, Dr. Maritza Macdonald is an expert in "what's important for teachers to do and know when they use museums." Observation
and recording is at the forefront of all of her workshops, says Maritza, because, "it's a method of gathering real information
about whatever you study, whether it's a concept, an object, or a living thing. It's first-hand, it's empirical, it's evidence.
And it is a common method in all good research and investigation." First on Maritza's agenda is to get teachers to learn and
practice making observations and gathering evidence in the Museum.
In a recent summer workshop, Dr. Maritza Macdonald guides teachers through a fish observation.
|Beginning to Observe|
Two teachers use measurement tools to enrich their observations.
|In a recent workshop, Maritza asked teachers to describe and classify different kinds of fish. "It was interesting to find out what
they noticed about a particular fish," she comments. "We started by asking them to look for general characteristics: 'How big is the fish? How many
fins does it have? Where are the eyes located?'" The next step was to put out some tools that would further enhance their
observation: scales to weigh the fish, rulers to measure proportions, and magnifying glasses to examine the fish scales. As different
tools yielded different kinds of information, "their descriptions took on a new dimension," Maritza notes. Observations gradually
became more detailed and focused.|
|Characteristics of Good Observations|
|In order to be as precise as possible, observations should involve multiple senses. One of Maritza's favorite exercises is to give
teachers a crystal. First, they describe it visually. "It's shiny. It's glittery. It's jagged. It's sharp. Then they start to play with
it, scrape it with their nails and realize that it crumbles easily. Eventually somebody always takes a piece and licks it (:1) and exclaims, 'Oh, it's salt!' and then the whole world changes," says Maritza with a smile. "The more senses that are
involved in an observation, the more knowledge you gain. For example, if you are on vacation, you might see the ocean from your hotel
window. From that perspective, you could describe or paint it, but you can't tell what it's really like. Once you get out and stick
your feet in it the ocean might be murky or really cold your impression could change."
Workshop participants use many senses to develop detailed descriptions.
|Record Your Observations
Rich descriptions are an important component of recording, and they include impressions as well as objective facts. Maritza asks people
to make their descriptions as precise as possible in terms of characteristics like size, color, and texture. She also suggests that
teachers record the circumstances of the observation, such as the weather, the time of day, and so on. But she also asks people to
record their impressions of the object, to use metaphors, to compare it to something that they know, value, or remember. "This encourages
people to begin to see that you bring a lot of your personal experiences and prior knowledge to an observation," she comments. Maritza
may ask them to look at something and describe it in two ways, in a double entry. On one side of the page could be a written description of
what they see. The other side could be for more subjective comments that provide a context for how the object is viewed, such as, "I think
it's as big as a dinner plate" or "I think it's hard to see from this angle because it's hidden by foliage." In other workshops, she asks
a group of teachers to select an object that interests them, or one that they think is very beautiful, or that they don't want to forget
from a visit to the Museum's halls. This way teachers begin to realize that observing involves very personal choices.
Recording an observation.
As observation is mostly a visual exercise, drawing or sketching, in addition to words, helps to record an observation. When it comes to
the evaluation of the pictorial component of a recording, Maritza has a simple criterion: "a good drawing contains the special
characteristics that you've asked people to note; for example, 'How many eyes does the spider have?', 'Where are they located?', 'Are all
the legs the same size?'" In order to keep people from worrying about whether or not their drawing is going to be beautiful, she makes
it perfectly clear that she doesn't care what the drawing looks like. "You have to free people. You want to encourage them to know that
they can see something and show something in a variety of ways." Tools matter here too. "If I want to know colors, I bring good coloring
pencils, because they add beauty and because the people who are worried about, 'How am I going to describe the pink of this bird?' can mix
them to get close to the actual color." Markers, on the other hand, limit the palette. "You can't fiddle around to create that pinkish
orange. Pick tools that are flexible," suggests Maritza, "such as erasers and soft pencils.
Teaching Observation Skills to Students
During the last part of most workshops, Maritza discusses with teachers ways that they can teach observation skills to their students.
Highlighted below are two of her exercises aimed at developing observation skills with students:
Develop guided observations.
Ask questions to highlight the most important aspects of an object, demonstration, or experience. For example, students may be asked
to describe an object in as much detail as possible, using both words and pictures. Or they can compare and contrast two objects, again
using words and drawings.
Facilitate open observations.
Ask students to note something they find
interesting about an object, demonstration, or experience something they'd like to remember or
learn more about. "This allows students to feel that they have ownership of the lesson," Maritza notes.
Assessment of the students' observations can then be used to make decisions about future lessons back in the classroom or on a future
Maritza encourages interaction between teachers and scientists at the Museum. "We try to show teachers how to conduct investigations with
their students as scientists do, and observation is a big part of what they do," she comments. Observation is a way for scientists to
gather information about the natural world, and the development of these skills in both teachers and students "will allow both students
and teachers alike to do scientific work in the classroom, in a museum, or wherever a lesson takes them."
1: As a rule, one should not be encouraged to test by taste,
unless they have been assured in advance that it is safe to do so.