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Title of case study: Still Life for Observation

This case study focuses on an activity that can be used in a range of different modules and at different levels. It has been used successfully with Masters level students, but this example is based upon an undergraduate group taking a 20 credit module, Studying Young Children. This module is required for first year students taking the BA Early Childhood Studies at Roehampton University as either single or combined honours.

The module combines the study of children’s development through a range of approaches to observation with first-hand observations of young children, aged from birth to six years, at home or in early years settings. The overarching philosophy of the module is that of a holistic view of children and a passionate interest in what matters to them. This philosophy is beautifully encapsulated in Drummond’s words: “The more closely we watch children, the closer we can come to their learning, their thinking, their questions, their pressing intellectual and emotional concerns” (Drummond 1998).

Many of the students who take the BA in Early Childhood Studies come from a range of backgrounds with correspondingly diverse experiences. Many of them have worked with children before coming to university, or have undertaken courses in childcare such as the BTEC National Diploma in Early Years or the CACHE Diploma in Childcare and Education. In these courses, the students have carried out observations on children, but often the emphasis of these observations is on specific areas of development such as the physical, the cognitive or the development of language. These approaches may lead to a perception of the child almost as a set of disconnected elements, and the notion that the practitioners’ role is simply to make sure that these elements are lined up in the appropriate order. Furthermore, students often think that they know all about observation and so they simply have to reproduce what they have done before. Consequently, one of the early tasks in Studying Young Children is gently to deconstruct the students’ previous experiences and assumptions and then to develop a more holistic understanding of observation as a means of gaining insights into children’s concerns, questions and interests, and into what matters to them.

Another issue that is addressed in this case study is the development of collaborative approaches to tasks and a culture of peer review. As suggested above, some students who have experience of conducting observations to fulfil the particular criteria of a previous course are challenged by the idea that there might be other ways of seeing, or other ways of expressing what they observe. In many ways, too, some students lack confidence in their own ideas and work, even questioning whether they should be at university at all, so they find new ways of thinking challenging. They imagine that everyone else knows how to succeed at university, or that they have nothing to offer in group learning situations. One way of ddressing these issues is through asking students to carry out an apparently unrelated task that isolates the skill of observation from what students know about children, focusing instead upon the processes of looking and describing. Then the students are asked to share their common experiences and compare notes, as I describe in detail below.

In the activity described below the aims are:
• To introduce the students to the complexity of describing something, and to begin to see beneath the surface.
• To isolate the processes of observation from previous experiences of observing children, which may have had specific purposes but may now act as a barrier to future learning.
• To share ideas and compare notes, in order to gain an understanding of others’ ways of seeing.
• To foster a collaborative, supportive approach within the student group, and a respect for each other’s ideas and approaches.

The following purposes of promoting academic literacy are also addressed through the activity;
• Understand the expectations and requirements of the study of childhood including the need to recognise and apply different perspectives on childhood
• Develop skills in critical listening, reading and analysis of text and data, the development of argument and the communication of text, data and analysis in written and spoken form.
• Develop the critical autonomy which enables them to form their own views and locate themselves within the range of perspectives and practices encountered in the study of childhood.

The strategy is to ask students to undertake a task that employs the (to some) familiar skills of observation but with a different focus, thereby enabling them to concentrate on seeing rather than confirming their perceptions of children, a trait frequently found in students who are used to conducting superficial observations. This strategy is adapted from one used in teaching art and drawing, but that has considerable power in the context of Early Childhood Studies (Janesick 2004).

A selection of objects is arranged on a table in the room. These objects are interesting in terms of their colour, shape, size, texture or decoration. (I have carried out this activity with objects that include a Chinese wood carving, a plant with striped leaves, a book about shamanic art, a painted mug and a mysterious box – see picture below). Any objects could be used, but I suggest limiting the number to five or six, and ensuring that each object has sufficient detail or complexity to encourage descriptive writing.

The students are asked to
• Observe the objects on the table from their place in the room.
• Spend 10 minutes and write a description of the objects
• After 10 minutes, change seats to give a different view of the objects and write another description.
• Share descriptions with other students sitting close by
Then the students are asked to reflect upon these questions:
• How did you approach the task
o In the first 10 minutes
o In the second 10 minutes
• What did you learn
o During the observation
o From the feedback from other group members
• What was most difficult for you in this exercise?
• How could what you have learned help you when you are carrying out observations with young children?
These discussions are carried out in groups and are then widened out to involve the whole group.

Lecturer’s Perspective
The items for the still life were arranged as shown in the picture below. Each item was chosen for its intrinsic interest in terms of colour, shape, size, pattern or texture. The students responded enthusiastically to the task and also to the discussion. Their comments suggested that this approach is indeed valuable and thought-provoking for them. At first I wondered about the length of time allowed for each phase of observation – perhaps 10 minutes would be too much time – but actually it was about right. 10 minutes allowed enough time to explore the detail of the objects, and also provided an impetus for the activity in that time was limited.

The quality of discussion was striking, particularly the attention the students paid to what others had written and noticed, and also the parallels they drew between this exercise and their experiences of conducting observations in other contexts.

Students’ Perspective
The students were deeply engaged with this activity. They described the way that they had focused on the nature of the objects and their positioning during the first observation. In the second, almost all of them commented that they noticed very different properties. Some students had not been able to see some of the objects from their first position, so were surprised by the different perspective they gained from the second position. During the second observation, students seemed to pay more attention to the detail of the objects – the texture, the colour. One item, a small metal horse-like creature, was particularly fascinating because they could not be sure exactly what it was. All the students said that they had changed their ideas about the nature of the still-life arrangement after the second observation, a point which had profound implications for their observations with children. They also discussed at length the differences between their styles of observation and the things that each had noticed. One student approached both observations with a sketch map positioning the objects in relation to each other. Another produced a narrative about the objects, relating them to each other with rich descriptive language, which provoked discussion with other students. Questions of accuracy, objectivity and also issues of detail in recording were also discussed.

When asked to think about what they have learned from this activity might be useful for their observations with children, the students commented that they now could see more clearly why it was important to look again from another perspective, or that you might need to carry out a series of observations rather than relying on a single one. These comments suggest that students may have gained insights into the necessity of repeating observations, of looking again at situations and of recognising the provisional nature of observation, of inanimate objects and particularly with young children.

Advice to Others who Might Use this Approach
• Allow plenty of time for both the observations and the discussion afterwards. Constraining the time allowed for the activity would, I am sure, lessen the impact and the potential richness of the experience. • Students may need reassurance that their particular approach is acceptable and that there is no right/wrong way to go about this particular observation. However, a further discussion about the value and merits of a range of different approaches may well be fruitful.

Drummond, M J (1998) ‘Observing Children’ in Smidt, S., The Early Years: A Reader. London: Routledge.

Janesick, V.J. (2004) Stretching Exercises for Qualitative Researchers 2nd Ed
Thousand Oaks CA: Sage.

Alexander, E (2007) Still Life for Observation in the MEDAL Casebook, MEDAL Consortium (2007)

I've tried this out and would like to offer feedback.

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