Seeing in Science : The skill of observation

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SWBAT examine an object and make simple observations about the object.

Big Idea

Learning to make observations using the senses can be easy if you know how to use your sense appropriately.


5 minutes

This lesson is the first in a series of lessons that builds upon four others focusing on the process skills of science.  It is used in conjunction with a unit theme on insects.  I like the idea of integrating curriculum content to heighten interest and add learning content to the lesson.

I hold up a beanie baby insect and show it to the class.  I explain to the kids that this beanie baby is really cute and soft, and ask if the children if they think he is a toy or a tool? Anticipating that they will answer a toy, I tell them this time the toy is going to be a tool for us to learn from.  We are going to use this beanie baby to help us learn how to make strong scientific observations.  

"So tell me what do you notice about this insect?  In your table teams, please take a moment to discuss what you see. When you hear the bell ring, have your team leader be prepared to stand and share your observations.” Remember to allow at least three to four minutes for the children to explore their dialogue. 

I use table teams or Cooperative learning teams all the time in my teaching. I really like using this strategy, it allows for all the students to share their ideas and thoughts, rather than just one or two hands always being raised.  It also offers opportunities for the ELL students to practice their language skills in a safe environment with two or three peers rather than an entire class of onlookers. Which can be very stressful.  



15 minutes

While this lesson does not directly link itself to any performance expectations, it does link itself to the Science and Engineering practices SP4, as well as, the National Science Standards: Science as Inquiry. 

I want students to understand that good science requires the skill of being able to make quality observations.  If a scientists is not able to make a strong observation, the results of their work may be skewed due to a lack of observational skill.  In the elementary grades, I believe it is imperative that teachers directly and explicitly teach this skill.  It is not safe to assume that all children will be the background or experience into the classroom of knowing how to do this.  

This lesson uses a beanie baby to focus on the skill of observation.  Not a real insect, while it is also important for children to practice learning and making observations with real objects from nature, this lesson is not about observing the insect itself, but more about looking for attributes of the stuffed creature.  Observing real insects will happen in later lessons during the school year. 

This lesson also has a direct connection to the National Science Standards in Inquiry.  The vision of the standards explain that inquiry is moving beyond just teaching the process skills of science to students, but integrating them more with content.  However, in the primary grades, teachers cannot expect students to come understanding this skill

I allow the children time to observe, without offering any ideas, language, vocabulary, or suggestions. 

When the conversations begin to die down, I ring the bell and wait for my team leaders to stand. 

“Green team one, how about if you go first? Share with us, what your team observed.” I am careful to make sure I continue to use the word “observe” not "see", or "look at."  No phrase that could be used to mean observation.  I want the children to hear that word and begin to assimilate it into their own vocabularies. 

Each team is offered the opportunity to share their observations.  There will be similarities in what they observe.

“The bug has six legs.”  “It has three sections in it’s body.”

“Those are all great observations.  We are going to be talking today about how to make good scientific observations.  I like the way you all included the part of this insect you see up here on the document camera..  You made some really great observations. I am going to bring a beanie baby insect to each of your teams to practice making some observations.  You get to work together as a team to do this. I want you to really think about what you see when you make your observations." 

Over the years, I have amassed quite a few beanie babies in the insect family.  They are all different, butterflies, ladybugs, lightning bugs, and beetles.  I make sure that all the teams have an insect to observe.  I know that these are not real insects, and real science would preclude having real insects.  But this lesson is about observations, not insects.  I will focus on observations of real insects when I teach another unit on insects. 



10 minutes

“Thanks for sharing all those observations, I would like for all of you to look up at the screen now.  If you need to adjust  your chairs to see better, feel free.  Ok, look at the screen, what do you on this screen?”

My computer is ready with the Observation Power Point.

Slide one is the title screen…”I am going to move on, keep watching…. I am going to read this to you and let’s think about what it says.  ‘The scientific skill of observing uses your eyes.  Take a moment to think about what  that might mean to you.” 

I proceed through all the slides; each slide reiterates the five senses and explains how scientists use these skills to make observations. 

Eventually, someone will notice that the slides are pointing out the five senses.  “Hey, this is what we talked about  when we learned about safety in science.”  “You’re right, it is.  Good scientists, use their senses to make good observations.  I am going to ask your teams to do this again, but this time we are going to be a bit more organized about it.  Your teams are going to make observations again, but this time you are going to record your observations.  We are going to use our Circle Maps.  We are used to using these, they are not new to us.”

I love Thinking Maps. They are a great way to teach our kids how to organize their thoughts and concepts.  In this lesson, the Circle Map is a great one to gather all the observations the children are making in one place.  


10 minutes

In the beginning of this phase, I introduce the words classify and categorize.  These  are new vocabulary words again.  I am scaffolding this vocabulary for future lessons.  Setting the stage to make this language part of the children's speaking vocabularies.   

The process grid helps students to organize and classify all the new information and concepts they are learning.  This is also one of those nine high-yield strategies that Robert Marzano's research (Classroom Instruction that Works) specifies as a strategy in teaching.

“I would like for you to take all those great observations that you all made in your teams and organize that  new  information.  We are going to use a Observation Data Grid.  Remember how we talked about scientists using their senses to make observations?  Well, it would be easier to know what to with that information if we classify it into categories of our senses. “

I show the children the process grid and explain that it is separated into categories by their senses and that they will take all the information from the Circle Map and transfer it to their grid. 

Referring back to the Power Point will remind students scientists use all their senses to make strong and solid observations.  There will be times, when the object they are observing may not lend itself to being heard or smelled, however, those are still observations.  Teaching children to write in their observations "no smell was detected" or something to that effect is still an observation.  

The process grid becomes a great tool to be used as a formative assessment for me.  Each student will have their own grid with the information they gather from their team's work.  I can quickly glance over the work they have included to see what the students have included or left out.  This will help guide me in knowing which children are still unsure about the observation process.