Eight seconds — that’s the latest estimate of the length of the human attention span. The push to cover more material in the same amount of classroom time also provides a challenge, especially when teachers are told that the skills (like critical thinking and creativity) their students will need in order to compete in the 21st century are ones that take time to develop. For educators working with a new generation raised in a world of rapid information exchange, it may seem difficult to hold students’ attention when it comes time for extended observation.
As an antidote, Project Zero researcher Shari Tishman offers “slow looking” — the practice of observing detail over time to move beyond a first impression and create a more immersive experience with a text, an idea, a piece of art, or any other kind of object. It’s a practice that clears a space for students to hold and appreciate the richness of the world we live in.
How “Slow Looking” Can Support Students
Slow looking helps students navigate complex systems and build connections
Activity: Take something apart, whether it’s a physical object or an idea like “family.” What are the different components and how do they function together?
“Looking at physical or conceptual systems and how they’re put together and how they can be taken apart is a powerful strategy for close looking,” says Tishman, the author of Slow Looking: The Art and Practice of Learning Through Observation. Tishman has her graduate students take apart everyday objects in small groups, think about the purpose of the different parts, and make an inventory of the pieces they find. In this activity, students develop an appreciation for complexity and how small pieces can come together to form a larger whole — and in turn, can inspire students to use what they know to design new systems.
Slow looking fuels empathy and self-awareness
Activity: Change your vantage point. That might mean looking with the naked eye and then through a microscope, asking students to think about what a glass of water might look like to an ant, or examining eating utensils from around the world.
“When you look for a while, you become aware of how a thing might look to somebody else; you also become aware of your own lens,” says Tishman. Through slow looking, “students come to an understanding of the multi-perspectival nature of knowing things in our world.” Slow looking allows students to understand how they see something through their own lens — and opens them up to how others in the world and in the classroom may see the same object or idea differently. It also provides a space for them to notice the commonalities in different perspectives.