Title of case
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.
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
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.
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
• 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
tried this out and would like to offer feedback.
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