“Now You See It”: Cathy Davidson and the Gorilla in the Room

Cathy Davidson begins her book, Now You See It, by talking about this: a video of six people, three dressed in white and three in black, tossing basketballs back and forth. Davidson first saw the video in a room full of people at a professional conference some years back. Before the presenter hit play, he instructed his large audience to count the number of times that the people in white tossed the ball between them. About thirty seconds into the video, a person in a gorilla suit (a female apparently) enters the frame, thumps her chest, and then exits as the people continue passing. When the screen went black, the presenter asked everyone how many times the ball had been tossed, and of course, the answers varied across the board. When the presenter asked the next obvious question – who had seen the gorilla – Davidson was surprised to find out that she was only one of three or four who had spotted it.

As it turns out, Davidson is dyslexic. As soon as the video started rolling, her brain quickly rejected the task and she allowed her mind to wander as her peers diligently counted the tosses. In other words, she caught the gorilla because she wasn’t trying to – her mind simply hadn’t been trained on something else, eating up all of her attention, thus allowing her to catch the extra addition to the set. Davidson refers to this as “attention blindness” (borrowing the term from the creators of the gorilla video), and it’s the subject of her incredibly savvy book that melds together cognitive science, pedagogy, and her own experience in the classroom and workplace to argue that the way we teach and the way we run our institutions (academic and otherwise) needs a serious makeover.

According to Davidson, our institutions and our pedagogies are trapped in the twentieth century. Schools and workplaces, standardized tests and time cards, were designed in the era of industrialization and they have yet to modernize. Rather than face this fact, many educators chose to bemoan the degeneration of young people’s minds and argue that it’s “them” (young people), and “it” (the internet age), not us, who have failed to figuratively (and possibly literally) “pass the test.”  In response, Davidson asserts that the world has changed dramatically in the last thirty years, it’s not going back anytime soon, and young people today are no worse for the wear. Rather than melting their minds and destroying their intellectual curiosity, the information age means that they gather information in wholly new ways, ways that require us to rethink our methods as educators. The standardized, institutionalized set of knowledge that we try to teach students is becoming increasingly less relevant as it more and more of it crops up daily — and free of charge — on the internet. Instead of seeing the classroom as a place to regurgitate information that students can find elsewhere, Davidson urges teachers to focus on teaching creative thinking skills, how to evaluate reputable online sources, and how to be an engaged and responsible online citizen, among a litany of other lessons that she calls “twenty-first century skills.”

With such a daunting task on her plate, it makes sense that the scope of her book is so wide. Now You See It includes diverse chapters that could stand alone as articles on attention blindness, standardized testing, or even how to reinvent the classroom or the workplace. With taken in sum, the chapters attempt to show where attention is learned, how it functions, and how it plays out over the course of a life in various institutions and settings. Some of the key questions that guide her work include:

  • “Where do patterns of attention come from?”
  • “How can what we know about attention help us change how we teach and learn?”
  • “How can we work better with others with different skills and expertise in a complicated and interdependent world?”

These are huge questions and the change they require is overwhelming, exhausting, and scary. Davidson knows that, and she’s taken no small amount of flack for the changes she has put into place at Duke and in her own classroom. She’s not prescribing a one-size-fits-all solution, but instead asking educators to take into account the way that the world has changed, respect the new sets of skills that students are bringing to the table, and perhaps retire old teaching habits in favor of learning fresh collaborative techniques that might allow teachers to address the blind spots in their own teaching and knowledge repertoires.

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One Response to “Now You See It”: Cathy Davidson and the Gorilla in the Room

  1. The way you present Davidson’s arguments remind me of Cesar Millan, the Dog Whisperer. Bear with me on this one. Whenever I ever stop on his show when flipping through channels I always hear him say that the key is not to teach the dog, but to teach the human. I’m not saying students are dogs, but it is such a simple concept that makes a lot of sense – dogs simply react to their owners. This same type of shift in thinking that you present through Davidson – that ways of teaching need to be revised, and students aren’t actually the problem – is fascinating. I’m excited to hear more about it in class.

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