Peter G Knight

4. The famous "through the window" exercise (parts 1-3)

This is one of my all time favourite bits of teaching. I tend to run it bit by bit through a whole semester, a whole year, or even through the whole three-year programme if I get the right groups of students. The basic idea is to help students realise that there are different ways of looking at the world and that what you see depends on how you look. This can be expanded to become the unifying point of the whole degree. It's important not to rush it. There should be big gaps (weeks or months) between some of the parts, which is why I'm putting it into several different pages...


Part 1. (5 minutes)

Ask the students to look out of the window and make a list of what they can see. Give them just a minute or so, then go round the group asking them to read out what they wrote. Let the whole group complete their lists before making any comment. Typically the lists will be along the lines of "trees, buildings, cars, people, clouds... etc." Every tutor's response to this will vary, of course, but mine usually is to sigh, look sympathetic, and say something like: you live in very dull worlds, or perhaps you just can't see very well." It works well if this is right at the end of the tutorial, so you can send them off wondering what you expected.

Part 2. (10 minutes)

You can do this immediately after Part 1, or you can leave your evident disappointment to fester in their minds for a week before moving on to Part 2. "Try again," I say, "but this time look harder." And I give them a minute to mutter amongst themselves and repeat the exercise. Go round the group again getting their revised lists. Some students will claim to see nothing but the same again, some might leap ahead and see something really interesting, but the ones to focus on first at this stage are those who have done much the same as before but have just seen a bit more detail. Jack or Jill might give you a list like: "trees with no leaves on them, people bundled up in big coats because it must be cold out there, small clouds moving quickly in a mostly clear sky... etc.". "Great!" you say. "You've done two new things: you've added detail and you've added interpretation, based partly on the new detail. You're actually seeing "evidence" (the people bundled up in big coats) and you're using that to reach conclusions (it must be cold). Brilliant. You look out of the window and you see "cold". Add that to your list. "Cold". At this stage a student might say "But you can't "see" the cold." If now seems like a good time to discuss the difference between observation and interpretation you could do that. I tend to let things build up slowly so I would say "OK - if you don't want "cold" on your list of things you can see, start a parallel list of things you can't see but you can tell must be there, and put "cold" on that list. At this point typically students still don't really see where this is going, but they think they understand why I was disappointed in their list from Part 1 and are ready to try and add more detail. It usually works well to do Part 3 straight away now.

Part 3. (15 minutes)

Ask the students to look out of the window again and repeat the exercise, but let them decide whether they want one big list that includes observations and interpretations or separate lists. It doesn't matter what they do. What matters here is that compared with Part 1 they (a) look harder and (b) combine thinking with looking. In this part, with most groups of students, it works well to receive their lists one at a time and prod them constantly with questions (really prompts) about what they've written, something like this:

Tutor: What did you put, Sam?
Sam: I put the road, the...
Tutor (interrupting): Where does the road go?
Sam: It's just the road that goes up past Chemistry out towards Holly Cross. I live in Holly Cross.
Tutor: So that's your road to home. That means more than just any old road. I think of it as the road to Aberystwyth, which is where it takes you to eventually.
Student: Should I call it the road to Aberystwyth?
Tutor: No, that's just what it is to me. To you it's the road home. This is your list. Write what you see. We might be looking at the same road but we're seeing different things. What else have you got?
Sam: I've got the road - the road home, I've got the...
Tutor: So do you think of Holly Cross as home? You've only been here a week.
Student: "Home home" is in Derby, Holly Cross is "Keele home".
Tutor: Can you see the road to Derby from here? Are Holly Cross and Derby in different places or are they both outside that window? Actually no, let's leave that question for now. Give me the rest of your list...

By this point students should be starting to realise that they can choose to put different things on their lists. They could simply put "road", or they could put "tarmac road 6m wide with concrete kerbstones", or they could come from a different angle and put "road that takes me every evening to a place that isn't really home" or "road that my tutor thinks goes to some place in Wales" or "road that means Keele is connected to other places", etc. You could at this point have the discussion about how seeing a road is like seeing part of a big intercnnected transport system and seeing a cloud is like seeing a small part of the hydrological cycle caught up in the global atmospheric circulation, or you could leave that for next time. This is a good point for a substantial break of a couple of weeks, or more, having sown the seeds of what will become an important idea.

At this point I usually skip to the "St. Exupery's Geography Lesson" exercise, because it reinforces what they've just done here and leads nicely into the next stage of this "Through the window" adventure.


To be continued: this is just the beginning!