Observation Is Key

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Recap: Technology Is Double-Edged

Over the last two weeks, I've touched on how technology has changed memory keeping and how new digital realities impact our choices about project storage and organization. Technology is sort of a double edge, making memory keeping easier while overwhelming us with choice and decisions.

However, as routines shift to reign in the spread of COVID-19, my attention has shifted to how technology has influenced the way in which I observe, record, and collect artifacts about our unfolding lives. For example, more than newspaper clippings, I print online news articles and take snapshots of infographics on the web.

Still, it is the following that really has my attention:

  1. Options for recording observations
  2. Modes of observing
  3. How the first two relate to memory keeping
  4. How it all relates to storytelling

First, Let's Pause on "Why?" and Our Record Keeping Options

Sure, sure. We're constantly observing life and making sense of it all as we go along. And, many of us are good at remembering it—or at least we think we are. Truth is, memory alone doesn’t have the same level of integrity as observations captured through documentation and other related artifacts (like a photograph, detailing our experiences and moments in a vivid way). Add to that, every time we remember something, our brains change the memory of it, ironically. So, it's super important to document our observations.

Luckily, there are several alternatives for recording our observations. Typically, these options come in two flavors: Analog (e.g., paper) or a digital means of recording. Likewise, there two obvious ways of observing: Through our eyes (photos) and through our ears (words). However, I seldom capture just what I've heard or seen. I often record things informed by all of my senses, like smells, and sounds (other than words), touches (like the wind on my face), and tastes (I LOVE food, heh). Plus, I'm apt to add a bit of commentary, questions, and ideas when it comes to documenting what I've observed. After all, there's a lot of commentary and curiosity that happens inside my head and heart while I'm observing things.

So, what's possible—tech wise—when it comes to documenting our observations? For our visual observations we have cameras and sketches. For everything else, it's a matter of words which can be recorded through writing, typing, or speaking. For example, we can:

  • Write our words down on paper (in a traveler's notebook, for example)
  • Type our words, using a typewriter and paper
  • Type our words into an app like, Evernote
  • Type our words into an online blog
  • Speak our words into a recorder (Just Press Record is a great app for that)
  • Speak our words to our families, friends, and communities (it's has less integrity, but it's still helpful for remembering)

Yet right now, it's the two modes of observation that I think are most interesting: Free form and guided observation.

The Two Modes of Observation

While the modes haven't changed much in the last 30 years, certain aspects of them have become more widely known because of the advent of both the internet and digital books.

Free Form Observation

The first mode of observing has been key to the memory keeping community forever. Indeed, my friend Ali Edwards is presently engage in a project within her community called The Art of Noticing (and, I urge you to check it out. She's so great at leading community projects). Likewise, the internet is full of creative thought leaders, like Todd Henry and his book The Accidental Creative with recommendations around free form observation, like:

  • Carrying around blank cards (and a pencil) in your pocket to capture observations along with your thoughts and reactions
  • Engaging with those cards every night to reflect on the patterns, surprises, and feelings of what was observed

The internet, filled with digital books, articles, podcasts, videos, and social media has widened our ability to encounter new and deeper ideas about this familiar mode of observation. It's wonderful!

Guided Observation

The second mode of observation is something I learned through homeschooling our son Duncan. Through a passion for learning about learning, I devoured everything I could sink my teeth into that might make me a better guide for Duncan. Consequently, the internet, a close friend, and one of my dear cousins all pointed me to the Reggio Emilia approach and Making Learning Visible which described a mode of observation I've taken to calling guided observation. And while I suspect there are memory keepers that actively engage in guided observation, it wasn't my mode for a long time. Actually, guided observation was something I tried to avoid before I understood more about it.

Why did I stay clear of it? The answer has to do with a bit of training. I studied and worked (as an archaeological technician) in the field of anthropology during college. Consequently, my work was all about noticing things, like lithic debitage (stone debris) or scarred cedar that might indicate the manufacturing patterns of a local people from prehistory. Though the head archaeologists might have questions to chase, we didn't. We observed, they interpreted. Indeed, they were careful to keep their questions from us because knowing what we were looking for (rather than what we were looking at) might have kept us from noticing other things in the archaeological record. In other words, not sharing their underlying question (or hypothesis) kept us from forming and injecting our own biases into the process. It was an important quality of our observations, making it possible to unearth surprises outside of the scope of the investigations.

Now, back to that thing I learned from the Reggio Emilia approach to learning...

Reggio teachers create amazing learning contexts and allow their students to travel a learning path according the student's will and learning. After they create this learning context, teachers observe with a specific question or hypothesis in mind about the child's learning and the context itself. This is a path for creating bias, intentionally, as a way for teachers to learn and potentially improve learning and learning processes. However, there is a chance that this bias may limit or influence their results in an undesirable way, creating sort of a blindness to things happening outside of the scope of their questions. Things that could be important to their overall understanding and improvement efforts. To mitigate the impacts, Reggio teachers often work in pairs and some of the literature indicates they may use multiple means to observe—note taking via paper together with video capture, for instance. Clearly, video capture would be a great idea, making it possible to view an observation session again and again while evaluating it against different questions.

How Observation Applies to Memory Keeping

What does all of this heady stuff about observation have to do with memory keeping, though? Well, I've found that a good mix of free form and guided observation can solidify story arcs I may be in the middle of realizing as I engage in memory keeping. Sometimes, by chasing a particular question (how is Duncan similar to Erik?) or a hypothesis (if I eat spaghetti, then I'll have nightmares), a truth or misunderstanding is revealed. Both truth and misunderstandings are great seeds for stories. But backing up a bit, it was in the act of noticing trends—that free form observation—that guided me towards the particular question or hypothesis in the first place. So, both modes of observation are important to my memory keeping efforts.

A Second Look through Storyteller's Eyes

Finally, as a storyteller, I recognize motifs as our global responses to COVID-19 cause me to wonder if things will ever return to the way they were before. From a storyteller's perspective, we've crossed over the threshold of an inciting incident where life has changed from its usual, before state. Now, we face new obstacles (conflict in story terms) and an obvious "baddie" (COVID-19). Though, some of us are occupied by less obvious villains (for example, a thief broke into my cousin's car for hand sanitizer the other day). If we engage mightily with these villains, we'll enter into another point in our story plot: The boss battle (or, plot climax). All of which—once we're through it—will lead to a new normal and our adjustment to it (i.e., denouement or conclusion in story terms). Clearly, our lives are rich with story and narrative plot right now.

These are interesting times—worthy of our attention and documented observations.

Before I Go

Now, before I go and end this post, I want to thank you for reading and giving your attention to it. I'm so grateful for that. And in these weird days, it's more important to me than ever to express my gratitude and wish you many good things: Love, friendship, health, and the power to overcome the baddie in whatever boss battles you encounter as you journey through life now (and later).

Take care, you!


I'd Love to Hear from You 🙂

Since I see us on this journey to master memory keeping together, I'd like to hear your thoughts. So, let's chat about:

  • Your thoughts and feelings about the post
  • What your're doing this week related to memory keeping
  • Your take on the One a Month Projects

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