Invisible Gorillas Are Everywhere
By now most everyone has heard about an experiment that goes something like this: Students dressed in black or white bounce a ball back and forth, and observers are asked to keep track of the bounces to team members in white shirts. While that’s happening, another student dressed in a gorilla suit wanders into their midst, looks around, thumps his chest, then walks off, apparently unseen by most observers because they were so focused on the bouncing ball. Voilà: attention blindness.
The invisible-gorilla experiment is featured in Cathy Davidson’s new book, Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (Viking, 2011). Davidson is a founder of a nearly 7,000-member organization called Hastac, or the Humanities, Arts, Sciences, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory, that was started in 2002 to promote the use of digital technology in academe. It is closely affiliated with the digital humanities and reflects that movement’s emphasis on collaboration among academics, technologists, publishers, and librarians. Last month I attended Hastac’s fifth conference, held at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.
Davidson’s keynote lecture emphasized that many of our educational practices are not supported by what we know about human cognition. At one point, she asked members of the audience to answer a question: “What three things do students need to know in this century?” Without further prompting, everyone started writing down answers, as if taking a test. While we listed familiar concepts such as “information literacy” and “creativity,” no one questioned the process of working silently and alone. And noticing that invisible gorilla was the real point of the exercise.
Most of us are, presumably, the products of compulsory educational practices that were developed during the Industrial Revolution. And the way most of us teach is a relic of the steam age; it is designed to support a factory system by cultivating “attention, timeliness, standardization, hierarchy, specialization, and metrics,” Davidson said. One could say it was based on the best research of the time, but the studies of Frederick Winslow Taylor, among others, that undergird the current educational regime (according to Davidson) depend upon faked data supporting the preconceptions of the managerial class. Human beings don’t function like machines, and it takes a lot of discipline—what we call “classroom management”—to make them conform. Crucial perspectives are devalued and rejected, stifling innovation, collaboration, and diversity.
It wasn’t always that way. Educational practices that seem eternal, such as letter grades, started hardly more than a century ago; they paralleled a system imposed on the American Meat Packers Association in the era of The Jungle. (At first the meatpackers objected because, they argued, meat is too complex to be judged by letter grades.) The factory assembly line provided inspiration for the standardized bubble test, which was adopted as a means of sorting students for admission to college. Such practices helped to make education seem efficient, measurable, and meritocratic, but they tended to screen out collaborative approaches to problem-solving.