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The value of noticing

Dr Kay Kimber, Director of the Centre for Professional Practice

Why is the gaining of wisdom such a slow (and sometimes) painful process?  Some time ago, I proposed the creation of ‘a wisdom space’ (Kimber, 2011) as a foundation for fostering quiet contemplation, ‘seeing’ a simple truth and sharpening personal insights. Now, six years later, I ‘see’ that the first valued step towards gaining wisdom should be to hone the acuity of one’s noticing. Rather than overlook those every-day, taken-for-granted acts of noticing as inconsequential, more disciplined noticing could well trigger better learning, being and doing.

No one doubts the importance of focus and attention in achieving targets in life. One wise adage, ‘We do not need more knowledge, but more wisdom. Wisdom comes from our own attention’ (Buddha, n.d.), resonates strongly with our School Intent — for our students to contribute confidently to their world with wisdom, imagination and integrity. To my mind, wisdom and integrity are closely intertwined, as sage advice tends to link knowledge with people’s conduct. Even with imagined creations, whatever their form, close attention to myriad details is key. Interestingly, several behavioural scientists contend that the act of noticing precedes attention (Schmidt, 1990) and the quality of that noticing can reveal one’s level of expertise (Mason, 2002), personality, and values (Bazerman, 2014). Noticing has been increasingly viewed as prerequisite for close attention, curiosity, wise decision-making and ethical behaviour.

Our academic staff began 2017 with the professional learning theme of Noticing Learning: Observing, puzzling and shaping learner agency. Keynotes and workshops illustrated teachers’ noticing of their own and colleagues’ practice, as well as student learning. Our Noticing Learning theme has underpinned professional learning throughout the year. A challenge for one cross-faculty staff group required following a ‘noticing’ cycle of noting an event, puzzling, responding and designing. Its success rested on their ‘wisdom space’ preserved amid a busy day, close listening, respectful observation and the noticing cycle structure. Classroom observations, as with supervising teacher-preservice teacher mentoring and collegial Open Doors visits, do aid professional development; however, staff involved with this cycle confirmed their deeper understanding of the event. Other study groups have accessed and activated ‘Cultures of Thinking’ from Harvard’s ‘Project Zero’, the essence of which guides teachers and students toward better ways of noticing, listening and puzzling to deepen thinking.

Research into professional noticing has been conducted with literacy, mathematics and science teachers in Australia and overseas. American researchers found significant differences in the noticing of expert and non-expert practitioners (Gibson and Ross, 2016). Experts consistently noticed and commented on most pivotal events, applied their content knowledge, perceived meaningful patterns in student responses, linked observations across categories of behaviour, and hypothesised from their observation and reasoned about its meaning — all in a fluent, interconnected process. Moreover, Mason (2002) deduced that experts were sensitised to notice things that novices overlooked or did not realise should have happened. If expertise is built through sensitisation to notice, and disciplined noticing can deepen thinking about the object of gaze, then our young people should become better noticers.

Skilled noticers distinguish foreground from background and identify the tiniest detail that might seem incongruous or wondrous, before puzzling on its meaning. Usually, what is noticed resonates with prior experience or knowledge, or disrupts our sense of the way things should be. American poet, Robert Frost, demonstrated this linking beautifully in ‘Design’ (1922). His speculations about a ‘design of darkness’— the possibility of evil intent in the universe — stemmed from noticing a little white, normally blue flower, cushioning a plump white spider holding — almost sacrificially — a dead white moth. British novelist and poet, Thomas Hardy, wanted to be remembered as a close observer and protector of nature, ‘a man who used to notice such things’ as a ‘dewfall hawk’ or ‘full-starred heavens’. Perhaps that mix of noticing and wondering about nature or everyday objects is where skilled noticing begins.

Business guru, Susan Scott’s (2009) ‘squid eye’ reminds people to be better noticers. Her arresting metaphor alludes to squid hunters who quickly distinguish ‘tells’ or little signs that reveal a squid’s hiding place. People without squid eye swim past without noticing. This failure to notice is a common human failing — a type of ‘blindness’ — that misses items in plain sight. How many times have we looked but not really seen, or listened but not really heard? Scottish psychologist, R. D. Laing, saw our failure to notice diminish our human perception and potential:

The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice there is little we can do to change; until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds (R.D.Laing, n.d).

With similar concern, Professor Daniel Bazerman (2014) of the Kennedy and Harvard Business Schools, warned of the dangerous human capacity of ‘not noticing’ with compelling evidence in relation to events such as 9/11, the Global Financial Crisis and the post-Hurricane Katrina flooding. Whether this blindness resulted from cognitive blind spots or prejudice, these ‘noticing malfunctions’ indicated an urgency for improving the acuity of noticing by individuals, organisations and governments — particularly when failure to act precipitated avoidable disasters like ocean oil spills and workers’ deaths through factory collapse. His examples reeked of ethical dilemmas with disastrous impacts on innocent people.

Bazerman argued that understanding what was happening ‘when we fail to notice’ was ‘crucial to understanding how we can learn to pay attention to what we’re missing’. He rejected Nobel Laureate Kahneman’s ‘WYSIATI’ (what you see is all there is) approach to decision-making, pointing out that people needed ‘to realise that what you see is not all there is’ (WYSINATI). This WYSINATI mantra urges decision-makers not to rely only on the information in front of them, but to think about potentially useful facts that might be located elsewhere. By actively noticing the gaps and seeking out such sources, people were in a stronger position to offer a ‘third choice’. Such salutary advice highlights the necessity of being fully attuned to what is, is not but should be present.

Perhaps young people can be encouraged to apply WYSINATI in their own decision-making, whether for assignments or relationships, particularly when social media’s claxon call for ‘being noticed’ can be so seductive. Earlier this year, Harvard University’s first female President, Professor Drew Faust, challenged graduating students to move beyond social media notability to ennoble their lives by valuing noticing and becoming truth-seekers:

I want to … talk to you, not about being noticed — something you are already very good at — but about the value of noticing … My graduation wish for you is that we will have succeeded in making you noticers, that your ability to [notice noticing malfunctions] will enable you to be genuine seekers of truth (Faust, 2017).

Seekers of truth value wisdom, integrity, ethical decisions and honesty. American novelist, Mary McCarthy’s (n.d.) insight affirmed the noticing-truth connection: ‘There are no new truths, but only truths that have not been recognised by those that have perceived them without noticing.’ From these perspectives, the concept of ‘first-class noticers’ (Bennis in Bazerman, 2014) assumes priority status for better being and doing. ‘First-class noticers’ are: curious; consistently disciplined in their noticing of what is, is not, or should be present; self-aware; rarely repeat mistakes; and focus on self-improvement rather than blame others or the system. Both Faust’s wish for her Harvard graduates — to be not just educated people, but also better citizens — and the concept of ‘first-class noticers’ echo our School’s Intent.

From the cocoon of a quiet space, better noticing and wondering can flow. Given time and practice, our School’s ‘first-class noticers’ will consciously search for the ‘tell’, WYSINATI the moment, be genuine truth-seekers, avoid noticing malfunctions, and value all actions that ennoble their human being and doing.

References

Bazerman, M. (2014). The Power of Noticing: What the best leaders see. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Faust, D. (2017). The Art of Noticing. Baccalaureate Service, Memorial Church, Harvard, Massachusetts, May 23. Retrieved from https://www.harvard.edu/president/speech/2017/2017-baccalaureate-service-art-noticing

Frost, R. (1922). Design. A poem, retrieved from http://kensanes.com/design-robert-frost.html

Gibson, S. & Ross, P. (2016). Teachers’ Professional Noticing, Theory Into Practice, 55 (3), 180–188, DOI: 10.1080/00405841.2016.1173996

Hardy, T. (1917). Afterwards. A poem, retrieved from
http://www.bbc.co.uk/poetryseason/poems/afterwards.shtml

Kimber, K. (2011). Creating a Wisdom Space, Insights, 26 May. Retrieved from https://www.bggs.qld.edu.au/2011/05/creating-a-wisdom-space/

Laing, R. D. (n.d.) Quotation, retrieved from http://www.quotes.net/quote/40125

Mason, J. (2002). Researching your own practice: the discipline of noticing. London, UK: Routledge.  

McCarthy, M. (n.d.). Quotation, retrieved from https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/7305.Mary_McCarthy

Scott, S. (2009). Fierce leadership: a bold alternative to the worst ‘best practices’ of business today. Cornwall, Great Britain: Piatkus.

Schmidt. R. (1990). The Role of Consciousness in Second Language Learning. Applied Linguistics, 11, 129–158.

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