Thursday, October 27, 2011


I heard a story once of a student, assigned to some project with a professor.  He arrived enthusuastically to do his task, and was told to sit infront of the aquarium and observe.  When he had seen all there was to see, he was to return with a written report.  Trying to keep an open mind, he sat and watched the aquarium, and after an hour, he left to write his report.  The professor, without even looking at the report, commented that he had not begun to observe the aquarium yet, and sent him back to his spot.  The story concluded with a month of aquarium watching, and many insiteful observations on aquatic life and relationships.

I often find myself with a question.  Very often, actually.  For 'what is ..?' questions, my solution of choice is google, and more specifically, wikipedia.  Yesterday, while reading a book with the kids, we arrived at the noun 'bellows'.  I didn't know what it meant.  I quickly switched to the computer, and in a few seconds, I had a picture, and a description of how a bellows works.  Later that day, it occurred to me that I didn't even for one second use the context of the story and the colorful language of the text to guess at what a bellows was!  Thinking back, I read many books as a child that had nothing to do with my normal day to day life.  Stories that represented other cultures, times, locations, both real and imagined, were aplenty.  I wasn't one of those children that checked the dictionary.  I hated the dictionary.  It was just too big.  Too many words to search through to find the one I wanted.  I often guessed at the meanings of words, holding them in a temporary space while the story unfolded.  Sooner or later, the clues came together and I figured out what different words meant.  I stayed curious, observed and inferred meaning from the context.

So I'm noticing that if I pay attention, there is a lot that I can figure out on my own.  It seems as if people in our modern context do research less by observation, and more by asking other people what they have observed, or what other people told them.  Don't get me wrong.  I love polling reliable information sources, but that cannot be a substitute to my own observations, analysis, evaluations, etc.  The more dependent I became on this polling activity, the more crude and unreliable my own  observational skills became.

So now, I'm taking time to look, to see what I see.  It's been fascinating.  Seeing isn't merely with the eyes, but with the entire body.  We have sensory receptors everywhere and as we tune in to them all, information comes to us in little drips and magnificent cascades.  Life the child with autism, we get to be fascinated with some detail, concept, idea that we hadn't quite looked at that way before, to explore it for it's own value, even before giving it a value in the bigger picture of life and everything important.

How's this for an experiment:  Spend some time this week just observing something.  Choose something you usually find puzzling.  Why does your partner leave one sock on the kitchen table?  How come the traffic on your street becomes unbearable and 11:47am?  Why do I feel tired on a wednesday?  How come the zebra finches in my cage are suddenly fighting?  Choose something specific, and become a detective about it.  Don't try to get the answers from any particular source, although interviewing is part of observation.  Prioritize observing with all your senses.  You might be surprised at what you notice, what you come to understand.

I'll tell you why the zebra finches are fighting next time.  Happy looking and seeing!


  1. Bravo, Faith!
    It's amazing how easy it is to slide from figuring to looking-up.

    When you think about it, it's kind of funny how what would have been considered cheating when we were growing up (e.g., looking in the back of the book for the answers) is now considered a skill to be developed.

    I wouldn't dismiss being able to effectively use whatever tools are available to you. (It's hard to imagine not having Google.) Still it so easy for a great tool to become an unnecessary crutch.

    As I read your post, I thought, "Wow, there's no need to 'find balance'. All you need to do is routinely and deliberately spend time observing, analyzing and asserting."

    Really cool.


  2. It's the difference between looking in teh back of the book after you think about it, vs habitual looking inthe back of the book. I find even with a 3rd grade critical thinking workbook I was helping Simonne with, when I didn't understand what the question was asking, I just flipped to the back, while telling her not to! I also think about the (former) habit of looking for code in some library that may be similar to something I needed to write, and using it as a starting point, instead of just writing... or writing a project plan and needing to find a similar project plan as a starting point. On the surface it seems to be an efficiency issue, but often for me it's an unwillingness to just tune in, observe, be present with, think about whatever it is.


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