December 5, 2012
Merriam Webster defines observation as:
1. to conform one's action or practice to (as a law, rite, or condition) : comply with
2. to inspect or take note of as an augury, omen, or presage
3. to celebrate or solemnize (as a ceremony or festival) in a customary or accepted way
4. a: to watch carefully especially with attention to details or behavior for the purpose of arriving at a judgment
b: to make a scientific observation on or of
5. to come to realize or know especially through consideration of noted facts
6. to utter as a remark
a: to take notice
People-watching is a fascinating pastime. My favorite people-watching venues are outdoor events like festivals, parades, or concerts. They are chockfull of interesting and diverse crowds. But, observation is not only passive entertainment or a fun diversion. Observation is a critical step in the scientific method and in the learning process.
During a scientific inquiry, one must gather information by first observing. Then, they must prove or disprove their hypothesis with observational evidence. Although closely tied to science, observation is an integral part of any discipline.
When we observe, we not only watch but we engage. We make judgments based on our observations and we realize or discover something new. In essence, we learn. We transfer prior thoughts, experiences, and preconceptions to new contexts. Most of this is done involuntarily. However, intentional observation can be extremely enlightening.
I have had the opportunity to become a deliberate observer this week. I say deliberate because as humans we are constantly observing our surroundings. However, we are not always taking notice of the things we see. Thus, merely seeing is immensely different than observing.
I was able to observe several 2Ls deliver their first appellate oral argument when I volunteered as a judge for the Legal Writing appellate arguments. While focusing on the substance of their case, I also paid close attention to how they presented their arguments. Specifically, I took notice of their demeanor in answering the panel’s questions, their professionalism in dealing with the court and arguments presented by opposing counsel, and their ability to move fluidly from questions from the bench back to their prepared outline.
As most of us know, adhering to courtroom etiquette and having a strong delivery can make the difference between winning or losing a case. We also know that subjective judgment occurs when assessing communication and can contribute to our impression of the objective content. While I did not let my personal preferences skew my ultimate ruling on the case, they did have a significant impact on how I evaluated each student's performance.
Much different from a courtroom, last week I also observed my daughter’s ballet class as it was “parent watch week”. Interestingly, much like my observation of oral arguments, during the ballet class I focused on how the dancers interacted, instead of concentrating on whether they were performing a tour jeté, pirouette, or grand plié. The dancer's form and positioning, their presence as a dancer, and their engagement with their instructor were significant elements in how I assessed their attitude, energy, and technique.
Noticing the world around us is such a gift but we rarely acknowledge it as such. We so easily fall into our daily routines and the monotony of our lives. We should take advantage of being coerced, cajoled, or granted a chance to observe. From these focused observations, I learned that I often overlook seemingly meaningless details. Instead, I now realize that we should embrace these details.
The details can teach us about ourselves, our interactions with others, and our preconceptions. They can teach us how to be empathetic, how to gain a particular skill, how to distinguish what is relevant from what is irrelevant and so much more. Ultimately, being mindfully observant allows us to be better decision makers, better students, and better teachers.
As teachers, we teach our students to pay close attention to the nuances of the law or the key facts in a hypo or a case. We too should walk the walk and take the time to observe. Try to observe students outside of class, prior to the start of class, and when they are working in groups during class. Are they interacting with each other, are they loners, do they appear engaged? We can use these observations to get to know our students and to understand how to best teach them. By paying attention, we are setting a good example and we may learn a thing or two.
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