Blog Post by JP Mynott. 21.05.2020
Noticing: how can something that appears so simple be so complicated!
Of course, everyone can notice, but there is more to teacher noticing than seeing. Mason (2002) suggests that noticing something is often the beginning of noticing, with that noticed incident needing to be marked in some way for it to be recalled and noted sufficiently. Yet, I think that when a teacher is noticing something, they might not necessarily be conscious to the thing they are noticing, instead their response is entwining that moment of noticing with noticing they have made previously.
I intend to explore this in a few examples.
Firstly, if we borrow an example from Erikson’s (2011) presentation of the way a teacher notices and responds to two children with bee stings.
In Erikson’s (2011) example the bee sting is the noticeable event (more so for each of the children!) but what Erikson observed is two very different pathways of response. For Child 1, a child with a potential allergy, the teacher is attentive and checks in regularly with the child. For Child 2, a child with no underlying allergy, the attention is more cursory; after an initial assessment the child is left to get on with their day.
It is within the Erikson’s example that we can start to see a difference in how noticing works for teachers. It is possible to say that the bee sting was a marked event for the teacher, she knew that anaphylaxis was a possibility so she then marked the event (the sting), and responded to it, varying her response in relation to each particular child.
Yet, the more I have thought about it, I feel that that might not be what has happened. Yes, the pathway of response was different for the two children, but was the event any less marked by the teacher when she responded to Child 2? I do not think we can say for sure.
However, it is possible to look at the teacher’s response to Child 1’s sting and suggest that here her noticing being marked invoked previous noticing. By previous noticing, I mean that she knew this child had an allergy – so she had noticed the child’s medical information; she knew that anaphylaxis can happen and the child needed to be monitored regularly – potentially she had noticed some training about anaphylaxis; she knew that she needed to be responsible for the child’s health while he remained in her care – she had noticed her role in local parentis. These previous noticed experiences would have informed her response for Child 1. Whereas for Child 2 there was no previous noticing of medical information and therefore no need to revisit noticing on responding to allergic reactions, she could operate in local parentis without regularly checking the sting.
This of course is not important until you consider what could have happened had the teacher not noticed previous medical information, training in response or her role and Child 1 had had an allergic reaction. If the teacher had not sufficient prior noticing, the situation could have been life threatening for Child 1. Similarly, if all the experience the teacher had had with stings was Child 2 reactions, encountering a child with an allergy would mean that she might struggle to bring forward relevant noticing at the key moment.
This brings me to a different example: a learning related example, of a sentence that represents one that might be presented to a teacher in any given day.
a cat wos sic cos it eaten fluff
Each individual teacher who looks at this will notice different things. Those noticings will be informed by lots of different previous noticings and also against the planned objectives for the work. What will not inform these noticings are things that have not been experienced previously. This lack of noticing is key. For it means we can all miss things when we try to notice them.
To help exemplify this let’s explore some of the possible pathways noticing might take here, in doing so we will see why noticing in teaching is potentially very complicated.
Scenario 1. The teacher notices that the sentence rules are not adhered to. There is no capital A and the full stop punctuation is absent from the end of the sentence.
Depending on the child and the context the response might be different here. For example if I was working with a 5, 6, or 7 year old I might develop an allergy to missing full stops (I have been known to develop this seasonally), and after informing the whole class of my new ailment, I might sneeze to indicate that there was a reason that the sentence presented to me was not complete. In another context, it might be more helpful to look at the sentence closely with the child and talk about the need to start and end a sentence so it helps a reader know where the queues are. Of course, this decision would depend on what I have previously noticed about the child before. Whether or not I felt they knew the information and had forgotten, or whether I felt they needed more time. As such my reaction would depend on more noticings than the one about the missing capital letter and full stop.
Scenario 2: This time I notice the verbs are used incorrectly. Was is incorrectly spelt but eaten is either supposed to be ate or had eaten. Yet, this noticing doesn’t inform how I respond. Wos might be phonetically plausible for a younger child and also might be depend on their regional accent, this is supported further by the use of cos instead of because. Eaten is more challenging. As to eat is irregular in its conjugation it is hard to see what may have happened here. Eated would maybe be more typical and an over generalisation of the past tense rule. Whereas eaten is likely to be more a heard word i.e. a parent saying ‘Look at what the cat has eaten!’ Of course, the cause of both verb mistakes might be readily available to a teacher from previous noticing as context noticing will help. It might also be the first time this mistake has appeared and with an irregular one like eaten, does the teacher know how to respond. A simple solution might be to correct it. Another to teach this verb as a separate entity, recognising its irregularity. Both are options, but is either path the correct one?
Scenario 3: Because is spelt incorrectly. Like with scenario 2 this might be a common error due to local speech patterns. Because is also a harder word to spell. Depending on the age and stage of the child, I might ignore this mistake. I might celebrate the usage of a conjunction. I might correct the spelling. Again, there are multiple pathways for a teacher to take after noticing this error.
Scenario 4: Sick is spelt incorrectly. Like with some of the other scenarios, this might be a phonetically plausible attempt at spelling. This might also be informed by other writing they have seen or conversations with elder children. Like with cos and wos, it would depend a lot on the context, the aim and the purpose of my intervention.
So already with 4 scenarios the complexity of noticing is become more obvious, but this is the challenge. In each scenario there were multiple pathways a teacher could take. For each pathway there are a number of previous experiences, understandings, trainings and ideas that could influence the decision a teacher takes. For me, I can use my experience as a teacher to help me form pathways, develop options. Some you might have also used as a teacher. Others might be new to you. However, if the counterfactuals (other options not taken) are never explored this pathway deciding can seem like magic to an inexperienced eye, which is something new teachers can find very difficult.
Linked to this is another hurdle which is we as teachers have a tendency to re-explore a pathway when things are not successful in our lessons. This is the staffroom dilemma of where you might go in and say a lesson did not got well, and get some helpful and considerate support, but if you go into the staffroom bragging about how successful your decisions had been, you are likely to appear conceited. So, a social dimension of teaching and our own modesty can make it harder for new teaches (and experienced ones) to see successful pathways or different successful pathways. This means that successful pathways are not always as understood or revealed in the same way as mistakes, which in turn makes it harder for a new teacher to see how mistakes can be corrected via successful pathways. This is turn makes it harder for new teachers to select successful pathways, therefore they make more mistakes and can feel less successful in their roles.
So, what does this all mean. It means that noticing for teachers is not as simple as marking a moment to notice, it is that marking plus a response. The response needs to draw on previous noticings, be those experienced, discussed or trained. Yet, to do so we need to explore the scenarios further.
Drawing on De Bono’s (2016) ideas about lateral thinking it may be that even in the sentence example the overall scenario is too large an entity to be used to develop pathways. There are too many errors to be addressed. Therefore, to talk about it we need to break it down further. My colleagues Rachel Shanks and Jasper Friedrich recently shared some of their research on how students can develop their use of coding in NVivo (Shanks & Friedrich, 2020). In this work initial codes can be given and short policy documents are explored and coded (Shanks & Friedrich, 2020). This in turn helps the students see what is happening in both the coding process as well as helping them see what coding can reveal to them.
We can borrow principles from Shanks & Friedrich’s (2020) work and code our noticings of the sentence. If we look at the sentence and think about how the errors could be grouped or coded, we might break down the noticing further, which could make it more accessible to new teachers as it will mean they can take a smaller mistake and consider it in isolation.
Through coding, the sentence actually becomes easier to explore. You can now see three distinct groups of inaccuracies, and each group could be explored in different ways. By parking the other two groups while this happens, you enable a smaller part to be noticed and this noticing then enables previous experience to come to the foreground, ideas to be shared and discussions to take place.
If we were to code the sentence:
These discussions at a micro level then become potential pathways, so just like a bee sting when a teacher encounters an error of this type again they have a plethora of pathways, which they can add to their knowledge of the child, the context of the learning and hopefully a pathway will emerge that is helpful.
Naturally, there is a simplification to the noticing here. The sheer amount of noticing for a teacher makes this one sentence example seem ridiculous to focus on, but by focusing on the potential pathways here we might actually facilitate greater confidence at scale. As by thinking through the options, the teachers will be engaging metacognitively with the processes required which means they will be enabled to take different pathways as and when they occur in a busy classroom.
Another possible challenge is that a new teacher might not see all the different coded errors, equally I make have overlooked some in my own noticing. There are likely also to be multiple alternate pathways which can be taken as well. This reinforces the complexity of noticing, and the complexity of teaching. It is unlikely that a teacher will ever be so proficient that they cannot learn new pathways of response, however as Mason (2002) suggests sometimes our noticing is impacted by our inflexibility, so it is possible we become less open to considering new pathways and in many senses forget that we might not be noticing everything we can.
In summary, noticing is important, but noticing as a teacher is insufficient, it must be followed with a response. These response pathways build on knowledge, discussion and experience but to build them initially we need to break things down so that we start with smaller sections and enable our noticing to develop. A new teacher (all teachers) need to be able to see and discuss pathways without being overwhelmed by the complexity of all the possible counterfactuals for all possible mistakes, and the more they do this, the clearer multiple pathways might become.
- De Bono, E. (2016) Lateral Thinking: A textbook of creativity, Penguin Life.
- Erickson, F. (2011). ‘On Noticing Teacher Noticing’, in Sherin, M., G., Jacobs, V., R. & Philipp, R., A. (eds.) Mathematics Teacher Noticing: Seeing Through Teachers’ Eyes. Routledge, New York/ London.
- Mason, J. (2002) Researching Your Own Practice: The Discipline of Noticing, Routledge, New York/ London.
- Shanks, R. & Friedrich, J. (2020) ‘Uniform: Power and control in schools’, Research Seminar presented in the School of Education, at the University of Aberdeen, 29th April 2020.