description | interpretation | parking lot

What do you see?

Being as specific as possible, write down everything you see

One of the most difficult aspects of learning to observe is recognizing the difference between descriptions and interpretations. We’ll use a photography activity to practice skills designed for separating descriptive information from interpretive information. Look at the following two photographs.

Record all your responses to the question: Being as specific as you can, describe what you see in these two photographs?

When we observe students, we often have initial responses based on our own mental filters and values. While these are essential, they can also get in the way of recognizing the significance of what students are doing. As well, it is helpful to acknowledge these initial reactions and set them aside, in a parking lot.

When learning to write observation notes, drawing a line down the middle of the page and distinguishing descriptions from interpretations can help you remain mindful of when you are interpreting. The goal is always to be aware of and to distinguish between these two.

Make and use a descriptions and interpretations chart to sort your observation notes. Which notes include the details of what you observed and which ones include interpretations of what you thought was going on? (You might discover that the beginning of a sentence is descriptive and the end more interpretive. That’s okay, just split the sentence up as necessary)!

To understand the meaning of an observation, you need descriptive details to support your interpretations. Detailed information helps you distinguish between interpretations and misinterpretations based on your own filters and biases. You can learn to observe for details. When you find yourself interpreting take pause and ask yourself what details you specifically observed that led you to make this interpretation?

With these observation skills we are reminded to look conscientiously for the details of what we are seeing. Below is a list of observation strategies.

Objectivity | The wherewithal to distinguish between  descriptions and interpretations.

Specificity | Observing for specific details: size, shape, number, texture, color, time span. 

Directness | Recording direct quotes if people are talking.

Completeness | Describing incidents as having a beginning, a middle, and an end.  A complete record describes the setting, who was involved, the actions in the order that they occurred, the responses, interactions, and the ending.

Mood | Describe the social and emotional details of a situation including tones of voice, body language, facial expressions, hand gestures, and so forth. (Note: it is difficult to describe this cues without being interpretative).

Curtis, D. and Carter, M. (2000)Chapter 2: Study Session: Learning to See. pp. 9-22.