“What Do You Notice?”

Author: Lisa Schneier

Posted by Alythea

Within the approach of critical exploration, we often begin teaching about a subject matter by creating an encounter with a carefully chosen object of study that is drawn from or somehow embodies the subject matter we want to teach. The object of study is a primary source — raw material rather than a textbook summary. We follow the moments of initial acquaintance with this object by asking, “What do you notice?” What do you notice about the poem, the painting, the birds’ nest, the ancient document, the passage of music? What do you notice about the shadows, the series of solutions to mixed-number fraction problems arrayed on the board, the frogs darting through the pond’s shallows? What do you notice about the autumn tree, or the first page of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway? With this question, we ask for specific observations, not general comments — for example, a specific word, phrase, or pattern in the poem, something that can be pointed out to others rather than a statement about the author’s purpose or the meaning of the poem. And after hearing some of these specifics, we go back again for another close look: “Let’s hear the poem read aloud,” “Let’s look again at the shadows and see what we notice now,” “Let’s listen to the piece of music again,” “Let’s each draw our view of the nest as exactly as we can.” And again, after a time, “What did you notice?”

This movement back and forth — encountering the whole object, noticing and pointing out details, then back again to encountering the whole — is the rhythm of much of the work of critical exploration. The observations change as familiarity deepens; observations become questions, become theories, but these are based firmly in an increasing familiarity with the object of study. The students are developing ideas based on their growing knowledge of what is before them.

Whether or not a critical exploration starts with this question, the exploration is very likely constructed to get to this kind of noticing at some point, and probably early on. It is this kind of close study, in which students pay attention to what they see or hear, to what surprises or puzzles them, that secures their interest, their personal connection to the subject matter that they are being invited to enter. “What do you notice?” asks them to make their own connection to the object of study, and in the specificity that the question asks for, it opens that potential connection to everyone. Anyone can say what word or phrase jumped out to him/her in a poem, what feature or movement of a frog, what figure or color in a painting. At the same time, the question asks them to choose something that can be shown, pointed out to others. It guides the students into a social enterprise, in which each person’s “noticing” is expanding the observing of the group.

As the group moves its attention from specific details to taking in the object as a whole, and then back to new specific observations (often made visible by the previous ones), we move to asking for puzzles or points of confusion — what students are questioning or wondering about. Often their own theories emerge naturally from this work, from paying attention to their own and each other’s questions. A student theorizes that the repetition she noticed in the poem is emphasizing the passage of time; a student asserts that it’s possible for an object to make a shadow much smaller than the object itself.  What is distinctive about these theories is that they grow out of the students’ initial observations and are informed by the rich detail that has emerged as a result of close study. Perhaps the most notable distinction is that, in contrast to theories that students are given pre-made, the students know where their theories have come from; they have participated in their evolution.

I have used this “What do you notice?” approach in my high school English classroom for many years. Our object of study is most often a text:  a complete text in the case of poetry, and often an excerpt — a dialogue, a scene, a chapter, a speech — in the case of a longer work of literature. In the case of longer pieces — a play or a novel, for example — I often require a longer segment to be read at home, and then focus on a piece of that segment in class for the close text study. This allows everyone (whether or not they are caught up with the outside-of-class reading) to look at the same piece of text and contribute to that portion of the class, bringing in their knowledge of the larger context as appropriate). I have also used this approach to focus on the students’ own writing, using their own pieces as objects of study.

I’ve found that at the beginning of the year, it’s often not easy to convey to the students what I’m after when I ask them what they “notice” in response to a text. It’s hard to get them to focus on specifics. They have been trained to make general statements, to search for a theme or an overview rather than looking closely at what is in front of them. The kind of close looking I’m asking for is not often valued in school. Inviting the students’ own eyes — their own noting of detail, their own surprise or puzzlement — is often not valued either. Very often students are searching for what is correct in the view of the teacher. Focusing their attention on their own and each other’s close observing is a reorientation for them.

I’ve created a tool that has helped — a single sheet headed with the question, “What Do You Notice?” (download printable version below). It’s very simple — three questions, with space underneath each one for the student to write responses. The first question asks what the student first notices, and then parenthetically gives examples of what I mean by “notice” — “what catches your attention, what surprises you, what makes you pause because it’s confusing?” The second question asks the students to write down some of what other people notice and point out during the discussion. And the third question asks the student what he or she now notices, having heard other students and read/heard the text through more than once.

This sheet, simple as it is, can remain constant as we explore various texts. It becomes very familiar to the students and helps draw them into the rhythm of noticing, listening to others’ observations, encountering the text whole again, then noticing more detail, etc. Further, I can collect the sheets to see evidence of students’ thinking that might not have come clear in the actual discussion. These sheets also become evidence of class work that can be used in the grading process — not to evaluate their thinking but to evidence their participation in the work. Before very long, the students do not need the sheet to help them know how to focus, but we often keep using it because of its usefulness as a note-taking tool and a record of participation.

I’ve found that helping students attend to their own responses to an object of study has far-reaching effects both for their depth of understanding of the subject matter and for their reliance on the powers of their own minds.

Lisa Schneier serves on the Critical Explorers Board of Directors.

“What Do You Notice?” Handout | DOWNLOAD PDF

Gina Fried

I love the simplicity and organic logic of Lisa’s approach to teaching. I am struck by the handful of students in my own classroom whose response to “What do you notice?” is “I don’t know.” The response makes no sense. “Nothing” would be a more appropriate – even if disappointing – answer, but that’s not what they say. These students have had the ability to notice scared or taught out of them. They hear, “What do you notice?” as “What is the correct thing to notice?” They need to be retaught to value their own eyes, ears, and emotions. Off to teach…


In response to Gina’s comment, in Pakistan we would have a hand full of students who would respond to ‘what do you notice’, and most of them would wonder whether they should venture a response or not, fearing they might be wrong. This would hold true especially for our public sector schools and non-elite private schools. The more the kids remain tongue-tied, the more there is a need for them to be exposed to critical exploration so that they can heal back their critical ability to life


Hi, this is something hopefully interesting. Dr. Duckworth asked us what we thought about critical explorations and what we learned so far. I said it felt like I was gaining a new skill set and what I was learning about “noticing” was one of them. Thanks, John

Critical Explorations Skill Set

[Editorial highlights in bold]

There are several things I’ve learned in order to prepare for leading critical explorations. I think these new acquisitions are becoming a new skill set.

One of these skills is the use of carefully worded questions to promote explorations. Every day, we make generalizations, and we live by them, using mental shortcuts to help us navigate more easily through our lives. Some of these we constructed ourselves, but most were handed to us through formal and informal methods. Mental shortcuts allow us to accomplish multiple tasks without expending significant mental resources, but with any reduction in information, there is also a compromise. The brain tends to minimize mental processing and ask “What” instead of “Why”. The brain asks “What is in the room?” instead of “Why is what is in the room, in the room?”

The difference can also be exemplified in the choice of questions used for critical explorations. In the typical question of critical exploration, “What do you notice?”, this sentence seems simple enough, but I believe there is a complexity to its construction. The question, “What do you notice?” allows a person to expand upon what he or she sees and experiences but I’m arguing it also activates different brain pathways. I think the question, “What do you see?” asks the respondent to scan the surrounding environment for information that has already been categorized by mental shortcuts. This question asks a person to draw on what is already known and repeat it. If asked, “What do you see?” during a critical exploration, an explorer might state what objects are apparent. He or she might respond, “I see a chair and a desk. They are brown.”

Meanwhile, I’m arguing that the question, “What do you notice?” gives a different answer. I think this question initiates a demand to activate new data acquisition, which I believe involves a more elaborate set of neural pathways. This question asks for different information than the question “What do you see?” I think it asks us to collect information as if the subject were brand-new, not experienced before. We do not often do this because our minds prefer to use a type of shorthand to limit the use of precious resources, such as expendable biological fuels, or to leave open channels for attention to other factors in the environment, which could prove to be important for other needs, such as safety. The question, “What do you notice?”, however, seems to initiate the collection of new data. Our minds take a “fresh look” at what we believe we have already processed and categorized. After asking this question, the critical explorer just mentioned might answer, “I see a wooden chair and desk. Both seem well worn, with scratches and worn varnish on the edges of the seat and the center of the desk. They are the same shade of brown, a red-tan color that is sunk deep into the wood, yet even still is faded at the areas of contact.” Here an explorer might be viewed as taking in new information. Instead of using the categories of desk and chair to simply describe what is in a room, the explorer requests new information from the environment. He or she will then re-explore what is known and re-analyze it. In this way, critical explorations call on us to process information as if it were new stimuli. I’m arguing, this is the same pathway that is used when we are immersed in a foreign environment, or a known environment under new and important circumstances. Critical explorations will be taxing to the brain’s resources, but this is an acceptable part of new knowledge acquisition and new skill-building. I realized this when during a learning session for my partner’s final fieldwork I was so mentally taxed that I had difficulty finding words and remembered that same mental exhaustion when I was in a foreign culture, attempting to learn a foreign language. Being surrounded by new stimuli, my brain needed to use all of its resources, but I was learning by orders of magnitude more than I normally would in a typical day in my home, or known, environment. By examining, or re-examining, stimuli, critical explorations should be able to produce that same level of learning, which I believe is more engaging and more productive than traditional and more passive learning.


Hi Lisa!
I am a NYC public, elementary school teacher and remember meeting you some years ago at a NDSGroup gathering you attended in Cambridge the year Vito Perrone was honored. It’s been so long now (2004!)

I was excited to read the entry and comments about this notion of asking students this question. In the 24 years I have been teaching and learning with students, it has yielded the most wide ranging responses.

Just yesterday, my 2nd/3rd grade students found a set of magnets in our class room and began exploring their properties and hypothesyzing about the force that makes magnets do what they do. We spent about 40 minutes with them putting the magnets up to their faces, between pieces of paper, under and over the wooden tables and chairs, endlessly fascinated with what they saw happening.

It made me appreciate again how naturally children explore things when they are in an environemnt that makes that possible and how satisfying it can be to notice, not answer but notice, and question, and notice more.

They made me promise we would do it again next week, which, of course, I did.

Louisa from NYC


This is a great idea. I will try it with my college students.

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