Now You See It: How Technology and Brain Science Will Transform Schools and Business for the 21st Century by Cathy N. Davison, a polymath professor at Duke. 2011. 292 pages. $11.68 (paperback) on Amazon.
I finished reading Cathy Davidson’s Now You See It yesterday afternoon. It is brilliant. Extremely well-written. Nearly impossible to put down. I love the way this woman thinks. This is a beautiful book.
Have you ever watched the television series Eureka? The characters get trapped in a virtual reality environment and when the force field gets hosed, the picture jiggles and sometimes what you thought was the real world begins to pixelate and morph into little cubes. Your eyes are pried open by the reality shift. That’s what I experienced reading Now You See It. The world’s not quite what I thought.
We all suffer inattention blindness. Humans have low bandwidth. When we pay attention to one thing, we don’t register lots of concurrent alternatives.
Our culture is leaving the industrial era. It’s not accidental that we began to imagine our brains were linear, machine-like, inflexible, and subject to decay a hundred years ago; we came up with the assembly line and time clock at the same time. We’ve got to see that for what it is and then cultivate the distraction to take another perspective. Oh yeah, those aren’t chickens; they’re ducks. Classrooms discourage learning. Grades and multiple choice and standardization are obsolete.
“We need to be thinking of interconnected, not discrete, twenty-first-century skills. Instead of testing for the best answer to discrete questions, we need to measure the ability to make connections, to synthesize, collaborate, network manage projects, solve problems and respond to constantly changing technologies interfaces and eventually in the workplace, new arrangements of labor and new economies. For schools this means that in addition to the three Rs of reading, writing and arithmetic, kids should be learning critical thinking, innovation, creativity, and problem solving, all of the skills one can build upon and mesh with the skills of others.”
She gets there, in the words of a reviewer for The Times Educational Supplement by
“…taking us on a tour through a welter of psychological theories and principles as she explains how learning happens. Along the way, she considers the Hebbian principle of neuronal pathways (“neurons that fire together, wire together”), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and Asperger’s syndrome, Alzheimer’s disease, Csikszentmihalyi’s flow theory, Stanford-Binet intelligence testing, Freudian psychodynamics and a galaxy of other psychological theories and themes in order to illustrate and hammer home her point that education, as it is currently conducted, is preparing young people for the past, not the future. She critiques many of our tried and tested assessment methods as obsolete and in need of replacement, and argues that formalized learning environments fail to model new modes of working, many of which are ambient and untethered, arriving at the conclusion that we need to “question whether the form of learning and knowledge making we are instilling in our children is useful for their future”.
I recall someone at IBM’s Almaden Lab once lamenting that “We look at the world through industrial-age goggles.”
“Whether applied to life on the assembly line or inside the new skyscrapers, efficiency was a harsh taskmaster. It required that humans be as uniform as possible, despite their individual circumstances, talents, or predispositions. Working regular hours, each person was assigned aplace an a function; doing what one was told an not question the efficacy of the process were both part of the twentieth=century work. But a problem increasingly reports in the modern offericce was self-motivation. With os much control exerted by others, there wasn’t much reason for the office worker to think for himself, to exceed expectation ro to innovate. Regularity and regulation do not inspire self-movitated workers.”
The first time I read Frederick Taylor in the original, I was outraged. How could he think so little of his fellow man? What gumption it must take to tell someone, “You’re not paid to think.” As I reflected on the value created in industrial age and the comforts it showered upon us, I tempered my feelings. Taylor wanted to increase production so there would be more for all to share. However, at the end of the day, whatever you think of Taylor and his one best way, he’s dead and those days are over.
We need a new set of tricks. Davidson asks,
“Given the new options in our digital world, why exactly, would we want to do thing the way we did them before? Why would we choose to measure the new possibilities of the digital age against a standard invented to count productivity in the old industrial regime? Given the newly interconnecte world we all now live, learn, and work in, given the new ways of connecting that our world affords, why would we not want to use our options? They question isn’t which is better, the past or the present. The question is, given the current possibilities, how can we imagine and work toward a better future?”
What confuses the brain delights the brain. I love this” “The mind always wanders off task because the mind’s task is to wander.”
“We currently have a national education policy based on a style of learning — the standardized, machine-readable multiple-choice test — that reinforces a type of thinking and form of attention well suited to the industrial worker — a role that increasingly fewer of our kids will ever fill,” she writes. Thanks mainly to the Internet, “their world is different from the one into which we were born, therefore they start shearing and shaping different neural pathways from the outset. We may not even be able to see their unique gifts and efficiencies.”
One thing I don’t get yet is the IBM-in-Second Life thing. The big section on Chuck Hamilton and his avatar pals got me to skipping pages. Maybe I’m an old fuddie duddie. (Or need a corporate sponsor to fund my technology needs.)
The Wall Street Journal Review neatly summarizes that the “….central argument of the book: that since every individual is bound to miss something, by working together people can cover one another’s blind spots and collectively see the big picture.”
In a review for The New York Times Book Review, Christopher Chabris trashes Davidson’s thesis by saying there’s no proof of what she proposes. “No hard evidence.” The reviewer also studies inattention blindness. In fact, he corrects Davidson for calling the phenomenon attention blindness. The “Now You See It” of Davidson’s title gives away the theme of the reviewer’s book, which is about the famous gorilla-sighting video. Sour grapes?
“No hard evidence”
The Times reviewer’s putdown reminds me of a run-in I had with an American academic at a conference in India earlier this year. He had opined that 70-20-10 was hogwash — spurious figures somehow derived from a misinterpretation of Archimedes. I flipped out and challenged him to a debate at the conference. He said he wouldn’t dignify this totally make-believe myth because it had never been verified and reported in a peer-reviewed journal. Specifically, he told me six PhD students who combed the past 50 years of peer-reviewed articles couldn’t find any empirical research to back it up. He said the numbers were therefore meaningless and the issue was not debatable.
This is the sort of nonsense Cathy Davidson warned us about” using yesterday’s yardstick (50 years!) in an attempt to measure today’s reality. It’s not apples and oranges. It’s apples and black holes. Nothing to compare.
And guess what? When you’re on the cutting edge, there isn’t any proof yet. Maybe there’s an emerging pattern, but there’s no “hard evidence.” That goes with the territory. Otherwise, you’re not on the edge. Given that the entire world is getting edgier (you can quote me on that), you better get used to it.
The book reviewer finds Davidson overly optimistic. I share her pronoia — the feeling that the world is conspiring to make our lives better. Davidson’s stories will inspire you to think highly of the future of learning and work. You got a problem with that?
I’m an advocate of common sense. Davidson gives us lots of ponder.