Cathy Davidson


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Cathy DavidsonWhat does a scene of people passing basketballs to each other say about our conscious perceptions? We talk with Chicago-born author Cathy Davidson on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm about her new book that suggests radically re-thinking the way we learn and work.

When Cathy Davidson and Duke University gave free iPods to the freshman class in 2003, critics said they were wasting their money. Yet when students in practically every discipline invented academic uses for their music players, suddenly the idea could be seen in a new light -- as an innovative way to turn learning on its head.

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This radical experiment is at the heart of Davidson's inspiring new book,  NOW YOU SEE IT: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn. Using cutting-edge research on the brain, she shows how "attention blindness" has produced one of our society's greatest challenges.

While we've all acknowledged the great changes of the digital age, most of us still toil in schools and workplaces designed for the last century. Davidson introduces us to visionaries whose groundbreaking ideas -- from schools with curriculums built around video games to companies that train workers using virtual environments -- will open the doors to new ways of working and learning. Now You See It is a refreshingly optimistic argument for a bold embrace of our connected, collaborative future.

The following excerpt is from the Introduction of Cathy Davidson's book.


I’ll Count—You Take Care of the Gorilla

What does it mean to say that we learn to pay attention? It means no one is born with innate knowledge of how to focus or what to focus on. Infants track just about anything and everything and have no idea that one thing counts as more worthy of attention than another. They eventually learn because we teach them, from the day they are born, what we consider to be important enough to focus on. That baby rattle that captivates their attention in the first weeks after they’re born isn’t particularly interesting to them when they’re two or twenty or fifty because they’ve learned that rattles aren’t that important to anyone but a baby. Everything works like that. Learning is the constant disruption of an old pattern, a breakthrough that substitutes something new for something old. And then the process starts again. 

This book offers a positive, practical, and even hopeful story about attention in our digital age. It uses research in brain science, education, and workplace psychology to find the best ways to learn and change in challenging times. It showcases inventive educators who are using gaming strategy and other collaborative methods to transform how kids learn in the digital age, and it highlights a number of successful innovators who have discarded worn-out business practices in order to make the most of the possibilities difference and disruption afford in a new, interconnected world.

We need these lessons now more than ever. Because of attention blindness, the practices of our educational institutions and workplace are what we see as “school” and “work,” and many of the tensions we feel about kids in the digital age and our own attention at work are the result of a mismatch between the age we live in and the institutions we have built for the last 120 years. The twentieth century has taught us that completing one task before starting another one is the route to success. Everything about twentieth-century education and the workplace is designed to reinforce our attention to regular, systematic tasks that we take to completion. Attention to task is at the heart of industrial labor management, from the assembly line to the modern office, and of educational philosophy, from grade school to graduate school. Setting clear goals is key. But having clear goals means that we’re constantly missing gorillas.

In this book, I want to suggest a different way of seeing, one that’s based on multitasking our attention—not by seeing it all alone but by distributing various parts of the task among others dedicated to the same end. For most of us, this is a new pattern of attention. Multitasking is the ideal mode of the twenty-first century, not just because of our information overload but because our digital age was structured without anything like a central node broadcasting one stream of information that we pay attention to at a given moment.

On the Internet, everything links to everything and all of it is available all the time, at any time. The Internet is an interconnected network of networks, billions of computers and cables that provide the infrastructure of our online communication. The World Wide Web lies on top of the Internet and is, in effect, all the information conveyed on the Internet. It is the brilliant invention largely of one person, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who developed a way that the documents, videos, and sound files—all the information uploaded to the Internet—would have addresses (URLs) that allowed them to be instantaneously transferred anywhere around the billions of computers and networks worldwide without everything going through one, central switching point and without requiring management by one centralized broadcast system.

Neither the Internet nor the World Wide Web has a center, an authority, a hierarchy, or even much of a filter on the largest structural level. That allows for tremendous freedom and also, in some circumstances, risk. Instead of reinforcing an idea of sustained attention the way, by comparison, television programming might, with the Internet we have no schedule to keep us on track from the beginning to the ending of a sixty-minute show. If I’m reading along and decide to click on a link, I can suddenly be in an entirely different universe of content.

Cathy Davidson. Image credit: Duke Photography

There’s no guidebook. There are very few partitions. Everything is linked to everything, each network is a node on another network, and it’s all part of one vast web. We blink and what seemed peripheral or even invisible a minute ago suddenly looms central. Gorillas everywhere!

Internet and web are great metaphors for the world we live in, too. The domino-like collapsing of markets around the world has brought home a truth we should have seen coming long ago: Like it or not, we are connected. We can no longer be living in an “us versus them” world because our fate and theirs (whoever “we” and “they” are) depend on each other. We are all inextricably interwoven. The flip side is that we also have infinite opportunities for making our interconnections as productive as possible. The Internet offers us the communication means that we need to thrive in a diverse and interdependent world.

By one recent accounting, in the last decade we’ve gone from 12 billion e-mails sent each day to 247 billion e-mails, from 400,000 text messages to 4.5 billion, from 2.7 hours a week spent online to 18 hours a week online. That’s an incredible change in the amount and extent of the information taking over our time.9 If life once seemed calmer and more certain (and I’m not sure it ever really did), that wasn’t reality but a feature of a tunnel vision carefully crafted and cultivated for a twentieth-century view of the world. If we’re frustrated at the information overload, at not being able to manage it all, it may well be that we have begun to see the problems around us in a twenty-first-century multifaceted way, but we’re still acting with the individualistic, product- oriented, task specific rules of the twentieth. No wonder we’re so obsessed with multitasking and attention! You can’t take on twenty-first-century tasks with twentieth century tools and hope to get the job done.

Here’s the real-life benefit of the gorilla story: If attention blindness is a structural fact of human biology equivalent to, say, our inability to fly, then that means we are faced with the creative challenge of overcoming it. It might take some thinking; it might require humility about our rationality and our vaunted self-reliance; it may require rearranging our twentieth-century training and habits; and it certainly will require lining up the right tools and the right partners. But once we acknowledge the limitations we’ve been living with, we can come up with a workaround.

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from NOW YOU SEE IT: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn by Cathy Davidson, Copyright © 2011 by Cathy Davidson

For more on Cathy Davidson and her book, please visit the links below.

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