slow observation

Prompt: We’ll practice slow observation: To start, please walk to the Henry Art Gallery and find a piece of art. Then, please spend 15 minutes looking and then walk back to class. That’s it. But, please return!

Envisioning. Creativity. Understanding. Telling. Showing. Sharing.

I think it is important to give students opportunities to experience the world in different modes. One such mode is “slow observation.” I think that observing slowly and fully is an element of listening well. Listening well is needed for storytelling. And, storytelling is, I believe, at the heart of so much that is human and creative.

Recounting. Pointing. Listening. Imagining.

The following is a class activity, carried out during week #8 of my doctoral class on Design Methods in the spring of 2019. For students, it was an emotional activity because it gave perspective on the stress that pervades our lives.


In Sparks of Genius, Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein begin, in chapter 1, with “Observation,” noting:

“All knowledge begins with observation” (1, p. 39).

I think this is true.

How we do things, even evidently very simple things, probably matters a lot – things like listening, watching, pausing, reading, moving, sitting, smiling, frowning, gesturing, talking, yelling, touch, balance, feeling movement and air. Indeed, there is nothing simple about any of these things.

Such modes of experience perhaps set the conditions for developing knowledge.

Tishman (2018) writes about slow looking – activities where human beings intentionally slow down. In a very modest way, we have slowed down a bit throughout the quarter: reading carefully and not too much; 1-page writing exercises for focus and insight; discussing paragraphs and sentences and not worrying too much if we don’t cover an entire chapter; striving to listen and genuinely build upon each other’s ideas; pondering simple things; and so forth.


Continuing with this spirit, and using an example from Tishman (2), please do the following:

  1. Walk to the Henry Art Gallery
  2. Find a piece of art
  3. Spend 15 minutes looking at the piece of art
  4. Walk back to class – please return!

At 2:45 pm, we will discuss the following themes:

  1. How does one see with fresh eyes (why might that matter)?
  2. Exploring new perspectives – were you able to explore something new in 15 minutes?
  3. Uncovering detail – were you able to uncover detail?
  4. Seeing the whole – what is the whole?

Reflective discussion questions

  1. Thoughts about slow looking
  2. Thoughts about the connection between observation and knowledge
  3. Transferring slow looking to other contexts and projects
  4. Slow looking and human well-being.


(1) Root-Bernstein, R. and Root-Bernstein, M. (1999). Sparks of Genius: The 13 Thinking Tool of the World’s Most Creative People. New York: Mariner.

(2) Tishman, S. (2018). Slow Looking: The Art and Practice of Learning Through Observation. New York: Routledge.