Getting their attention - and yours

Dear colleagues,

Have you ever given a lecture and found that some students just won't pay attention? Instead, they sit at the back and text or surf the web or even play video games.

What is the solution? Is it to design the assessment so students have to listen, or is it to become a more dynamic and entertaining speaker?

Cathy Davidson, a professor at Duke University, has a different and more provocative answer. She says maybe the students who are entranced by their electronic devices actually have something to teach us - about attention. Maybe they need to learn differently, in ways more relevant to their futures than our old-system teaching methods.

Davidson in her book Now You See It delves into the science of attention and its implications for education and work. She starts with a famous experiment in which subjects are given a task: watch a brief video of some players on a basketball court passing the basketball to each other and count the number of times the ones wearing white exchange the ball. After the exercise is over, they are asked, "Did you see the gorilla?" Half a minute into the video, a woman in a gorilla suit walks through the middle of the court, pauses to beat her chest, and exits.

Half the subjects in this experiment don't see the gorilla. They are so engrossed in the counting task that this striking occurrence is, in cognitive terms, invisible.

Davidson, though, is dyslexic and didn't even attempt the counting task because it was impossible for her. However, she immediately saw the gorilla. From this experience, she drew an obvious but important conclusion: different people are attuned to different things.

This point is deeper than it seems. Davidson describes the way a baby learns as a process of shedding connections in the brain. The baby initially pays attention to all sorts of sounds, sights and touch, but gradually, through guidance from parents and others nearby, learns to ignore most sensory inputs and to make meaning from specific ones.

Language competence develops this way, namely by shedding some brain connections and strengthening others. Before long, it becomes impossible to distinguish some sounds that are not differentiated in the language. The implication is significant, and more general than language: by paying attention to only some parts of the environment, other parts become literally invisible. Our brains, by being adapted for specific purposes, do not have the capacity to recognise or comprehend some inputs. Just because we can't see it doesn't mean it's not there.

This phenomenon is well known in the social study of science via the concept of paradigms. Scientists see the world in terms of a set of assumptions, principles, practices and rules of thumb and cannot easily accept other ways of understanding the world. Classic cases include the paradigm of creationism superseded by evolution and the paradigm of classical physics superseded by relativity and quantum theory. Many of the old guard resisted change despite persuasive new evidence.

Back in the classroom, Davidson argues that students may be getting the wrong sort of education. Their jobs will involve interactive technologies and value mental flexibility, task switching, creativity and continual learning. For such a future, learning via listening to a logical exposition of pre-determined content is simply outdated. Why listen to a lecture when the content is available online, and there can be interaction via texting, blogs and wikis? Davidson says the world has been changing but education systems are not keeping up with the times.

One of her key insights is that if different people see the world in different ways, then it makes sense to join forces with those who are cognitively different. A team of people with different attention skills can grasp more of the world than any single person, no matter how talented that individual might be.

Davidson pursues these insights throughout Now You See It. If you are dissatisfied with standard approaches to teaching, learning and work, you will find what she has to say highly stimulating. She investigates various learning innovations, new-style workplaces and research on attention, showing that much of the world is shifting - but universities and workplaces not so much.

The ideas in her book include the following.

* Learning today can be mixed with socialising, as already occurs using social media.

* Students can learn in an exploratory manner, with more self-direction, in the manner of web surfing and blogging.

* The quality of student writing is better in blogs than in academic assignments, because of getting more practice and writing for peers.

* Marking of assignments might be crowdsourced, namely done by groups.

* Video games can be a more effective way of learning than traditional texts.

* Learning while having fun, for example in simulation games, can be much easier than traditional means.

* Workplaces need to be rethought for a digital future in which multitasking is routine.

* Peer collaboration is a powerful way to generate innovation.

* All skills should be re-evaluated in terms of their relevance for the digital workplace.

Davidson comes across as a revolutionary, wanting to revamp outdated educational and workplace systems. However, some of her ideas are not all that new, but are contemporary versions of long-standing alternatives - ones that have been ignored because they don't mesh with current systems.

Davidson ran what she thought was an exciting, innovative class - and no doubt it was. But she had some advantages. There were just 18 students, all highly motivated students at a top university. It's not obvious that her approach would work with a class with hundreds of less interested first-years. She does not mention the extensive experience with free schools that foreshadowed contemporary educational innovation.

Davidson says "Workers in the economy of the future need to have work structured around their lives, not the other way around. Now that is a novel principle!" (p. 221) However, this ideal has a long history. Indeed, it is implicit in Marx's saying "From each according to their ability, to each according to their need".

Davidson's ideas about worker participation are not new. They have just been submerged, especially in the US. The tradition of workers' control, also called workers' self-management or industrial democracy, anticipates many of Davidson's ideas by decades. Ironically, in the US there is a type of attention blindness to radical alternatives, so they have to keep being reinvented.

Although some of Davidson's ideas may be misguided, impractical or have unacknowledged precedents, they are still worth considering. It is always worth considering fresh thinking about learning and work, taking into account the opportunities and obstacles created by digital technologies. However, it also pays not to get carried away by the latest developments. Preparing students for learning and work in the future is at best a hit-or-miss affair, because no one knows for sure what will be relevant decades from now.


For helpful discussions, I thank Kate Bowles, Scott Burrows, Narelle Campbell, Anneleis Humphries, Michael Matteson, Ben Morris and Tshering Yangden.

Cathy N. Davidson, Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (New York: Viking, 2011)

"We learn our patterns of attention so efficiently that we don't even know they are patterns. We believe they are the world, not a limited pattern representing the part of the world that has been made meaningful to us at a given time. Only when we are disrupted by something different from our expectations do we become aware of the blind spots that we cannot see on our own." (p. 56)

Concerning kids of the Internet generation: "What if instead of telling them what they should know, we asked them? What if we continued the lesson of the Internet itself and let them lead us into a new, exploratory way of learning in order to see if this self-directed way might mean something when it came to education? What if we assumed that their experiences online had already patterned their brains to a different kind of intellectual experimentation - and what if we let them show us where the pedagogical results of such an experiment might lead?" (p. 62)

"That is the glistening paradox of great education: It is not about answering test questions. It is about knowing that, when tested by the most grueling challenges ahead, you have the capacity to learn what is required to succeed." (p. 85)

"Research indicates that, at every age level, people take their writing more seriously when it will be evaluated by peers than when it is to be judged by teachers. Online blogs directed at peers exhibit fewer typographical and factual errors, less plagiarism, and generally better, more elegant, and persuasive prose than classroom assignments by the same writers." (p. 101)

"Yet game play is about working harder and harder, receiving constant feedback on your progress, and progressing to the next level when you've mastered the last one. It is about striving for perfection. There is no bell curve in game play. Given that motivation, it is possible that video games are an ideal preparation for the interactive, iterative, multitasking, and collaborative world into which our kids are coming of age, a world they will need to navigate, lead, and, by their leadership, transform." (pp. 158-159)

"... humans, as we know from attention-blindness experiments, are notoriously poor at knowing how we actually do what we do. Unless accompanied by a psychologist or ethnographer, most of us can't stand outside ourselves to see what makes us most efficient. Left to our own devices, we tend to go to the lowest barrier of entry, which can mean we gravitate to that which least disrupts our current habits, even if those habits don't work very well in the long run." (p. 176)

"... collaboration by difference is the open-source and open-access principle upon which the Internet and the World Wide Web were originally created and by which they continue to be governed. It is based on the idea that productive collaboration requires not just a lot of participation by many different kinds of people but a form of collaboration that is as open, unstructured, and flexible as possible, in its design, principles, and motivation. ... Rather than aiming at uniformity and standardization as regulated and enforced by institutional hierarchy, this form of crowdsourced collaboration is based on the idea that if you allow people to contribute in as many different ways as they want, offering points of view as distinctive as possible, the whole outcome is more innovative, stronger, better, and more ambitious than if you start with a goal or a mission and then structure each contribution as a deliberate step toward fulfillment of that goal. ...

"The challenge, then, is to figure out how to change our institutions' structures to support these forms of collaboration based on difference. We need the best ways to train ourselves for participation, for productive interactivity, and even for the self-regulation necessary for collaborating with others for the success of the whole." (pp. 191-192)

Re IBM: "Because an atmosphere is created in which anyone can contribute ideas or build upon the ideas of others, there is also a better chance that the contributions from the highly diverse, multinational workforce might help the corporation to see its own blind spots. It counts on its own workforce, in other words, to help chart the leading edge of its own innovation, looking to the corporate jams to propose ideas outside of the tried-and-true twentieth-century business school methods of strategic planning, flowcharts, goal setting, organizational mission, revenue optimization, targets, projections, benchmarks, market analysis, and milestones." (p. 199)

"Better geriatric health has also been attributed to Internet-assisted self-help, because the elderly become their own health advocates, finding reliable sources of medical information online, taking greater control of their own health care, resulting in fewer doctor bills, less medication, and a greater sense of well-being and security." (p. 274)

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