Seeing what’s there

ITM Editorial, October 2023
Observers Books and Generation Alpha

Teachers of a certain vintage will remember with fondness the Observer’s Book series. These ‘slim volumes’ were pocket-sized field guides, the epitome of a growing mid-century awareness of what was all around us.

What possible meaning could these books have for Generation Alpha – the younger children in our school right now?

Perhaps everything.

Starting with The Observer’s Book of Birds, first published in 1937, the series extended its reach throughout the natural world and into the cultural world of art, design and engineering with titles devoted to Aircraft, Ships and Modern Art.


In all, according to Wikipedia, 100 different titles had been published by 2003, when the last  title in the series –  The Observer’s Book of Wayside and Woodland rolled off the press. Many titles ran into multiple editions.

Seeing what’s there

The underlying assumption behind this 20th Century publishing phenomenon was that the owner of any Observer’s Book would understand a certain aspect of the world more deeply, if they could identify and name what they saw, learn some of the basics about it and make connections to similar phenomena and where to find them. I am certain this is right and I am absolutely convinced that my own love of the natural world was developed by reading and using the series.

Watching the parallel work of David Attenborough on TV (we could not believe what we were seeing in the late 1970s when his revolutionary series Life on Earth first appeared) deepened a growing curiosity about the wider world and in turn played a part in encouraging me to teach internationally. I was convinced that there were just too many natural and cultural phenomena to see and experience for myself that could not be fully appreciated as a result of a fleeting overseas visit.


We care for what we can see

I am equally certain that over 80 years on from the publication of the first Observer’s Books, stimulating an awareness of our natural and cultural environments has become even more important.

There can be no greater responsibility for a teacher today than to develop an awareness of what is all around our young people – shapes, smells, sounds, habitats, architecture, engineering, art, music, weather. The list goes on. Everyone needs to understand the world’s cultural and natural heritage for which we are all collectively responsible. Who can doubt the benefits of close observational drawing developed by skilled teachers from the Early Years onwards?

Observers books and Generation Alpha

And if you want a checklist of some of the wonderful areas to explore with our students in order to open young eyes, ears, fingers, noses and minds to what is all around us, you could do a great deal worse than look at the full list of the Observer’s Books that opened up the mid-century world to so many baby–boomers and their children.

Making sure that Generation Alpha, who are in our schools right now, have their own opportunities to understand, then to love and finally to protect everything that is worth protecting around us, is one of our profession’s key responsibilities.

A lot depends on it.


Andy Homden, CEO of Consilium Education





FEATURE IMAGE: by Alicja from Pixabay

Support images : by Andy Homden

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