Learning to See

As we start to navigate our way into this topic of mastery, I’d like to explore attention and perception further. Louis Agassiz became known well beyond his own field for teaching observation, and many of his students relay similar stories of how he imbued this lesson in them. The following is one such charmingly told story, excerpted from Louis Agassiz as a Teacher by Lane Cooper (I heartily recommend reading the book in full):

“Take this fish,’ said he, ‘and look at it; we call it a haemulon; by and by I will ask what you have seen.’

With that he left me, but in a moment returned with explicit instructions as to the care of the object entrusted to me.

 ’No man is fit to be a naturalist,’ said he, ‘who does not know how to take care of specimens.’

 I was to keep the fish before me in a tin tray, and occasionally moisten the surface with alcohol from the jar, [..]

 In ten minutes I had seen all that could be seen in that fish, and started in search of the Professor–who had, however, left the Museum; and when I returned, after lingering over some of the odd animals stored in the upper apartment, my specimen was dry all over. I dashed the fluid over the fish as if to resuscitate the beast from a fainting -fit, and looked with anxiety for a return of the normal sloppy appearance. This little excitement over, nothing was to be done but to return to a steadfast gaze at my mute companion. Half an hour passed –an hour–another hour; the fish began to look loathsome. I turned it over and around; looked it in the face–ghastly, from behind, beneath, above, sideways, at a three-quarters’ view–just as ghastly. I was in despair; at an early hour I concluded that lunch was necessary; so, with infinite relief, the fish was carefully replaced in the jar, and for an hour I was free.

 On my return, I learned that Professor Agassiz had been at the Museum, but had gone, and would not return for several hours. My fellow-students were too busy to be disturbed by continued conversation. Slowly I drew forth that hideous fish, and with a feeling of desperation again looked at it. I might not use a magnifying-glass; instruments of all kinds were interdicted. My two hands, my two eyes, and the fish: it seemed a most limited field. I pushed my finger down its throat to feel how sharp the teeth were. I began to count the scales in the different rows, until I was convinced that that was nonsense. At last a happy thought struck me –I would draw the fish; and now with surprise I began to discover new features in the creature. Just then the Professor returned.

 ’That is right,’ said he; ‘a pencil is one of the best of eyes. I am glad to notice, too, that you keep your specimen wet, and your bottle corked.’

With these encouraging words, he added:

‘Well, what is it like?’

 He listened attentively to my brief rehearsal of the structure of parts whose names were still unknown to me: the fringed gill-arches and movable operculum; the pores of the head, fleshy lips and lidless eyes; the lateral line, the spinous fins and forked tail; the compressed and arched body. When I had finished, he waited as if expecting more, and then, with an air of disappointment:

‘You have not looked very carefully; why,’ he continued more earnestly,’ you haven’t even seen one of the most conspicuous features of the animal, which is as plainly before your eyes as the fish itself; look again, look again!’ and he left me to my misery.

 I was piqued; I was mortified. Still more of that wretched fish! But now I set myself to my task with a will, and discovered one new thing after another, until I saw how just the Professor’s criticism had been. The afternoon passed quickly; and when, toward its close, the Professor inquired:

‘Do you see it yet?’

‘No,’ I replied, ‘I am certain I do not, but I see how little I saw before.’

 ’That is next best,’ said he, earnestly, ‘but I won’t hear you now; put away your fish and go home; perhaps you will be ready with a better answer in the morning. I will examine you before you look at the fish.’

 This was disconcerting. Not only must I think of my fish all night, studying, without the object before me, what this unknown but most visible feature might be; but also, without reviewing my new discoveries, I must give an exact account of them the next day. I had a bad memory; so I walked home by Charles River in a distracted state, with my two perplexities.

 The cordial greeting from the Professor the next morning was reassuring; here was a man who seemed to be quite as anxious as I that I should see for myself what he saw. ‘Do you perhaps mean,’ I asked, ‘that the fish has symmetrical sides with paired organs?’

 His thoroughly pleased ‘Of course! of course!’ repaid the wakeful hours of the previous night. After he had discoursed most happily and enthusiastically–as he always did-upon the importance of this point, I ventured to ask what I should do next.

 ’Oh, look at your fish!’ he said, and left me again to my own devices. In a little more than an hour he returned, and heard my new catalogue.

‘That is good, that is good!’ he repeated; ‘but that is not all; go on;’ and so for three long days he placed that fish before my eyes, forbidding me to look at anything else, or to use any artificial aid. ‘Look, look, look,’ was his repeated injunction.

This was the best entomological lesson I ever had–a lesson whose influence has extended to the details of every subsequent study; a legacy the Professor has left to me, as he has left it to many others, of inestimable value, which we could not buy, with which we cannot part. ”

– “How Agassiz Taught Professor Scudder”, Louis Agassiz as a Teacher, Lane Cooper

Once again, let’s open this to discussion of what we learn from the story, as it relates to being an architect.

Debrief: When I first encountered this story, I learned something from it about observing and noticing. Seeing relationships and connections, starting to make conjectures about the form and structure, structure and function. When I return to the story, discuss it, read the wonderful discussion in the comments (thank you!), I learn more. If we treat the story as our “fish” and ask what we learn, “the pencil is the best eye” jumps out — when we draw what we see, we notice better what we see.

When the question was put to Agassiz, ‘What do you regard as your greatest work?’ he replied: ‘I have taught men to observe.’ — Louis Agassiz: Illustrative Extracts on His Method Of Instruction by Lane Cooper, 1917

This is echoed in a comment on John Ruskin (1819 -1900):

“His mission was not to teach people how to draw, but how to see.” Niamh Sharky, Everyone Can Draw

But let’s ask ourselves why Agassiz (1807 – 1873) insisted on no tools — nothing to magnify, and nothing to cut into. Ah, indeed, nothing to remedy our urge to do something. So the typical starting point is to begin by busying ourselves with inventorying and classifying. But that doesn’t satisfy Agassiz. And his students are left to notice, and to notice more. To notice patterns, symmetry, relationships, connections. And as they did that — as we by proxy, placing ourselves in the story, do that – we get caught up in this incredible creature, the fish, and become curious about it. And seek to understand why it is like it is, what purpose does just this set of relationships serve, and what else might the fish teach us.

Responding to the story with enthusiasm, an architecture program manager recently told me that when he was learning to sail as a kid, his instructor had told him to be aware of everything — the wind, the water, the movement of the clouds — and he just wanted to learn how to sail, but now, teaching his sons to sail, he’s teaching the same lessons about observing, not just acting.

From the story we learn:

To observe. To see. To notice.

To still our urge act-act-act. To be patient. To enter a state of creative suspension.

To become curious. To ask questions.

To reflect.

To perceive. To understand.

And as Gene and Tom indicate, to be somewhat wary and willing…

To return to observing, noticing, questioning, …

because thinking we’re done already, is a sign we’re missing something. Of course, the “extraordinary moment” principle we introduced in the Master Butcher debrief applies. We have to use judgment, but as we’re developing our understanding of systems in general, and the system we’re evolving in particular, we need to take the time, and still ourselves enough to observe, or listen, as the case may be. And we will need to act. But in this rush to action, YAGNI-flavored world, we need to remind ourselves the system, and the greater system that is its context, has much to teach us, and we need to perceive it, better understand it. Then what we do, will be more as the Master Butcher, for we will perceive with a greater sense the wholeness, the interrelatedness and the natural structure and flow.

We could use this story to seed conversations along many paths — the nature of architecture and the relationship between structure and function; visualization and perception; the role of the architect. But I want to highlight the centrality of observation. To get better at designing systems, and evolving them, we, like doctors, need to be able to ask useful questions:

“Doctors have to be able to ask the right questions,” said Pink. “That calls for extraordinary observation skills — the observation skills of a painter, of a sculptor. So, medical schools are taking students to art museums to make them better diagnosticians. And, lo and behold, doctors who receive this type of diagnostic training are better diagnosticians than those who haven’t.” — “The Pink Prescription: Facing Tomorrow’s Challenges Calls for Right-brain Thinking,” June 10, 2009, Knowledge@Wharton

8 thoughts on “Learning to See

  1. Patience, maturity, thoroughness, curiosity are all necessary traits for an architect.

    I fear that “next best” is the highest level I can attain, because thinking I’ve seen all is a sure sign that I’m missing much.

    • Great answer, Gene!

      “I fear that “next best” is the highest level I can attain, because thinking I’ve seen all is a sure sign that I’m missing much.” – that’s me too… Oh well!

  2. Context, Capabilities and Architecture are at the heart of system development, whether product development or IT applications. I might suggest that Challenges go between Context and Capabilities:

    Context = Who has needs? Where, when and why they have them? How valuable?
    Challenges = What are the risks and obstacles to overcome to satisfy these needs?
    Capabilities = Which partial solutions can be created to overcome the challenges?
    Architecture = How are capabilities assembled into a working system? How should they fit together? What tradeoffs need to be made?

    Knowing that this progression exists is part of the battle. But knowing that lift and thrust are fundamental to flying is not the same as designing an aircraft.

    This is where keen powers of observation and detail come into play. When Peter Senge wrote about Mental Models and Team Learning in The Fifth Discipline, he observed, “How is it that a room full of 120 IQ people can have a collective IQ of 20?”

    It has been my experience that one of the key answers is “false understanding and spurious disagreement”. What I mean can be illustrated by a group of people in some sort of review process:

    o False understanding: Everybody in the room agrees that something is correct, while in actuality they just think they are agreeing. In other words, their agreement is based on “word matching”, while the concepts behind the words have different meaning to different people.

    Example, “the vital signs monitor shall be field upgradable.” By whom? Biomeds or clinicians? When? Plug and play (like a USB device) or when the device is out of service? These are huge questions. But like Professor Scudder, they don’t appear until you are willing and able to look closely enough.

    o Spurious disagreement. Noise and other forms of distraction are enemies of deep agreement. Tiger Woods and other PGA golfers have a difficult time concentrating when the whirring of cameras happen in their downswing. Golf swings are precise. The head of a golf club travels about 10′ from address to ball strike, and 1/8″ of error can mean the difference between great and terrible shots. The ratio here is 960:1 – pretty challenging for a human, even one who hits balls on the driving range 2-4 hours a day.

    Spurious disagreement has the same roots as false understanding, but takes a different form. Here, people spend time arguing about things that are unimportant details, or worse, that they actually agree on (but can’t tell because their words are different).

    Observe closely, all ye architects, and I’m certain that you will recognize false understanding and spurious agreement, just as certainly as Professor Scudder recognized that “the fish has symmetrical sides with paired organs” and other equally fascinating discoveries.

  3. Very good blog. I notice that quite often people are prone to classifying what they see immediately. It seems that when people observe for quite a while they can start to see how their classification is not integral to what they are looking at — they can see beyond it. Then, they can play (truly play) with alternative views and see detail that they might not have before.

    For some people this is very hard. They want to believe in their initial view and they cling to it so strongly that they neglect their perception.

  4. Hi Michael,

    My problem is that I immediately see beyond things and directly start playing with all kinds of ideas and associations. I have no patience and go ahead with taking things apart and rebuild (or draw) it for myself in a different way for a different purpose in a totally different context. And by doing so I miss often the more realistic or obvious solution :-(

    BTW: If I read a story about a dead fish I must think of Frank O. Gehry who did amazing things with fish: http://www.eikongraphia.com/?p=937

  5. Thoughts prompted by this post and associated responses include:

    + Hare brain, tortoise mind – how intelligence increases when we think less! – a wonderful book that offers insights into the workings and value of our underminds

    + Knowledge ecology insights into creation and sharing of knowledge through interaction with our environment, and how every encounter changes us and our knowledgebase, such that we are always learning if that is to be defined by gaining new knowledge

    + My encouragement of architects in relation to three key skills – listening (or observing), thinking and communicating – in that order, and where thinking includes reflecting

  6. The thing that comes through on a first reading is this: “sitting with”.

    When I “sit with” something I just let it be there and let myself be there and see how the it and the I relate. Sometimes I do this with my feelings. Sometimes I do it with code. Realistically, some times I don’t manage to do it. And sometimes it takes me days and days to do it. How do I know when I’m done? I don’t *know*. It’s like refactoring in that way, I’m not done refactoring because the code is perfect, I’m done with refactoring because I can’t see anything else I wish were better. I’m not done “sitting with” because I now know what to do, I’m done “sitting with” because I haven’t noticed anything new for a while. Sometimes I put something aside on purpose when this happens, then come back later and sit with it again, just to see if I’m truly out of ideas. — GeePaw

    • Yes, there’s having the patience to mull and let the subconscious go to work on the problem and so forth. Important to do.

      What Agassiz was doing (and these, I gather, were talented — self-confident — grad students) was an exercise in, one might say, the humility of really looking. Seeing. Observing with an inquiring orientation. Getting past that easy assumption that there is nothing to be seen. Putting aside what is known. Putting aside the tools that distract us into do-do-doing. And learning to see, to observe, to inquire, to find things out. To relate. And to see and inquire some more. Patiently. Rigorously.

      That I relate to the story of Cook Ting, the master butcher. Finding the natural structure, learning it so deeply we can proceed by instinct until we reach the tricky parts, comes of observing and relating. That deep kind of attending to the structure in the domain (the “problem” and the “solution”).

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