On Teaching and Cognitive Science

Following up on yesterday’s post about lectures comes this interesting article about a new book that I can’t wait to get (once it’s in paperback) and read:

The invisible-gorilla experiment is featured in Cathy Davidson’s new book, Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (Viking, 2011). Davidson is a founder of a nearly 7,000-member organization called Hastac, or the Humanities, Arts, Sciences, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory, that was started in 2002 to promote the use of digital technology in academe. It is closely affiliated with the digital humanities and reflects that movement’s emphasis on collaboration among academics, technologists, publishers, and librarians. Last month I attended Hastac’s fifth conference, held at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

Davidson’s keynote lecture emphasized that many of our educational practices are not supported by what we know about human cognition. At one point, she asked members of the audience to answer a question: “What three things do students need to know in this century?” Without further prompting, everyone started writing down answers, as if taking a test. While we listed familiar concepts such as “information literacy” and “creativity,” no one questioned the process of working silently and alone. And noticing that invisible gorilla was the real point of the exercise.

Most of us are, presumably, the products of compulsory educational practices that were developed during the Industrial Revolution. And the way most of us teach is a relic of the steam age; it is designed to support a factory system by cultivating “attention, timeliness, standardization, hierarchy, specialization, and metrics,” Davidson said. One could say it was based on the best research of the time, but the studies of Frederick Winslow Taylor, among others, that undergird the current educational regime (according to Davidson) depend upon faked data supporting the preconceptions of the managerial class. Human beings don’t function like machines, and it takes a lot of discipline—what we call “classroom management”—to make them conform. Crucial perspectives are devalued and rejected, stifling innovation, collaboration, and diversity.

It wasn’t always that way.

Intrigued? Yes, I was too. Enough to watch the keynote presentation even (available HERE). Cathy Davidson’s presentation begins around the 16 minute mark.

The next big thing? Or just more fetishizing of the new, mistaking the next thing for a better thing? Time will tell, I guess.

UPDATE: If you want to watch the Davidson Keynote in pieces, it divides up this way:

1. Minutes 1-16: Jibber-jabber and introduction of Cathy Davidson.

2. Minutes 16-30:15: The Four Information Ages

3. Minutes 30:15-44:29: Brain Science and Attention (and Attentional Blindness)

4. Minutes 44:29-58:45: Industrial Schooling (A brief history of “Scientific Learning Management”)

5. Minutes 58:45-63:20: Learning for Participation

6. Minutes 63:20-End: 21st Century Skills


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