Collaboration by difference…Distraction is your friend

I’ve been reading about Cathy Davidson’s Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (Viking) so I was disappointed to find out I have to wait for the August publication date.

This article and this interview have got me interested. (There’s a list of  tips for dealing with distraction at work in the first article.)

The starting point is the gorilla video. And if you haven’t seen it, scroll to the bottom of the post and take the attention test. If you’ve already been tipped off by these words, get an unsuspecting person to follow the instructions and take the test. Chances are about 50/50 that they will miss what is right in front of them.

Cathy Davidson saw the gorilla because she did not focus on the assigned task.  She claims that her dyslexia offered her a different perspective and enabled her to see what others missed.

Davidson is an English professor at Duke University. She is also a cofounder of HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory), an international network of academics inspired by new technology and a digital innovator. In 2003 she and Duke gave free iPods to the incoming class. It was a controversial move but the experiment led to students across the disciplines finding inventive ways to use the music players for academic uses.

Attention blindness, an age transformed by digital tools and the findings of brain research are her subject. We live in a world challenged and changed by new technologies yet too often we learn and work in school environments reminiscent of a long-gone era.

Here are a few extracts from the articles linked above. They certainly engaged my attention:

It’s idiotic to think that technology is going to solve every problem…on the other hand, it’s nostalgia of the most superficial, mindless kind to think a generation is being ruined by technology and we can never go back to something wonderful — as if the neoliberal global capitalism of the TV era were the apex of human endeavor.


We need to scrap the legacies of industrialism, everything from clock punching and rigid rules to SATs and HR departments. Instead, start celebrating “collaboration by difference” — every team needs some people to count the passes and others to spot the gorilla.


If chronically distracted, look below the surface: We complain about email interference but the two most distracting things in any human life are emotional upset and physical discomfort — heartache and heartburn.


When I hear from those 40-year-old, 50- year-old Luddites, I’m thinking, What else is wrong in your life that you have to make such a wall? If you’re that worried about distraction, something else is going on.*

Everything about our institutions of school — from kindergarten to graduate and professional schools — has been systematized, regularized, and standardized to maximize the form of productivity prized by industrialization ….  From the mid-19th century onward, school has been increasingly designed to train us for a hierarchical Fordist model of efficient productivity based on expertise and position. Laws require us to start school at age 6 (whether ready earlier or later), schools start each day at the same time (that school bell!) and kids sit and even walk in neat rows, with learning divided into discrete subjects. With our national educational policy of No Child Left Behind, kids even take the same end-of-grade item-response multiple-choice tests, a form of testing for “lower order thinking” developed in 1914 to mimic the efficiency of the assembly line then producing Model Ts.*

Around 1995, the Internet became available to the general public, and suddenly any kid with access to a computer can find information from anywhere on the World Wide Web, including a lot of information offered up by amateurs. Some of it is reliable, some ridiculous, and there’s no teacher or librarian in sight to dictate which is which. Google doesn’t yield A, B, C, or D, but all of the above. Kids need to learn the skill of assessing which of thousands of plausible answers to self-defined questions might be credible but we haven’t restructured formal education to this new way of learning. They also need to learn how to contribute reliably (and, of course, safely) online. Currently, we have a mismatch between our institutions of learning and the exciting informal ways kids learn online and, for that matter, all the new ways that, as adults, we all work, communicate, and learn together online — distributed, process-oriented, collaborative, decentralized, peer-driven, crowdsourced. To put the matter in its most general terms: we’re educating youth for the last century, not the one we live in.

The sociologists tell us that the cohort of students entering college this year are the least alienated, most family- and socially conscious, most politically engaged, friendliest, least drug- and alcohol-addicted, and least violent generation since World War II.

If a quarter of students coming into our finest universities this year have been tested for, diagnosed with, or even medicated for a “learning disability,” then it is long overdue that we thought about what we mean by that term. Very few people have an attention deficit in all subjects. The same kid who can’t pay attention in math class might be up playing video games all night. So we need to think about how to make learning more enticing to more kids. When we narrow the curriculum, we also make the realm in which kids can achieve even smaller, meaning fewer kids with diverse talents are likely to achieve. That daydreamer who draws like a young Picasso? Without art in school, she’s just a loser. The brilliant electronics student who can rewire the whole family house is “slow” in a school without shop class or a computer lab where he can shine. There is also an increasing mismatch between the skills we measure as “achievement” in school and the skills kids learn at home online. So boredom and cynicism enter in. And as college costs more and more, we have the fatalism of those who know they will never be able to afford tuition anyway, so they give up before they can be disappointed. Finally, there is the issue of “economic disability” that to my mind is far more a national crisis than are learning disabilities. Our gap of rich and poor maps onto the map of educational achievement and failure with diabolical accuracy.

I insist on students’ taking responsibility for their learning and communicating their ideas to the general public using social media. If you want to learn more, you can find syllabuses and blogs on both the HASTAC and the DMLCentral site. I posted about “This Is Your Brain on the Internet” and “Twenty-First Century Literacies.” I also led a forum on interactive pedagogy in large lecture classes.

We’re 15 years into a transformation in how we communicate and interact that historian Robert Darnton insists is the fourth great Information Age in all human history, beginning with the invention of writing in ancient Mesopotamia. We’re all learning how to do this together. The crazy, amazing lesson I learned over and over in writing this book? It isn’t even that hard.

And here’s the video that got her started:


  1. Hi Josie:
    I really like the post were you have to count how many times the white shirted people passed the ball to each other. I think it gives many different ways to think about seeing things. I also really liked that it shows what kids are doing at P.D.S. It really shows how many great things there are at this school, like working together, listening to each other and doing cool experiments. Please leave comments at our class blog
    From Massimo

  2. Hi Josie.
    I love this video because it’s kind of hard to follow the basketballs but after a while I just looked at one ball and got it right! I like the part at the end too, “but did you see the monkey?” I also like that “playing with fire” video (which I call it) by the two high schoollers. That was so cool when they played music and the fire went up and down. Every time the music got higher or louder the fire would rise and every time the music got lower or softer the fire went down. That was pretty cool how they had a long pipe with like 100 holes in it and the wires sticking out of the ends, one for the computer and one for the sound. Thanks for posting all this cool stuff. Please visit and comment on our blog: Shirley’s 6th grade


  3. Josie:

    Hi Erik: I found that “gorilla” video amazing. I focused on counting the passes and completely missed what was right in front of my eyes! Makes you wonder about how much else we routinely miss every day.

    Jake and Preston did an amazing job with that fire and sound experiment. Preston is now in college but I’m wondering what other experiments are happening right now. Most of them are probably not as dramatic as the Ruben’s Tube.

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