Charley Openshaw, IB teacher and Head of Art at Sevenoaks School recommends the virtues of careful observation and drawing as useful techniques for wider learning.
Taking the time
My interest in the practice of looking slowly was fired by seeing Shari Tishman speak at a conference about the profound benefits of “taking the time to carefully observe more than meets the eye at first glance”. In the busy life of our Sevenoaks art department, we are always trying to race to meet a deadline, finish a painting before an exhibition or sign off a piece of coursework; the last thing on our minds is doing things slowly. However, I was keen to explore the approach further and became interested in how slow looking might enhance both wellbeing and academic recall.
What is Slow Looking?
Shari Tishman gives an example:
“A group of medical residents gathers in front of a large painting. Their purpose is to develop their observation skills through looking at art. A museum guide tells them to look closely at the painting and talk about what they see. As the conversation unfolds, the residents are surprised to discover how differently they each interpret the painting, even though they are all drawing on the same visual clues. The experience causes them to think anew about their own clinical practices”.
The general idea seems clear, but, exploring this idea further, how can slow looking be developed in a school context? We have found the following useful, not only in Art, but also across the curriculum:
- Isolating small areas of an image to encourage students to notice and recall visual information.
- Asking students to carefully draw and label an anatomical diagram rather than simply supplying one.
- Providing a scaffolded approach to responding to an image or text. Students are required to make notes under different categories.
- Alternatively, developing ‘open inventories’ as a way of encouraging an “encyclopaedic-like” approach, where students document everything they notice (Tishman, 2018).
- Looking at objects through a microscope to force slow looking.
- Juxtaposition of objects and encouragement of slow comparison to reveal meaningful information e.g. plant specimens juxtaposed to reveal differences and similarities between species.
Slow looking drawing classes for staff
During a period of remote learning last year, I offered slow looking sessions to teaching and support staff who undertook a range of looking activities. Drawing was the primary medium of recording the response to observation, but the process and emphasis was on looking slowly and carefully. I set no aim for the sessions other than the hope that they would be a pleasant activity and perhaps some of the benefit felt was in the human contact in our shared remoteness. Informal feedback was very positive, with one participant describing the sessions as a “lifeline” during lockdown.
I am cautious of any theory about a link between visual self-expression and wellbeing. However, having spent long hours myself drawing, I know that the intense concentration and sustained observation required are enough to distract and provide some retreat from the concerns of everyday life. Is it helpful to go beyond that to attempt to prove so scientifically? I suppose it depends who you are trying to convince. When I teach an IB drawing class, I have no doubt that it is one of the most demanding aspects of the process; the students are very aware that their output will be judged and ultimately assessed. This is unlikely to make students feel comfortable; some may even find it stressful! Perhaps this means that the process should be private and with no “stake” involved. I certainly agonised with the remote staff sessions about whether the group should “share” their drawings.
There have been studies into the mental health benefits of making art. Drake, Hastedt and James (2016) contrasted two approaches to drawing. One was as a means of self-expression and releasing feelings whilst the other concentrated on intense observation, which seems to me a parallel to slowness. It found that the latter approach achieved a higher reported sense of improved mood. This would suggest that a structured, scaffolded approach to looking and recording those observations through drawing offers some positive release.
Cross curricular applications
Looking slowly might also have practical applications in other subjects. Informal conversations with colleagues suggest that careful redrafting of a factual illustration, such as an anatomical drawing in Biology, might help retention of specialist vocabulary more solidly than if the illustration is simply given to the student. Some research exploring the potential of doodling alongside notes to support retention, found “pupils can draw on the power of doodles to aid memory” (Woolcock 2020).
Tests on memorising lists of words suggested that a simple drawing of the word was more effective than repeatedly writing it down to memorise it. Further research on the formation of mental images to aid learning has also been seen in the form of dual coding. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that this approach to slow looking is also worthy of future investigation.
I am hoping to sustain my investigation into both the wellbeing and memory retention potential of looking slowly. I hope to be able to gather evidence of the practical benefits of both approaches in the hope that looking slowly becomes a natural part of school life.In the meantime, I would like to suggest that ‘slow looking’ is a technique that has potential to repay experimentation in more ways than one.
Charley Openshaw is Head of Art at Sevenoaks School
More information on this study can be found in Innovate, the annual academic journal from the Institute for Teaching and Learning:
Drake, J. E., Hastedt, I., & James, C. (2016). Drawing to distract: Examining the psychological benefits of drawing over time. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 10(3), 325–331. Available here: https://doi.org/10.1037/aca0000064 [accessed 28 June 2020].
Woolcock N (2020) Pupils can draw on the power of doodles to aid memory, The Times, 4 April.
Tishman S (2018) Slow Looking, The art and practice of learning through observation, Routledge.
Support images: With kind permission from Charley – Visual Art at Sevenoaks School