with Cathy Davidson
Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform
the Way We Live, Work, and Learn, you state: "Attention
blindness is key to everything we do as individuals, from how
we work in groups to what we value in our institutions, in our
classrooms, at work, and in ourselves." What is attention
blindness (what in the professional psychological literature
is often called "inattentional blindness") is a sorting
feature of cognition and the human brain that means, in order
to focus intensely on one thing, you are equally intensely sorting
out and not paying attention to everything else. If you are
concentrating and are distracted that simply means you suddenly
are aware of lots of stimuli you weren't consciously attending
to before. Sometimes this is a bad thing: if you need to concentrate
and cannot, it can lead to accidents.
distraction is a very good thing. Once, I was working so hard
on an article that was due that I didn't notice a burning smell.
When it became more pronounced, I assumed it was from outside.
It was only when smoke actually began to make my eyes tear that
I realized I'd left an empty metal kettle on the stove. When
I jumped up to see it, I realized my entire kitchen was full
of smoke, the rubber handle had melted, and the kettle was a
glowing, terrifying red instead of stainless steel. In that
case, my attention to the article deadline could have meant
All attention works that way. What we focus on means there are
other things we are not focusing on. This is true in neurobiological
terms but it is also true culturally, more metaphorically but
with equal power. Infants pay attention to everything. They
learn from those around them what things are worth paying attention
to and what not. One reason we get "culture shock"
when we go abroad for the first time is suddenly what we thought
of as "human" turns out to be culturally determined
in quite precise, behavioral ways. Learning to pay attention
to other ways of operating in the world is key to collaboration,
especially so in a global distributed workplace.
You maintain that attention blindness has created a disconnect
between the age we live in and the institutions we have built
for the last 120 years. How does this disconnect play out in
our educational institutions?
all of the institutions we know of as "school" and
"work" were created for the industrial world. Farmers
had to be retrained to be factory workers, moving from the fluid
and multi-tasking world of nature and weather and animals to
the assembly line. Shop keepers had to be retrained for corporate
hierarchies. Compulsory public schooling was designed to that
purpose, with a huge emphasis on task, on timeliness, on hierarchy,
on orderliness. Every child starts at age six, ready or not.
Every child starts and ends the school day at the same time.
It's 9 am, take out your spelling books. Now it's 10 am, time
for math - whether you learned or loved or didn't learn or hated
the spelling class.
school bell was the symbol of 19th century education and a primer
for the factory symbolized by the punch clock. What about today?
IBM invented the punch clock and now 40% of IBM workers work
in distributed "endeavor-based work" where they don't
even go into an office every day. We need to redesign our schools
to support the world of the start-up not the corporation. Even
the factory has been replaced now by the call center - that
which cannot be accomplished by automation. So we have different
educational requirements at every level.
are a few first steps teachers and administrators can take to
redesign materials and instruction to meet the needs of students
in this, as you express it, "fourth great information revolution
in the history of humanity"?
first step is participation: find ways that your students can
contribute to the course design and find some way, every day,
that their participation is crucial. Here's one very simple
trick I use a lot: I pass out index cards and, at some point
in each class session (sometimes the beginning, sometimes when
attention flags, sometimes as a conclusion) I have each student,
alone, write out the three most important things from the readings
or the discussion. 90 seconds total. Very quickly. Then I have
the students work in pairs to look over their six things and,
together, decide on the single most important thing. By having
them commit their answers to writing first, it changes the dynamic.
It's not just the extrovert who runs the conversation. And it
turns each student in the pair into a teacher (I make sure the
pairs change each class). I then have them all read out their
"most important" insight and we discuss it. It's a
simple step, but it is about learning to express yourself, to
give feedback and receive it.
The exigencies of No Child Left Behind have been particularly
problematic for ESL teachers. What is your view of this law?
am adamantly and vehemently against end-of-grade, high stakes
multiple choice testing. There are so many new ways of testing
on line where the test is part of the motivating, inspiring,
challenging, learning experience-students don't even know they
are being tested. The assessment is integrated into the learning
Your HASTAC blog post, How
to Crowdsource Grading, in which you state that "grading
is the most outmoded, inconsequential, and irrelevant feature
of teaching," caused quite a stir in the blogpsphere and
prompted articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education
and Inside Higher Ed. The Associated Press produced an
article about it that turned up in local newspapers across the
nation. What is HASTAC?
(pronounced "haystack") stands for Humanities, Arts,
Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory. It is a network
of those interested in new modes of learning for our digital
age, and is now over 9000+ strong. Anyone can join. It is free.
We don't sell your information to anyone. It's at www.hastac.org.
It is mostly higher administration but HASTAC also administers
the annual MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competitions
and you can find lots of exemplary projects on the site that
are about K-12 and informal learning, grantees from those Competitions.
We are currently running our fifth, on Badges for Lifelong Learning,
and have thirty grantee teams working with the world's best
Web developers to come up with peer-driven, comprehensive, creative
new forms of assessment, using badges as the emblem of this
new way of real-time assessment. By May of 2013 thirty institutions,
including Intel, NASA, the Girl Scouts, Department of Education,
and many others, will actually deploy their systems so the public
and educators can learn from their year of experimentation and
development and institutional change. When people say "Well,
we cannot replace high stakes multiple choice tests because
we have no other way of efficient, standardized assessment,"
by May of 2013 we hope to be able to say: "Actually, 30
major and smaller organizations have worked out better ways.
Take a look at what they have done and see if there is something
that might work for you." You can follow along with these
projects at www.dmlcompetition.net.