Learning to See – Ratnavathy

The Eyes of Your Mind  — Ratnavathy


It’s a bright, shiny Monday morning, the last week of your teaching term. You’re standing in the middle of your classroom, amidst a group of learners deeply engaged in the task that you’ve set forth. And utter bliss slowly spreads over you. This, you feel, is the “best-practice” classroom for a teacher.

Now, let’s take a reality check. How many of us have truly felt this way each time around? More often than not, we’re faced with issues that can completely drain us mentally and emotionally. As much as we try to view them as opportunities for continuous learning, there are times that we completely succumb. We’re humans after all, aren’t we? Then, the question is, as teachers how are we going to adapt to meet the challenges that we face with our learners?

You see, the truth is, situations and individuals are often beyond our control. Nevertheless, there is one thing that’s within our reach. It’s how WE react to the challenges that we’re faced with. Can this really be done? But, of course! By using the power of learning how to see.

Turning the tables around – Contradicting your thoughts by your actions

In my journey of teaching and learning, I’ve met learners of diverse cultures, physicality and demeanor. I’d like to share this particular incident with you. It was a new term and I was waiting excitedly in my classroom, chatting with my learners and getting to know them. As I turned towards the window, I saw someone walking pass my class. Obviously, he was a new student. But what really shook me was the ghoulishly dark, sub-cultural fashion statement he was making. Pale features, very dark eye make up, spiked leather jacket and wristband, skull-faced necklace and the darkest lipstick I’ve seen on a man. And that cold, cold stare. I found myself praying under my breath “not here, not here…” And….you guessed right. The next thing I knew, he was knocking on the door and peering into my classroom with a registration slip. What did I do then? For some reason, my actions completely contradicted my thoughts. I gave him the brightest smile and warmest greeting, ushering him in like he was any other learner. Throughout the term, I treated him kindly, praising him when required, encouraging him to do better. And how did he respond? He never failed to greet me each morning with a smile, completed his homework on time, studied hard and was the most polite and participative learner of that term. That was one of my most memorable terms as a teacher. I learned a very meaningful lesson, that as a teacher I need to learn how to reconsider the dogmatism of my own beliefs by looking beyond what meets the eye. I told myself to never judge a learner by the way they portray themselves.

Seeing with the eye of your mind

I once had a learner with a terrible rebellious streak. Every past teacher warned me about him and wished me luck. And boy, was he one rebellious lad. He was always late to class, never did his homework, hated working in groups, and worst of all, he was extremely impolite The worst situation happened when I once told him “Please be quiet” to which he replied, “No, you shut up”. I was completely stumped for words. But one day it changed. And how so magical it was. I was in the midst of class when I got the news that one of my closest family members had passed away. I did the most unprofessional thing. I just stopped short and completely broke down. My learners were too surprised to react. The whole class just stared at me. The only person who jumped up and walked towards me was this boy. He held my hand and said, “Teacher Ratna, please don’t cry. Can I get you a cup of coffee? I know how it feels.” That came as a surprise to me.

A few days later he told me that he came from a war-torn country, which is constantly enduring political reform, his mother was gravely ill in the hospital and his brother was in the military service. From that incident, he toned down and turned over a new leaf. And he keeps in touch even to this day. These are what I consider “moments of awakening” for a teacher. It is sometimes a negative situation that opens our “inner” eyes. As teachers, we need to learn and train ourselves to use our inner eye to see things, or rather, see through things. And this can only be done with practice and by being open to growing alongside our students.

A wise master once said “We are three people in one; who others think we are; who we think we are; who we really are”. Perhaps, as teachers, we’d need to tap into the innermost self of the learner. But, for us to be able to do that, we first have to understand and accept who we really are! By learning how to see within us, we learn how to peer within our learners. And this is how can truly “learn how to see”.

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Learning to See – John

The Obvious Can Be Difficult To See    — John F. Fanselow

. . . the obvious can be very difficult for people to see.
(Bateson, 1972, p. 429)

Why? According to Bateson, it is because “. . . people are self-corrective systems. They are self-corrective against disturbance, and if the obvious is not of a kind that they can easily assimilate without internal disturbance, their self-corrective mechanisms work to sidetrack it.”

I illustrate the theme with his sorting activity. Write down which stamps below contain these categories:

Sources of heat


I have asked hundreds of people to sort the 4 stamps using their own categories. Hardly any used four categories I asked you to use.  Even with Non-English as a label, few wrote Olympiad, XIII or Los Angeles in stamp 1 or Graf Zeppelin in stamp 3 or Pocahontas in 4. The torches in 1 and the engines in 3 were rarely seen. It usually takes quite a bit of time to notice the clouds and the globe showing the oceans in 1 and 3.

We are used to looking at denominations, country and maybe the date on stamps. Knowing that the first stamp has torches is not particularly important information. Obviously Lincoln is the focus of the second stamp and not the two women engraved on the sides as decoration.

What I just asked you to do with the stamps is central to the understanding of our teaching.

1.  By using labels to highlight features that are not obvious, you had to analyze. Of course in looking at your teaching you should use labels you are familiar with initially.  Ones I often hear include these:

off task on task

teacher talk student talk

clear explanation

unclear explanation

But as you look at samples of your teaching, with students and colleagues if possible, you will all create new labels: necks straight, students using erasers every time I say “Mistakes are OK”, using their first language to clarify what I am doing or to chat. The more original and the less use of jargon from methods books the better.

2.  I asked you to look at a small amount of data in different ways. If  you transcribe a recording that fills one A4 sheet of paper, it will be enough data to see something new about what you and your students are doing. The point is to look at a small amount of data from multiple perspectives rather than to look at a lot of data from one perspective.

3. Some make judgments like “Ugly design, boring color” in the process of sorting stamps. Judgments are very, very common when teachers first hear what they say and their students do. “Wow, I talk too much; some students wrote too slowly.”  I used to encourage teachers not to judge but advocate writing judgments down. Then, look for examples in the recording and transcription that support the judgments and do not support their judgments. And then write ways that what you initially think is negative—like students writing slowly—might be positive. As teachers consider how talking a lot might be helpful some have asked their students to transcribe their talk. They realize that much of what they say is natural but that in fact students do not understand them. As they transcribe and practice teachers’ language, they improve their listening and master many of the patterns.

I am not suggesting that you should not vary the amount of talk but rather to see how what we initially think is positive or negative can in fact be the opposite.

4. I urge you to spend fifteen minutes twice a week. This adds up to a lot of time in a term but one purpose of the analysis is to plan a change in your teaching so transcribing and analyzing becomes planning time.

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Learning to See – Chiew

Seeing Beyond The Classroom Walls — Chiew Pang

When I was asked to contribute to this topic,

one of the first things I did was to put feelers out to my PLN (Personal Learning Network).

I asked them, “What do you see each time you walk into your classroom?”

Photo taken by Chiew Pang, used under a CC Attribution, Noncommercial, No Derivative licence 



I’d like to share their comments with you.

Michael Griffin @michaelegriffin: I see an empty room that will soon be filled with humans and possibilities.

Jo McN @cunningcanis: I see community spirit.

Yitzha Sarwono @yitzha_sarwono: I see smiles and laughter painted on each wall.

Anne Hendler @AnneHendler: I see the potential to turn the room into anything we want today.

Christopher Wilson @MrChrisJWilson: I see a space that wants to be filled. Anything could fill it: my voice, their voice, handouts, pictures…

Abby Popowich @abbypopowich: … an opportunity to help somebody!

@JohnPfordresher: …vast but reluctant potential

Generally, they were all very positive comments except, perhaps, for John, who qualified “potential” with “reluctant”.

Now, what do you see? Do you see your students as a reluctant potential, too? What do you really see when you walk into your classroom? Do you have a preconceived idea before you walk in? Or do you try to empty your mind, or alternatively, fill it with unrealistic over-optimistic thoughts of how you want the classroom to be? Or, perhaps, you have nothing in your mind but the plan you had prepared and a determined effort to see it through. Or, maybe even, you have hardly anything prepared, and you walk in with nothing but your experience, and have the intention only to play it by ear.

Well, do you know what you see? I’m willing to bet that the majority of us see different things at different times; after all, we are humans and we are affected by many factors, often beyond our control. That is OK. What is important, however, is that we try to be positive. We try to see the goodness, rather than the opposite, in our students. They are humans, too. They, regardless of their age, have their stories to tell; they have their experiences to bring into the class; they have their ups and downs, just like you and me.

It is more usual than not that there is always one, or a few, “bad eggs” ready to cause turmoil, ready to push you to your limits. But, do you know them? I mean know them? Do you ever talk to them, find out what their story is, what their life is really like when they leave the classroom door?

Next time you walk into your classroom, before you say anything, make eye contact with each and every one of your students. Look at them. What do you see? Do you see a life behind those eyes? Reach out to them and let yourself be reached.

What is also, maybe even more, important is this: what do you see at the end of the class? Do you try to see yourself? Do you try to see you as the students did during whatever time it was that you were in the classroom? Do you ask yourself:

What did I like about this lesson?

What didn’t I?

What did the students learn, if anything?

What would I change if I were to have this lesson again?

Learn to see not only that is visible but that which is not. Don’t be like the people Ralph Waldo Emerson saw: “People only see what they are prepared to see.”

Prepare yourself to see beyond the classroom walls.

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Learning to See – Kevin

Seeing Through The Cracks

How we can see our class more clearly in real time   —  Kevin Stein 

In general, people are pretty miserable at seeing what is going on around them. Just check out this video of Joshua Bell, one of the best violinists in the world, playing in a DC metro stop.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hnOPu0_YWhw&w=560&h=315]

If you’re interested in why this happens, I highly recommend Daniel Simons The Invisible Gorilla web site and his work on inattentional blindness.  But do teachers in their classroom suffer from the same kind of blind spot?  In general, I would have to say no.  Part of the reason is teachers develop lesson plans. That means we are usually comparing what is happening in class to those simulated lessons in our brains, and things that don’t happen as we expect stand out rather clearly.

Ironically, this habit of focusing on what seems to be going wrong—or even what seems to be going right—can also keep us from seeing what is really happening in our classes. Just the other week, I had told students that they were not to use their electronic dictionaries in class.  When I noticed a student with a dictionary on his desk, the only thing I could think to say to the student was a snappish, “Put that away.”  I felt like a jerk when the student explained he was using the dictionary’s voice recorder function.  Aside from my assumption that a physical dictionary on a table equals looking up words, I was also running up against the constraining effects of the activity’s original conceptualization.  The dictionary on the table becomes a problem because it does not fit in with the original idea of how the activity should work.  In this situation we miss what might be creative solutions (students can record a class to look up words later) or opportunities to further expand and enrich the classroom experience for our students.

Fortunately, there are some simple things we can do to allow us to get a fuller picture of what is happening in our classes.

Change perspective: If you are standing next to a group of students who are working and something seems off, walk across the room and view what is going on within the larger context of the class.  What seems strange or off-task from close up might suddenly feel a little more acceptable within a bigger picture.

Take a personal time out: as teachers, we want to fix perceived problems as soon as possible.  But perceived problems might not be actual problems. People in stressful situations—such as an activity, which seems to be falling apart—tend to make decisions with only partial information and rarely think about alternatives in systematic ways.  Giving yourself an extra minute or two to just watch what is happening can lead to better outcomes if you do decide to intervene.

Keep a real-time journal detailing what you see, not how you feel: by focusing on what your students are actually doing, you increase the chances of noticing potentially useful tweaks to an activity you would have never come up with on your own.

Ask non-confrontational questions: If you want to know what students are doing, just ask.  Students, who seem to chatting in L1 when they should be practicing a dialogue, might actually be divvying up roles.

Use dictation as a class observation tool: just because students start an activity by doing what you expect, does not mean they understood what you said.  Take a moment to have students put down on paper what they think you said or what they think they should do.  While it is disheartening to find out students hear “Choose a book,” as “Juice a book,” it also gives you an opportunity to get things back on track before they completely fall apart.

While there are things we can do to be better observers of what’s happening in our classrooms, we can’t completely overcome our limitations as humans.  This is why inviting a co-worker in for supportive peer observations and video or audio taping and transcribing your classes can also be very useful.  We have to try various ways to see what is happening in a lesson in real time because it is in the often hectic and bumpy minute-to-minute of classroom life that our students are waiting, right there in front of us, hoping to be seen.

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Learning to See – Josette

Questions on The Reflective Journey  — Josette LeBlanc


The beauty of questioning is that it helps you look deeper into yourself. Questions ask you to investigate, to doubt, to grow, and to change. Questions help you learn to see.

But some people don’t want to see. For some people, there is no beauty in this concept at all. Questioning is unpleasant and scary, and something to be avoided. Questions may ask us to admit we’re wrong or bring light to the fact that we made a mistake. It is much safer to hold on to beliefs and usual ways of doing than it is to change.

Part of the desire to avoid questions comes from the fear of being judged by others and by the self.  This is something I have struggled with as a teacher and as a trainer.  When I was a new teacher I’d sometimes tell myself I wasn’t good enough, and that shouldn’t be an English teacher. As a teacher trainer, I often hear in-service teachers talk about themselves in the same way. They also talk about the fear of being judged by their colleagues. In Korea, English teachers must compete against each other to gain professional points. School administrators observe lessons in a way that is more focused on finding out who has the most dynamic class than on helping teachers improve. If a teacher comes from such a space, then any question asked will understandably feel like a judgment.

But these questions are so important! If I don’t question, I risk getting stuck in the world of judgments. In that world, I can’t make room for new possibilities. I become blind to my students’ creative potential or even my own. Without these questions I may not see that making a small change could have a huge impact (see John Fanselow). I limit myself to a narrow view of the world.

So how can we wake up to being curious about our teaching and ourselves without giving in to the fear of judgment?


Take a step back and ask yourself what happened. What did you see? What did you hear? What did you feel? Don’t interpret. Just imagine you are watching a scene on TV. Just describe the moment. Write it in a journal or share it with someone. Stay with the description and don’t interpret…just yet.

When we deal with observed facts, it is harder to get defensive. It’s just something that happened instead of an attack.

“The highest form of human intelligence is to observe yourself without judgment.” – J. Krishnamurti

This is the first point I learned in my conflict resolution studies (see Nonviolent Communication). Creating the separation between observation and interpretation increases the chances that the person I am talking to, who can also include myself, will be open to listening to what I have to say next.

From this place of non-defensiveness I’m ready for questions. I’m ready to get curious and explore in the ways John Fanselow wrote about in his last iTDi blog post, Breaking Rules.  I start to look into the “why” and generate as many explanations as possible. I expand the possibilities of this “why” to my students, the context, the content, the environment, and the relationships in between. I imagine and interpret what may have happened during the moment I’m looking into. From here I can chose a new point of departure for my next experience.

From description to interpretation to your next plan of action: this is a process you can go through on your own via your blog or a reflective journal, or it’s a process you can go through with your reflective community (see my blog post, Our Reflective Community). Whatever medium I choose, through this process of reflection, I learn to see myself.

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