This post was co-authored by Susie Blair and Shari Tishman from Project Zero.
In our first post of this two-part series, we introduced the “slow” research strand that the Out of Eden Learn team is currently pursuing. This is research that aims to understand what students find compelling about the activities in the OOEL curriculum that encourage them to slow down and observe the world closely, and what they are actually doing when they do so. In the previous post we discussed two of the five broad themes that have emerged from our analysis thus far. The first is seeing with fresh eyes; the second is exploring perspective. In this second post we round out our overview by describing the remaining three themes: dwelling in detail, appreciating beauty, and attending to philosophical well-being. As before, we accompany each theme with representative examples of student work.
3. Dwelling in detail
Often as a part of seeing their surroundings with “fresh eyes,” we find that learners tend to notice the small, often overlooked details of things when they take the time to slow down. Sometimes, this takes the form of a thoughtful list of the visually observable characteristics of an object. Take, for instance, a student in Singapore describing her iPhone:
“The thing I noticed from this iPhone was that it was rectangular, just the size to fit into a pocket perfectly. It has a circular button in the bottom middle, which is the home button. Its surface is very smooth. At the top middle, there are two circles and, one directly in the middle, a little more above the other and slightly larger. That is the selfie camera. The other circle below is accompanied by rectangle with rounded sides…” – Kags618, Singapore, “Connecting Everyday Objects to Bigger Systems
Other times, a student may dwell in detail by using their multiple senses as a means of observation. One student in Salem, Massachusetts recalls the following scene when sharing a map of their neighborhood:
“A soft wind soothes my skin as it passes swiftly through the air. Streets are empty and without any cars. Trees sway as the wind blows into their cramped and compact leaves. The ocean is making watery and sizzling sounds as it curls up to my feet. A light breeze brushes against the sand as it cools and settles into the rock solid earth. The water is cold and feels like shards of ice hitting my face. As I get out, the water is chilling and a cold breeze wraps around me as I shiver.” – JCTps, Salem, Massachusetts, “Creating Neighborhood Maps”
From what we have discovered, noticing details seems to flow naturally from seeing things with fresh eyes. Once students’ attention is captured, they are easily drawn into a prolonged experience of discernment, noticing small details and differences, identifying features and demarcations, and beginning to notice the astounding specificity of the world around them.
4. Appreciating beauty
Walking through the forests and neighborhoods and listening to your surroundings and watching what seems like magic happen is such an amazing experience. Everything is alive and coming together to make the world peaceful and calming, even if it’s only for a couple minutes as you walk through it. You can see nature come to life and everything is vibrant and moving. It’s pure beauty.” – Out of Eden Learn student Mrrm02, Beaverton, Oregon, United States, “Taking Neighborhood Walks”
From what we have seen thus far, students commonly express that slow looking causes them to see beauty in the world, particularly beauty in nature and in their everyday surroundings. Students’ attunement to beauty may not seem particularly surprising from an adult perspective: The idea that beauty surrounds us if only we would slow down to notice it is a familiar cultural strain. It is a staple of inspirational messages about life, and it is often overly sentimentalized in a “stop and smell the roses” kind of way. But it is safe to assume that almost none of us would wish to experience beauty less, and probably most of us would like to experience it more.
Most of us will also understand that beauty, as a concept, is complicated. There is no one true standard of beauty, and norms of beauty can vary hugely across individual, historical, and cultural contexts. Many of us – and many Out of Eden Learn students – are in the habit of talking about beauty as if it is an objective, obvious quality in the world that is easily accessible for all to see. But students recognize that beauty can be hidden, even from themselves.
Take, for instance, this students’ description of a family heirloom:
“As I walked around my house, one object in particular had caught my eye, that being this vase. To many people, the vase would be seen to be nothing out of the ordinary and rather, just seem to be plain and boring but what struck me, was the prominence of the colour, design and strikingly perfect condition of it.” – Out of Eden Learn student smurtletheturtle712, Singapore, “Learning from Other Generations” (at left)
For many students whose work falls under the “appreciating beauty” theme, the experience of beauty is associated with a quality of mind – one of attentiveness and looking closer; When smurtletheturtle712 slowed down to closely observe her family’s vase, she was able to appreciate its aesthetics. As another student summed up in their exit survey, “I learned that the world is beautiful, you just have to look for it.”
“What I love so much about this picture is the detail, like all the tiny little rocks and holes in the stone. Another thing I like is all the colors. Of course you’re thinking, there’s no color, just brown and gray. Boring! But don’t leave! If you look closely you can see all the beauty and color, in the rocks, in the dirt, and everywhere. I hope that this picture can teach you to look closer at everything around you, whether you hate it or you love it.” – Out of Eden Learn student coolsnowytiger, Accra, Ghana, “Taking Neighborhood Walks”
5. Attending to philosophical well-being
The fifth and final area of our research findings thus far might be called, for want of a better term, an attentiveness to “philosophical well-being.” Students’ remarks about beauty often fall into this category, but the category encompasses more than just beauty, and deserves mention in its own right.
Admittedly, this is a relatively broad and lofty theme, so it is especially important to break it down into smaller sub-themes that characterize particular facets of it. For instance, one way students talk about philosophical well-being is to note the importance of separating oneself from electronic devices as a way to become more reflective and present.
“I took this photo of my apartment view because I love to spend some time looking at the sky (even if it doesn’t have stars) look the airplanes in it, and watching the clouds passing by, it’s something that makes me feel calm and away from things that are always in my routine. It’s amazing to think about life! Try some day to look up, leave your cellphone for some minutes… It’s good to refresh your mind.” – Out of Eden Learn student Liviaandrade, São Paulo, Brazil, “Taking Neighborhood Walks.”
Another way students connect to philosophical well-being is through a sense of gratitude. Often, when students are asked to slow down and begin to see their surroundings in a new light they report a newfound sense of appreciation for features of their everyday lives that they may have previously taken for granted.
“Taking this walk opened my eyes to how privileged I am to live in such a gorgeous neighborhood, with these rolling golden hills around me, along with a quiet neighborhood to return to.” – Out of Eden Learn student floatingbrick73, San Anselmo, California, United States, “Taking Neighborhood Walks” (at right)
While these findings are interesting and affirming for the Out of Eden Learn team, we are also mindful that they are merely our first impressions. These broad themes are derived from a relatively small—yet ever-growing—sample extracted from hundreds of student survey responses and thousands of pieces of student work.
So this means that we need to continue digging in to our database of student work to see if the five broad themes we have identified continue to ring true, and whether new themes might arise. To recap, the themes thus far are: seeing with fresh eyes and exploring perspective (described in blogpost part 1); and dwelling in detail, appreciating beauty, and attending to philosophical well-being (described here, in blogpost part 2). As we continue this work, new questions arise: Does slow looking—or any of its specific themes—manifest in similar or different ways across country, age, or in rural or urban environments? In what specific ways do our findings intersect with or inform our other research strands? For example, how do students’ ideas about ‘slow’ influence or play out in their ideas about culture? How, if at all, do their experiences with slow looking play a role in their online dialogues with one another? More broadly, how, if at all, do students’ newfound ideas about slowing down flow into their daily lives? Could slowing down be an empowering or transformative learning experience that stays with students long after they complete our curriculum? If so, could we document or even measure that effect?
For now, we are excited and heartened by what we are learning. Juxtaposed to the current narrative about the fast pace of contemporary life, we find that many young people seem to relish the opportunity to slow down. The benefits they find in doings so echo the twofold benefits that humankind has always found. On the one hand, slowing down increases our store of knowledge about the world: Seeing with fresh eyes, exploring perspective, and noticing detail are all ways of learning new things. At the same time, slowing down deepens our relationship with the world: We experience more of its beauty, feel a stronger sense of connection, and are reminded of states of being that we especially value, such as mindfulness and gratitude.