An Interview with Carol J. Chihara: Looking and Seeing

Dec 5, 2013 by

41U1tLSegtL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_Michael F. Shaughnessy



1)      You have recently authored a book on “Looking and Seeing“. What brought this about ?



At an “out-reach to Middle School Night” in the Biology Department of USF where I taught for almost 30 years I presented a challenge to the students. Two mutant fruit flies and a normal (wildtype) fly were lined up under the microscope accompanied by a question tag that read: Can you describe what is different about these three flies? All of the students could see that one of the flies had white eyes, while the others had red eyes. But very few noticed that one of the flies had no wings! And those that did thought they must be ants!


All this suggested to me that kids don’t learn to look at what they see with the eye of a scientist or of an artist. Both artists and scientists need to be acutely aware of the commonalities and differences that set similar objects or organisms apart from one another. So I set out to write a book to guide them to seeing what they were looking at in a more rigorous way.



2)      You subtitle the book “Learning to Observe“- why is this an essential skill


Observation skills are very important in science, especially in the study of nature, but also in lab sciences. It involves not just describing what you see but also making connections to other things you have seen or are looking at. I also believe that the same skills are essential to artists.



3)      How does this book help kids practice and improve their observational habits?



My aim was to show kids in a fun way how to compare similar animals (and plants) and teach them to ask the questions that would help find the differences and likenesses between them. When they look at a flower, they can learn to ask if it has petals or not. If yes, what color? How many? What kind of center does it have? Is it the same flower as the on the plant growing next to it?


By seeing that two very similar elephants are in fact quite different, perhaps the next time they go to the zoo they will look more closely and see that the zoo has an Indian Elephant, or an Asian elephant and be even a little excited by the revelation!


Both artists and scientists need to be acutely aware of the commonalities and differences that set similar objects or organisms apart from one another. I felt that keen powers of observation could be taught and thus learned by practicing with real life photos.



4)      You include pictures of both animals and nature. Let’s discuss animals first- why is it important for kids to observe the local dog, cat, squirrel, birds etc?



  • I chose animals primarily because they are a love of mine. I love to pet cats and dogs, go to zoos and watch the animals there. (I have always been in awe of how many different kinds of dogs there are.) I wanted to find a way for children (and their parents) to develop the skills of observation without having to go beyond their neighborhood or local zoo. The book asks questions like: Does an African elephant differ from an Asian elephant – if so, how? Most zoos have at least one type of elephant, usually Asian.

  • What makes one yellow flower different , the same or similar to another yellow flower? Flowers are pretty common everywhere, even in small city gardens.


The hope is that it will suggest other questions, such as:


How is a tiger like an alley cat?


What is it that makes them both cats?


How can you tell a toadstool from a mushroom?



It is my belief that recognizing the richness of what is around one enriches ones enjoyment of life in general. Whether you want a youngster to be an artist or a scientist or just to increase their appreciation of their surroundings, it is my hope that this little book will help to achieve those goals.



5)      Now, let’s talk nature—What should kids be looking at in the grass, in trees, leaves, a pond, a river etc?



The aim is that they will ask the same questions that they are told to ask about the photos in the book. What is special about what you see? I want them not to just see “a flower” but to appreciate all the aspect of “flower” that makes each one unique. (Color, petals, centers etc.) How is one pond different or similar to other ponds, or trees? Etc. At the end of the book it is suggested they use the skills of ‘looking’ and ‘seeing’ to bird watch, or tide pool, take pictures of their world, etc.



6)      In addition, your book talks about primates and provides some classifications and categorization. Are you teaching thinking skills here?



I would love to think so! I would hope that those kids who didn’t know that people share a category with the apes would be made to think about that.




7)      Your book has miniscule creatures ( bugs, wasps ) and gargantuan fellows ( Elephants ) thus providing a wide range of natures creatures. Was this intentional?



I was mostly looking for creatures that kids had at least some experience with. Again, things in the neighborhood (bees and spiders) and at the zoos (apes and elephants). Then took a few of them from out of the city (cows and pigs), tarantulas.



8)      You have both questions and answers in this book. Can parents help kids learn to read, perceive and think?



The format of the book definitely had parents in mind for those kids that don’t read well yet. But originally I meant this book for elementary school children who could read most of it on their own. However, at least one grade school teacher is using it in her school’s second grade classes, and I suppose that they need some help with the level of language in the book.



9)      How does this book bring joy and an appreciation for nature to young readers?



It attempts to show that seeing “in depth” makes the world a more interesting place. It is often boring for kids to have to learn lists of facts, i.e. a lesson on mammals that merely lists their traits etc. can turn kids off completely. The idea in the book is to have them figure out for themselves what the likes and differences are and get a sense of the fun in accomplishing that! I remembered when I went tide pooling with my daughter how much children at the beach surrounded us and enjoyed our question and answer sessions. I .e. how does the crab move , what’s different about the hermit crab? etc.


I hope my book will help kids learn that they can learn what is interesting on their own and that knowing things if fun!



10)   What age and grades is this book for ?



I originally thought from about 9 to 12. But have since realized much younger kids like it as well, especially when the parents help read and look.



11)   What have I neglected to ask?



How much did I enjoy writing this book?  It was great fun, I even learned a few things while researching for new “fun facts”!


If you try to teach the child the “facts” in school it can become really boring, but if you make it a game of discovery on your street, or at the zoo it can be great fun! Simply learning to describe differences in what they see can make nature so much more interesting. Any child can “discover” that chimps and apes don’t have tails and all the monkeys in the zoo do! Wow, now they know some of what makes one an ape and the other a monkey! Any kid can be led to discover that spiders have eight legs and insects only six. You don’t need to know a lot of facts either. Just learn to describe differences together and see how rich the world can become!


As for seeing those flies I put out on the microscope, to see them as a scientist means noticing what was the same and what was different! The next step is asking how they got that way!

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