Q&A: Cathy Davidson on the Brain Science of Attention and Transforming Schools and Workplaces in the Digital Age


10.13.11 | In “Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn,” Cathy Davidson has offered an antidote to the anxieties about the effects of digital media on kids—and on all of us.


Photo by Artie Dixon


Drawing on neuroscience, a deep research base, and interviews with everyone from insurance adjusters to carpenters, Davidson, the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke University and co-founder at HASTAC, explains why we feel so anxious at this moment when the internet is ushering in new ways of organizing our lives and our relationships, and yet our major institutions still cling to old models.

Our newly interconnected worlds and the web of information at our fingertips, for example, are undermining familiar top-down hierarchies and order, ranging from where we get our news to how we work and how we learn. It’s all unnerving to say the least, no more so than in the classroom.

I sat down with her in Chicago, a stop on her book tour.

Spotlight: There are many fascinating ideas in this book. What is the book’s main message?

Davidson: In a word, relax. We’re being hard on ourselves and especially on our kids in the midst of a time of tremendous change—change that we’re still adjusting to. People need some appreciation for the big change we’re undergoing, and then they should take a deep breath to think constructively and creatively about how we can effectively use technologies.

Spotlight: Why this book, why now?

Davidson: Research shows that 15 years into a big change is the right moment for everything to begin to coalesce. So it’s right on time. We’ve had a spate of books that point to the internet as making this generation dumber or damaging our brains, or making us all more distractable. But thanks to Pew Research and work by MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Program, we have excellent research that says none of that is true.

So now we can relax, get a little more calm and think more creatively and critically about what we need to do better to prepare students and adults for the possibilities and challenges of the new technology.

Spotlight: The book begins and ends with “attention blindness”—a feature of the brain that causes us to miss everything else when we concentrate intently on one task. In explaining attention blindness, you use the famous experiment in which people are asked to count the number of basketball tosses by the three people wearing black shirts and to ignore the tosses by those wearing white shirts. The viewers were so focused on counting the tosses that they missed a gorilla walk on stage and pound its chest and walk off. Their attention blinded them to the gorilla. Is that a metaphor for our views about education today?

Davidson: I think it is. What we decide to pay attention to determines what we see. And for last 150 years, education has been all about counting; all about quantifying learning. We’ve devoted a lot of time to devising ways to systemize both the workplace and school, starting with the school bell, on through subjects, grading, IQ test, and multiple choice. This is all an apparatus of reduction to “learning as basketball counting.”

The biggest basketball counting of 21st-century education is standardized testing. What’s interesting is that this phenomenon is now so ingrained that it’s almost impossible to see learning as anything but standardization; how well you do on standardized testing. If you told Isaac Newton that we measure learning by “A,B,C, or none of the above,” he’d think the world had gone crazy. That is exactly the opposite of the great ways of thinking. It’s like saying, “My child learned to walk: Let’s give him a test to make sure he knows it.”

Spotlight: You see attention blindness as a good thing. Why?

Davidson: It’s not a good thing in itself. It’s a tremendous opportunity. It opens an opportunity because if we’re open to the possibility of difference and to collaboration, we can compensate for each other’s attention blindness and bring our own particular way we’re seeing things to bear on problem-solving that others can’t see. We can leverage each other’s abilities. That’s the lesson of the open web. You can’t all be looking at the same thing or you’ll all make the same mistakes.

Spotlight: The gorilla experiment and the title of the chapter “I’ll Count, You Take Care of the Gorilla” points to the value of collaboration. Not everyone has the same blind spot, so if we work together we would have fewer blind spots to contend with. But is collaboration always good? I think of the joke that a camel is a horse made by a committee. Don’t ideas get washed out or weaker voices drowned out?

Davidson: One problem with collaboration is that unless you come up with a method that prizes the outlier voice, collaboration reinforces group assumptions rather than tests them. Disruptive collaboration only works if you systemize a method that privileges the outlier voice. Systemizing the process is critical or you’ll never get to those voices.

Spotlight: You offer a counterpoint to the hand-wringing over multitasking. You say in the book, “Our fears of multitasking [and how the new digital technologies are ‘damaging’ our children] are grounded in the idea that the brain progresses in a linear fashion.”

Davidson: The brain doesn’t know how to mono-task. Multitasking is not being able to rely on all of one’s habits to do all of the things one needs to do at a given moment. Sometimes it is inefficient, but distraction is your friend. If you’re feeling distracted, there’s a reason, and it’s time to figure out why. Maybe your habits are no longer efficient, or maybe you’re at the moment of a breakthrough, or it may be that something is wrong in your working conditions or the problem you’re trying to solve. If you’re on cruise control, mono-tasking away, you’re not going to see the problem. Multitasking can take you off track, but it can also avoid collision.

I also think it’s varied. When it’s unfettered, a brain is a chatterbox. When you are concentrating on a task or when you’re in a flow moment, you’re more focused than anything. But that’s only certain moments. You don’t always have to be a chatterbox, but be aware that different mental states serve you in different situations. Catalysts come from many directions.

Spotlight: If our brains have always been chatterboxes and multitaskers, why has this worry about multitasking struck us just now?

We’re in the midst of a tremendous change. For the last 100 years, we’ve been schooled to believe attention is linear, finite, hierarchical and developmental. ... But we know now that it doesn’t work that way.

– Cathy Davidson

Davidson: Because we’re in the midst of a tremendous change. For the last 100 years, we’ve been schooled to believe attention is linear, finite, hierarchical and developmental. That’s a very recent view of the brain. So we have to convince ourselves that the brain works that way. But we know now that it doesn’t work that way. There’s such a radical disruption in the systematized scientific, educational, and management theories of work and school that old ideas of the brain don’t work—but we have to realize first how broken our ideas are.

Spotlight: You say that our national education policy and our classrooms are based on a style of learning that reinforces a type of thinking and form of attention well-suited to the industrial world—a role that increasingly fewer of our kids will ever fill. What do you mean by that?

Davidson: IBM is the only major business manufacturing company founded in the 19th century and still thriving in the 21st century. IBM invented the punch clock. Throughout the 20th century, they were symbolized by an ideal of timeliness, hierarchy, button-down efficiency, and always wearing that three-piece business suit and suitable tie. Yet today, 40 percent of IBM’s employees no longer badge in. They work remotely, sometimes calling in from their porches.

This is a workplace shift that is not just a change at the level of the assembly line, but is a shift in corporate structures, too, and in the demands we make on workers to regulate their own attention and productivity in new ways. We spent over a century shaping education for the industrial-era management style. We’re going through a major change in work, and we haven’t yet thought through the best form of education for this new world of work.

With education, all industrial-era education was about time management: You start everyone at the same age. That’s odd. Before the 18th century, there wasn’t an idea that every child was suddenly ready for formal learning at age 6. And you divide learning into subjects, with time being important here too. Math is from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. You close your book at 9 o’clock and start spelling, whether you’re finished with math or not.

Testing is also standardized and becomes more and more external to learning. The timed, multiple choice is invented in1914. It’s a very strange way to measure learning, when you think about it. We don’t measure learning in that way in any other context. It’s almost comically reductive. You teach someone how to swim by seeing which stroke they’re having trouble with and helping them with that. But formal education adopted the modes of scientific labor management of the time, focusing on efficiency not on depth, complexity, retention, or an ability to apply what you have learned. But now that 21st-century work patterns are changing, we need to rethink formal educational training, too.

Kids don’t know how to think on their own, ask questions. When I asked business people how long it takes for that straight-A student they hired to “get” the job, they said, “one year.” It takes even the best and brightest one year to get used to work. What does that tell you?

Spotlight: Are schools really prescriptive just because they rely on an assessment model that is a multiple choice test? It seems that many teachers understand that their kids learn at different levels and in different ways—they adapt their teaching to the kids when they can. What kind of changes do you mean when you envision the school of the future?

Davidson: I think it’s sad. So many teachers don’t think their kids are ABC kids, but the way we assess teachers and the kids is by how well they do on a test—a test that is a bad test. The current item-response end-of-grade tests required by national educational policy captures only about 25 percent of the actual content of what kids are learning, in their grade and depend highly on motivation and on learning how to answer the test questions in the right way.

There are great teachers, but they know when test time comes, they have to teach to the test or they and their kids will suffer. It’s teaching cynicism. Why is that the gold standard for what a high standard is? We’ve confused the difference between standardization and high standards. It used to be the opposite: standardization was considered suitable for lower-order thinking only. Yet today its our metric for everything.


Spotlight: So what should we do?

Davidson: There are all kinds of things and educators all over America are suggesting better ways. I’m intrigued by an incredibly simple idea being passed around Twitter by a self-made citizen-scholar of education reform who calls himself @ToughLoveforX (Michael Josefowicz). He believes at the end of every day, every child should be required to write on a piece of RFID-tagged paper: “What’s the most important thing I learned in school today.” The kids writes down the answer and you run it through a scanner and then the parent gets something that says, “Congratulations, your child learned something in school today,”—or gets a message that the child was not in school.

That simple act gets the parents involved daily with their kid’s school, a key to learning. It shows the child was in school that day, period. And being in school, they learn. And this also gives you phenomenal metrics—and you figure out what the kids are learning and you get an attendance count. What’s different about this method from an end-of-semester test is the daily-ness, the freedom, and the parental involvement.

Spotlight: You quote Einstein in saying that “games are the most elevated form of investigation.” And there was a serious study of the value of games in the 1980s. Then Columbine hit, which you suggest was a turning point in our view of games, namely because games had become violent first-shooter games. It was when we turned our “attention blindness” on. What has that bias blinded us to?

Davidson: It has blinded us to the potential for using games not in a rigid sense, but the idea of learning as a challenge where the reward is another challenge. It’s a great way to teach anything. When a child is learning to walk, he walks two steps, and we move him back a little further so he has to walk three steps. That’s how we learn.

Columbine was so terrifying, and rock music and video games were blamed, in the media, as the “cause.” Research money that was going into potential learning effects from games was diverted into research on how video games contributed to school violence. But we know this generation is, in fact, the least violent since studies began in World War II. So now we can be looking at games again for what we can learn about motivation, challenge, and problem solving where the reward of meeting a challenge is a harder challenge.

Spotlight: Parents often say that video games are too frivolous; they’re not “real” learning.

Davidson: There’s a sense in school that it should be hard—almost an initiation rite of learning: “If I had to do it, you have to do it.” And I think school is trauma for most of us. It’s no surprise that most of us have a recurring nightmare of missing an exam. And parents feel that if I survived it, and I’m successful, then that’s how to be successful. Many people feel envious and angry about home-schooled kids or Montessori schools. How dare they? How dare they have fun?

Spotlight: What has surprised you most in the reaction to this book?

Davidson: By far it’s that it’s so easy to convince people of my message. It blows me away. It’s exactly the gorilla experiment. They come in believing what they believe. Rather than lecturing at first, I usually begin with an interactive exercise that demonstrates the power of interactive communication and our ability to listen, to learn, and to pay attention in complex ways. It is very simple, but I can almost feel people’s expectations change and then it is almost as if, altogether, we’re seeing the gorilla, we’re seeing the possibilities for new ways of learning together.

Change is happening far faster in the business world than in schools. Business feels like it’s changed, and they desperately want young people to help them think about the next phase. Young people in their private lives online, and in their informal learning and play, are thinking in new, creative, complex interactive ways. But school is forcing them into a pattern of individual achievement measured by artificial end-of-grade tests for rote and simplified learning. Our business leaders want schools to take advantage of the new ways kids are thinking, and they want kids to not just be able to use technology but to understand more about its use and purpose, its benefits—but also what one needs to be careful and cautious about. Education needs to maximize the kinds of skills kids learn on line but also needs to be more responsible about helping kids to understand this new digital world.

And if we don’t rethink our schools, corporations will take over K-12 in the same way they’ve moved into for-profit higher education. It’ll be our fault if it happens.

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