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‘Slow Looking’ and Learning #57

Quote of the Week

“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” -Henry David Thoreau

Hi, this is the GenWise team– we bring out this newsletter to help parents and educators to complement the work of formal schools and associated systems. We can help our children thrive in these complex times only by exchanging ideas and insights and working together. We are also a founder-member of the Gifted India Network– if you are interested in issues related to gifted education and talent development, an easy way to keep updated about talks, programs and resources is to join the Gifted India Network telegram channel (

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If you are interested in our upcoming residential summer program at Shiv Nadar University (NCR) from June 16- 26, 2022, please check out this post.

‘Slow Looking’ and Learning

In this post, Sapna Shah, Academic Dean at the GenWise Summer Program running at Manipal University currently, shares her observations about how ‘slow looking’ is a crucial part of learning. She uses vignettes from the camp to talk about this. Her observations are inspired by the book Slow Looking: The Art and Practice of Learning Through Observation. Sapna uses the term observation here to refer not just to the process of paying attention when looking at something, but to any process that involves careful observations, experiments and meaning-making. In a world of clickbait attention, helping learners to slow down, to resist the temptation to jump to conclusions and to proceed carefully but surely is of utmost importance.

For the last week, I have been a witness to students from grades 8 to 10 from across India, at the residential GenWise Summer Program, immersing themselves in a range of courses like Forensic Science, Artificial Intelligence & Machine Learning, Mathematical Thinking, Economics and Data Science, Reasoning like Sherlock Holmes, and Design & Engineering. The students are passionate and hungry to learn as the expert instructors present a seemingly never ending series of inspiring learning experiences to them. 

One of these inspiring moments was created in the course on Design and Engineering when our instructors, Sachin and Murali, gave the students an ‘easy’ task – sketch a bicycle! A bicycle that all kids have come across and grow up learning how to ride. 

As students attempted to sketch a bicycle from memory it led to some head-scratching moments. Most of their initial sketches lacked details and different aspects of the bicycle they had sketched were disproportionate.

This is not surprising. 

Usually, when we come across something, we see it. But it’s a whole different ball game to observe something. 

The distinction is when we see we are merely capturing the sight of the object while observation involves much more of a mental process. When we observe, our brain analyses what it sees and reaches a conclusion. Dr Shari Tishman, a senior researcher at Harvard Project Zero, who studies the role of close observation in learning shares that immersive attention to content can produce active cognitive opportunities in our brains for meaning-making and critical thinking. 

As the course instructors walked around viewing some of the students’ initial sketches they encouraged students to now observe the bicycles in the classroom. They asked them to notice all the parts and see if they had added them to their sketch. They invited them to observe the shape of the frame and the other parts closely and recreate it in their sketches. They reminded students to ensure the different aspects of the bicycle were proportionate. It was almost as if they were getting children to slow down and be present in the moment. 

Students intently observed the bicycles in their classroom and made multiple iterations until their sketches were detailed and accurate.

When asked what they learned from this activity, a student, Manasvi said, 

“I ride the bicycle a lot but I never really looked at many details and I’d never noticed the shape overall. At first, I was drawing from memory and then we got to look around at some of the bicycles that were there and I noticed a lot of things I had gotten wrong like the ratio between the size of the wheels and the frame and then I’d miss details like the mudguard.” 

Manasvi’s experience is quite representative of how all of us tend to ‘see poorly’. Try sketching a place or object from your everyday life from memory. Compare this to the actual object- observe closely and actively now, slow down and look at every detail- is there anything that was initially hidden from you that you are discovering as you observe actively? The odds are that several things reveal themselves to you now and you realize the need to train yourself to see well.

In her book Slow Looking: The Art and Practice of Learning Through Observation, Shari Tishman points out that every chance to look closely reveals new layers of complexity to explore. Sachin very rightly puts it as systematized knowledge. 

So as the week comes to a close here’s an invitation to learners to observe things closely and make meaning carefully. 

Some more vignettes from other courses-

In the Forensics course, students had to figure out which 2 opaque boxes (out of a total of 10), had the same contents. Thus students had to ‘look inside’ these boxes, by listening to the sounds they made on being shaken, and conducting various experiments carefully…

In the AI/ML course, students took baby steps in understanding how AI/ ML can see and recognize things and how this differs from how humans look at things. Students trained an ML engine ‘to see’ a variety of objects such as flowers and shoes and tested how far the ML engine could extend its capability to see…..for example, having been trained to see red roses, could it recognize yellow roses? Or having been trained on google images of shoes, could it recognize a real shoe placed in front of a webcam?

In the Economics course, students used the awesome power of gapminder to see and study patterns across space and time that are simply not possible without such a tool.

We hope this post inspires parents and educators to start looking at things around them slowly and help young learners to do the same.

If you are interested in our upcoming residential summer program at Shiv Nadar University (NCR) from June 16- 26, 2022, please check out this post.


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