The Close Watch: Developing the Art of Noticing Students

May 31, 2023
Written by
Jim Knight

The Close Watch: Developing the Art of Noticing Students

June 14, 2024
May 31, 2023
Written by
Jim Knight

Recently, I’ve been inspired by a delightful book, Rob Walker’s The Art of Noticing. Walker makes the case that we should all strive to be “first-class noticers,” a term he tells us he borrowed from Saul Bellow. “Anybody interested in thinking creatively,” Walker writes, “needs to notice what has been overlooked or ignored by others, to get beyond distractions and attend to the world.” This is an idea my friend Christian van Nieuwerburgh has also been teaching me for some time, so I was keen to learn more from The Art of Noticing.

Thinking about Christian’s insights and reading Walker’s book, I started to wonder how coaches might help teachers become “first-class noticers” in their classrooms. After all, classrooms are often swarming with data and, with so much information trying to get their attention, teachers can find it downright impossible to really see what is happening with students. As Herb Simon has written, “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention” — something else I learned from Rob Walker.

After much reflection, I landed on a way coaches or administrators can help teachers develop “the art of noticing.” I call it a “close watch.”

During a close watch, instructional coaches or administrators teach lessons in teachers’ classrooms thereby freeing-up teachers so they can look carefully at each student in their classroom one-by-one.

As it turns out, looking carefully at students is not a new idea. Gretchen Owoki and Yetta Goodman comment that their approach to observing students, which they call kidwatching “has been around for as long as the teaching profession.” Owaki and Goodman’s Kidwatching offers a clear, well-thought-out process teachers can use while they are teaching to see how students are learning (or not). I like kidwatching and I think it could really help teachers who want to see how students are learning.

A close watch, however, is different.

When the coach substitutes for the teacher, the close watch frees teachers up from teaching so they can direct all their attention toward the students.

Teachers who do a close watch zone in on each students’ emotions and needs more than student learning (though that might be a great focus for a second observation). The close watch, then, is less about how each student learns, and more about who each student is.

When teachers do a close watch, they turn their attention away from whoever is teaching their class and turn toward each student. I suggest teachers ask themselves two simple questions while they look at each student:

  1. “What is this student feeling?”
  2. “What does this student need?”

These two questions should provide insight into the two types of empathy — affective and cognitive empathy.

Teachers doing a close watch might also take a few minutes to draw a picture of each student. When we look at people to draw them, we see aspects of them that we might not otherwise see. I think this is worth trying even when teachers consider themselves to be terrible artists. Rob Walker reminds us, “you don’t need to show your drawing to anyone… Draw one thing — just one! Then do it again. You’ll find that drawing helps you slow down and enriches what you see.”

After a teacher looks carefully at each student and considers the student’s feelings and needs and takes notes about what they see, perhaps also drawing a picture, they then turn their attention toward themselves, asking, “How do I feel about this student?” and “What are the sources of my emotions?” Once again teachers should take notes about what they are learning. Looking at students and themselves this way, teachers should learn a lot about their students and themselves.

Close Watch Questions

  • What does the student feel?
  • What does the student need?
  • How do I feel about the student?
  • Where are my feelings coming from?

Most teachers will learn a lot when they do a close watch, and that knowledge is fertile ground for coaching. I suggest coaches and teachers meet very soon after the close watch — maybe the same day. Teachers will likely want to talk about what they saw, and teachers and coaches will have the deepest and most helpful conversations when teachers’ insights are freshest in their minds. Below, I’ve included some possible questions a coach might ask to partner with teachers to start the impact cycle.

Some Possible Questions To Ask Teachers After a Close Watch

  • What did you notice during the close watch?
  • What did you learn?
  • What surprised you?
  • Given what you’ve learned, is there anything you’d like to see change for your students?
  • Do you want that change to be a goal for a coaching cycle?
  • What is a small step you can take to move closer to the goal?

The busyness of our every day experience can cause us to miss many important things in our lives and in our classrooms. If we become “first-class noticers,” our lives should be filled with more meaningful experiences and relationships. Rob Walker writes that “what we do with our attention .... is at the heart of what makes us human.”

I think it might also be true that “what we do with our attention” is also at the heart of how we teach.

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