What I See... and What I Don't See

What I See... and What I Don't See

This learning tool invites learners to make their thinking visible by constructing a representation, or model, of a phenomenon.


4 - 12+


Biology, Storytelling, Experiential Learning, Photography

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This is a general tool using the instructional strategy of stimulating meaning-making by encouraging learners to model both the observable and unobservable features of a phenomenon.

Why Use This Tool

This tool stimulates meaning-making by encouraging learners to model both the observable and unobservable features of a phenomenon. The pictures they draw and the explanations they include will make their prior knowledge explicit. When they revisit their models, learners can see how their thinking has changed.

Instructional Strategy

  • Stimulate meaning-making: Allow learners to construct their own ideas about phenomenon.

When to Use This Tool

Before Learning: Use this tool when a new phenomenon is introduced to learners.

During and After Learning: Revisit the models during and after learners have experiences that provide them new language or new science understandings that spark additions or revisions to their initial models.

  • Time: 20-30 minutes
  • Audience: ages 5-18
  • Ease of Use: simple

This tool provides a way for learners to show their ideas to others in an organized way.


  1. Select a phenomenon and guiding question. Identify an observable event in the world, a phenomenon that your learners will find interesting. Select a phenomenon that is somewhat complex and is aligned with the scientific concepts or ideas that you want your learners to explore. Identify the guiding question that will be used to frame learners’ observations.

  2. Complete the "What I See… and What I Don’t See" learning tool yourself. It is important to experience the tool yourself to get a sense of which ideas might surface easily in your learners’ models, which ideas might require additional probing and guidance, and which ideas might be more challenging to represent.

  3. Identify supports for learners.
  • Identify clarifying questions. The middle (or "during") box might require you to come up with questions to help learners generate  more ideas. What is going on here (point to their representation)? What are you showing here? Why do you think this is happening?

  • Identify drawing conventions. Initially, learners may find it difficult to draw unobservable features. Identify drawing conventions that could be useful. A zoom-in box can help show where and how unobservable events are occurring that make the observable event happen. Learners might also use red or orange colors to show heat, an arrow to show movement, or a small circle to illustrate a molecule.


  1. Show the phenomenon and introduce the guiding question. Either through video or demonstration, show the phenomenon to learners. State the guiding question and encourage learners to pay close attention to what they see. Encourage them to wonder about what might be causing the event that they cannot see.

  2. Share the "What I see… and What I Don’t See" tool with learners. Before learners start modeling their ideas, discuss the meaning of observable and unobservable features of a phenomenon. Then share drawing conventions (e.g. color, arrows, zoom-in bubbles) that could be used to represent ideas that might be more challenging to draw. For example, discuss a pot of boiling water. Observable features include the water and steam, perhaps the heat source underneath the pot. Unobservable features would be water molecules bumping around and hitting each other and the walls of the container, or rising up in the steam. Drawing conventions could include how to represent a water molecule as a circle and using arrows to show how the water molecules move. A zoom-in window could be used to show that these circles and arrows are not something we see, but that are happening within the water as it boils.

  3. Allow learners to draw their models and write their explanations. Using the questions you prepared, walk around and ask students about their models.

  4. Discuss models. Have learners examine their peers’ representations and identify patterns that showed up across models. Also identify differences across models.

  5. Develop questions to explore. The differences across models might be areas of uncertainty that can lead to questions. It is important to end this tool with questions that can be explored in following activities. Consider framing this discussion with a question like: What do we still wonder about?

Modifications, Variations, and Extensions

  1. For young learners, you might want to only include before and after models.

  2. For young learners or multilingual learners, you can provide sentence stems for the written explanations.

  3. For events that are harder to draw, or you want learners to focus on a smaller part of the event, it might be helpful to provide a template for students to get started.

  4. To synthesize the ideas in the discussion, you can do a whole group model, including the ideas learners noticed as patterns across models. Display their questions, either on the whole group model using Post-It notes or next to it. Keep the model and questions someplace visible to learners as you progress through learning activities that might change some of their initial ideas.


Conijn, J., Rietdijk, W., Broekhof, E., Andre, L., & Schinkel, A. (2021). A theoretical framework and questionnaire for wonder-full education. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 54(3), 423-444.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Elizabeth Wolzak, Director, Learning Innovation, Edu Lab, National Geographic
Heather J. Johnson, Vanderbilt University
Stephanie Hamilton, Education Consultant, Global Inclusive Learning Design Reviewer
Kate Gallery, National Geographic Society
Kate Gallery, National Geographic Society
Graphic Design
Patrick Cavanagh, National Geographic Society
Rights Clearance
Jean Cantu, National Geographic Society
Last Updated

July 16, 2024

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