The Skills of Observing


Children (and adults) vary greatly in their observation skills. Some are much more attuned to noticing the things around them than others. Fortunately, as with most skills, observation can be learned through experience. It is the purpose of this paper to help teachers with the questioning strategies they can use to lead children to acquisition of this important set of skills.

Observing for Detail

Observing for detail is the basis of all of the other observation skills. It is crucial to inquiry as well as being of great value in other aspects of life. A regular activity to foster observation for detail would be to describe, by writing or drawing, various objects or events that occur in the classroom, around the school, or on the playground. The types of questions the teacher can use to develop the skill include the following:

  • What color?
  • How big? Can we measure it?
  • Where is it in relationship to other things in the environment?
  • Does it have parts? What are the features of the various parts?
  • What happened? Can you describe what happened?
  • How often does it happen? How can we time it?
  • Does it change? When it changes, does anything else change?
  • Can you draw it?

If these types of questions become a regular activity in the classroom the students will not only get better at answering them, but will begin to ask them on their own.

Observing Similarities and Differences

It is usually easy to distinguish differences (or similarities) between objects or events, but often there are so many that it becomes frustrating to attempt to list them. A skill that is especially useful in inquiry is that of identifying differences or similarities that are relevant. Here the teacher needs to have the students focus on two or three objects (or events) connected to a particular inquiry, having first observed for detail as described above. The questions to guide skill development include:

  • Now that we have described these three things, how are they alike? Make a list.
  • How are they different? Make a list.
  • Which of the differences do you think might affect our experiment? Why?

Observing Sequence

The order of events is often a crucial part of an investigation. It is important that students learn the skill of observing sequence and getting it into their notes in order to use the knowledge later. Questions that assist in development of this skill include:

  • When did you first notice the change?
  • What happened first?
  • What happened next?
  • What was the last thing you noticed?
  • Does it change if you leave it for a short (or long) time?
  • Can you list what happened in the order of occurrence?

Detecting Patterns

Noticing patterns within a set of observations is another skill of inquiry. It is often crucial to a successful investigation. Pattern detection is obviously a more complex skill than the others described above, but it too can be learned through experience. It is applied once a set of data has been collected and is available for study. Data tables such as weather summaries, use of State parks, changes in the Federal budget, and many others are published in newspapers, almanacs and other sources. Any of these, or original data from a class project, can be used for practice in this skill. Questions the teacher can use to guide skill development include:

  • When we changed the ….. did anything else change?
  • Look at these ….. two categories of data. Do you see any connections between them?
  • Here is a data table. Do you notice any connections between the categories?
  • Here is the information we collected. Do you notice anything of interest?


It is recognized that observation skills are complex and that teachers might view development of such an extensive list as daunting. Development of each of these skills is a long-term process that will not be accomplished in a lesson, unit or even an entire school year. If however each teacher, beginning in the earliest grades, begins to incorporate the questioning strategies described above children will continuously expand their skill set. Each skill can be used at any grade level but many young children will find the most difficulty with pattern detection. In every case, it is best to start with simple examples since children in all classrooms vary across the spectrum in terms of use of each skill.

* The material in this paper has been adapted by Dr. Valiant from ideas in the book, Primary Science: Taking the Plunge, edited by Wynne Harlen.

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