Slow Looking and Complexity

Out of Eden Learn team member, Liz Dawes Duraisingh, recently discussed our latest iteration of learning goals for students and educators.  The first goal on the list is:

Slow down to observe the world carefully and to listen attentively to others.

This theme, of slowing down to look closely at the world  –or “slow looking” – has become increasingly important to our team. So it’s fair to ask: What do we mean by slow looking? The answer is simple (but not, we hope, simplistic): Slow looking means taking the time to carefully observe more than meets the eye at first glance. It implies lingering, looking long, being generous, almost lavish, with one’s attentional focus, in order to see beyond first impressions.

The “slowness” of slow looking is relative; it can’t be measured in hours or minutes.  It might mean spending seven years walking the world and practicing slow journalism, as Paul Salopek is doing. It might mean taking an hour to walk slowly through one’s neighborhood and notice things that go unseen at a brisker pace, as Out of Eden Learn participants do when they take neighborhood walks for Footstep 3. It might mean spending several minutes looking closely at an everyday object, noticing its many facets, and considering their linkages to larger global forces, as students do in Footstep 6.  But whether it’s seven years or seven minutes, the outcome of slow looking is the same: To uncover the complexity of things.

So what do we mean by complexity? Now that’s a harder question. In a sense, the relationship between slow looking and complexity is a logical one: Complexity, almost by definition, eludes immediate apprehension, so uncovering it takes time.  The thing is, we often can’t know whether something can be fully apprehended in a glance until we look long enough to see the complexity beneath the surface. Instead of asking, “What is complexity?”, a more interesting question is: What different kinds of complexity might we see when we take the time to look at things slowly?

The Complexity of Parts and Interactions

Probably the most observable kind of complexity is that of parts and their interactions: A car engine; a busy restaurant; an ecosystem. These are all things that are comprised of many different parts and connections between parts. When parts follow a predictable pattern of interaction they comprise a system, and often a thing’s “systemhood” is the complexity we notice first: The engine parts work together to power the car; the cooks and waiters work together to make and serve food; the flora and fauna interact to make an ecosystem. But while complex systems are certainly a rewarding object of slow looking, a great way to enter their complexity is to begin by simply slowing down to notice their multiplicity of parts. A wonderful example of this is the photographer David Littshwager’s “one cubic foot” project. The project involves inserting the open frame of a 12 inch cube into variety of natural environments from Central Park in

Littswager cubeNew York to Table Mountain in South Africa, and photographing every living creature that lives in or moves through the framed space in a 24 hour period. Here is Littswager’s collaborator, the entomologist E.O. Wilson, writing in National Geographic about the “parts” he sees in Littswager’s cube:

There are the insect myriads creeping and buzzing among the weeds, the worms and unnameable creatures that squirm or scuttle for cover when you turn garden soil for planting. There are those annoying ants that swarm out when their nest is accidentally cut open and the pesky beetle grubs exposed at yellowed grass roots. When you flip a rock over, there are even more: You see spiderlings and sundry pale unknowns of diverse form slinking through mats of fungus strands. Tiny beetles hide from the sudden light, and pill bugs curl their bodies into defensive balls. Centi­pedes and millipedes, the armored snakes of their size class, squeeze into the nearest crevices and wormholes.

Of course, the flora and Fauna in Littswager’s cube are more than mere parts. They are elements within a larger ecosystem that interact in causally complex ways.  Our Project Zero colleague Tina Grotzer has a deep interest in how young people understand the complexity of causal interactions, and her work is quite relevant to the teaching of slow looking.  In her recent book, Learning Causality in a Complex World, she identifies six different forms of causal interactions that students can learn to look for: simple linear, domino, cyclic, spiraling, mutual, and relational.

Tina's bookDrawing on research in cognitive science, Tina discusses the cognitive obstacles young people face in “seeing” different forms of causal interactions and identifies opportunities across the curriculum to teach complex causality.  Visit the Understandings of Consequence website to learn more about the work of Tina and her team.

The Complexity of Perspective

Another kind of complexity that can be explored through close looking is the complexity of perspective.  This has to do with observing the world through different lenses, and it can be explored in a couple of different ways. One involves delving deep into one unique perspective; another involves looking closely at the entanglement of multiple perspectives.

I recently read a book that beautifully illustrates the first kind of perspectival complexity. On Looking, by Alexandra Horowitz, tells the story of eleven different walks the author takes, mainly in her native New York City, along with eleven different companions who help her look closely at her surroundings through eleven different “expert eyes.”

On LookingFor example, in a walk with an urban anthropologist she learns to notice the emergent flocking behavior of a group of pedestrians crossing the street at a stoplight (rule: stay with the group but keep a measured distance from others). In a walk with a geologist, she learns to scrutinize the limestone fronts of office buildings for three-hundred-million-year-old fossilized worm tracks.  In a walk around the block with her dog, she learns to see the ground-level evidence of recent human and canine activity – the flurry of cigarette butts in front of a commercial building that signal a recent lunch break; the layers of urine splotches at the base of a baluster that tell the stories of the week’s canine commuters.

Paul Salopek, of course, is a master at exploring the complexity of perspective.  From an Ethiopian truck driver outside Djibouti City to a wheelchair-bound butcher in Saudi Arabia; from Bedouin tomato pickers fleeing war-torn Syria to a tribal judge in East Jerusalem presiding over family disputes, Paul’s dispatches invite us inside scores of unique viewpoints.  And in his ramblings across Jeddah, across the Hejaz desert, across Jerusalem, his maps and stories bring alive worlds and histories crisscrossed with the perspectives of multiple peoples and cultures.

The Complexity of Engagement

A third kind of complexity is the complexity of engagement. This has to do with our own experience as observers, and here the gaze of slow looking turns inward.  Who are we in relation to what we look at? How do we choose to engage? How do we dwell in complexity, how do we navigate it, react and respond to it, represent it?

As a reporter, Paul surely considers the complexity of engagement as he examines his own responses to the stories he covers. In a modest way, our participants do this, too. As they engage online with other students whose lives differ from their own in unexpected ways, they come to notice assumptions they hold that were previously invisible to them. For example, as Liz points out in her blogpost, students come to their OOEL learning journeys with widely varying ideas about what the term “culture” means.  These different mindsets shape the nuances of students’ online engagement, and introduce complexity into their interactions.

Looking Forward

As our revised learning goals demonstrate, the theme of slow looking is increasingly central to Out of Eden Learn. This summer we are modifying several of the Footsteps to further emphasize slow looking. We’re considering developing mini-journeys that engage students in slow looking in specific subjects across the school curriculum.  And we will continue to practice slow looking ourselves, as we examine the many ways in which students are exploring complexity as they participate in Out of Eden Learn.


  1. Connie Fink · · Reply

    Love the concept of slow looking. It ties in nicely with our school’s mindfulness practice. Looking forward to the tweaked OOEL program!

  2. Shari, Can’t get enough of the intertwining of slow looking, complexity, and perspectives. By appreciating any of the three, leads to an appreciation for all three.

  3. Thank you for this brilliant post Shari for helping us understand the importance of slowing down to learn anew–resulting in more profound, engaged, meaningful lives as individuals and social beings.

  4. […] Wanting students and teachers to get an experiential feel for the kinds of things they might do on Out of Eden Learn and the ways in which they could learn from one anothers’ perspectives on the world, we used the following adapted activity to introduce the concept of slow looking: […]

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