What does it mean to see? To think? To what extent can we talk about seeing as a variety of thinking?* And, from that, if our schools aim to help students develop and improve their thinking about the world, shouldn’t our schools aim to help students improve all kinds of thinking (i.e. not just symbolic-linguistic thinking)?
Take the growing chatter about creative thinking, design thinking, divergent thinking, innovation, problem-based learning or whatever you want to call it—those varieties of thinking aimed at synthesizing knowledge in problem situations. I’m talking big, ill-structured, open-ended, inquiry-based sorts of situations.
When I hear people talk about these, there follows a tacit assumption that if you give students an opportunity to examine a problem and to work on it--especially if you free them from the arbitrary constraints of the classroom--they can use their minds in ways we never imagined.
In my experience, this "just get out of the way" approach to letting students design solutions to problems certainly produces solutions, but it's starting to seem lazy to me. As an alternative to the constraints of traditional classrooms, it's at best a half-measure. It's really easy to ignore the "examining the problem" part of the process, or to assume that we all see Problem X--its broad outlines, its constituent parts, its relation to larger systems--in very much the same way. I made this assumption myself. And, further, I believed that the tricky part was coming up with solutions--not the first part, seeing the world and its problems, which I imagined to be just "out there," like objective data points.
But what about the first act--that of seeing the problem situation? I now realize that's just as important as the rest of the process.
There are good reasons that we traditionally draw a distinction between seeing and thinking. For the sake of theoretical simplicity and clarity, it perhaps seems natural to distinguish between what comes in through the eyes and what happens in the mind. Seems simple enough: the world casts its reflection upon the eye, the reflected image goes to the brain, and this sense-data serves as raw material for the brain to process–to scrutinize, to organize, and to store. It really does seem like two discrete processes: a passive seeing, and an active power of elaboration. The eyes and the mind. The thinking begins when the work of the senses is complete.
But it isn’t so simple.
Even the most elementary visual experiences reveal the shortcomings of this view–-a view that understands seeing as passive reception. As I open my eyes, I find myself surrounded by the physical world: a painted wall, an open window, curtains gently shifting in the wind, dust motes swirling in the morning sun, my wife beside me, my body. These things would be here whether I opened my eyes or not. And it is tempting to say, because this world exists by itself, and because my eyes have received its projection, that I have seen the world.
But seeing is much more than mere awareness of the physical world that surrounds us. Our awareness does not emerge all at once; there is simply too much world. Through this world roams the glance, directed by attention, focusing the narrow range of our sharpest vision now on this, now on that spot, following the flight of a bird, scanning a tree to explore its shape or to look for mushrooms at its base. We can no more see everything than we can know everything. Our visual sense and our cognitive processes work together to explore, select, complete, and contextualize the stuff of the physical world. It is an eminently active performance, and it is what is truly meant by visual perception. This is what it means to see.
There is no way we can easily separate perception from cognition–-seeing from thinking. There is no basic difference between what happens when a student looks at the world directly and when she sits with her eyes closed and thinks about it.
Our schools don’t typically talk about such a view of or perception seeing. Schools don’t typically encourage students to develop awareness of visual thinking. Or, if they do, they do so only in elective art classes, or as an occasional novelty or break from the “real work” of “actual thinking.” This perpetuates the myth that visual thinking is somehow distinct from rational or disciplined thinking, when in fact disciplined perception is a capacity that greatly enriches rational thinking in all areas and in all domains. Seeing is taken for granted as being easy. Obvious. Passive. Like the physical world, a given. (And this despite the fact that most of us, at one time or another, have probably been shaken by having our attention turned by another person to something in the world we hadn’t before seen.) Our educational system lives under the illusion that seeing and thinking are separate. And so most students will have to learn on their own how to become better at applying their minds, at directing their attention, and at understanding their perceptions of the world they (and others) inhabit. This is difficult work, and our schools dismiss it as frivolous.
There isn’t time here to linger on one last point, so I’ll just leave it here: one wonders, especially given the profound difficulties we face in this world, why we should choose to exclude or neglect any of our natural resources for better thinking. One wonders what we stand to lose.
*This post borrows very heavily (and unashamedly) from several works that have greatly influenced my thinking on these matters: Rudolf Arnheim’s Visual Thinking, Robert McKim’s Experiences in Visual Thinking, and, somewhat indirectly, Kieran Egan’s Imagination in Teaching and Learning: The Middle School Years.
[Additionally, this post was revised from an original blog post in 2013 on my last blog, parts of which I'm migrating to the new blog as I see fit.]
photo credit: Jennuine Captures via photopin cc
Charlie Huette is a public school teacher who also keeps a notebook. He dreams about making school just a little less terrible. Many of the posts you find here are based on notebook entries. You can learn more about Charlie by visiting the about page.