The other gorilla.

I’m a historian, blogger and longtime AAUP member who’s delighted to have the opportunity to post here from time to time on the kinds of issues that concern Academe readers.  While I started off blogging about history, I’ve spent the vast majority of my time at my home blog in the last year or so writing about education technology.  The more I read about the subject, the more I realized that most faculty had no idea what was happening to their profession despite the fact that ongoing technological transitions will have a huge effect on their lives and livelihoods.

In pursuit of this self-imposed objective, I’ve read a lot of literature written by ed tech enthusiasts of all kinds.  Cathy Davidson is one of the good ones.  Her book, Now You See It:  How Technology and Brain Science Will Transform Schools and Business for the 21st Century, is full of tales about how she and others have tried to change teaching at all levels to reflect the learning styles that today’s students have picked up as a result of their being brought up in an Internet-infused world.

The book begins with a long  anecdote that you’ve probably heard before.  People in an auditorium are asked to watch a film of people bouncing a basketball around the people watching the film are then asked to count the number of passes.  After the film is over, the audience is then asked if they saw the person in the gorilla suit walk by while they were counting.  Most of them inevitably miss it.  To Davidson, the general failure to see the gorilla stands for our twentieth century patterns of attention while the gorilla represents…well, I’m not sure what the gorilla represents, but then no metaphor is perfect.

While I was impressed with Davidson’s enthusiasm and breadth of knowledge, I kept seeing a different gorilla while reading her book that she never acknowledged.  Before discussing this other gorilla, let me quote Davidson a couple of times in order to illustrate its absence from her way of thinking:

1) From p. 141:  “What is impressive about all the of the extraordinary teachers I have been able to spend time with…is how they have already begun to maximize all manner of different human talents.  They see ways that we have the potential, collectively, to organize our unique abilities to some end, to some accomplishment, which will elude us if we continue to hold a rigid, individualistic, and normative model of achievement.”

2) From p. 195:  “If schools and workplaces create rules against practices that already shape everyday lives and everyday habits, they not only miss a tremendous opportunity but cause disruption.  Aren’t they contributing to anxieties and fears about productivity and attention if they continue to rely on practices that are no longer part of our new habits?  The “alienated worker” was a figure haunting the twentieth-century landscape.  Are we trying to preserve that condition of alienation?  If institutions of school and work fight changes that people happily have adopted in their lives, then perhaps the source of distraction isn’t technology-perhaps it is the outmoded practices required by our schools and workplaces.”

For my last example of what Davidson’s missing, I’m going to cheat and go to Davidson’s blog.  This is from a post about MOOCs, those Massive Open Online Courses which everyone is talking about these days:

“Isn’t it curious (or maybe just typical) that with all the mania around MOOC’s (Massive Online Open Courseware), and all the “students today learn differently” talk, that there has been almost no conversation with students about (a) whether they would rather learn online or face to face or (b) how they learn best when they do learn online–lectures?  interactives?  quizzes?  challenges?  games?  tutorials?  augmented with social networks?  augmented with actual study groups?  New forms of assessment?   If you do not include students in the conversation, you are merely replicating the hierarchical Sage-On-The-Stage model of pedagogy but on line.  If students and learning are not intrinsically part of the MOOC conversation, then we’re not talking education.  We’re talking $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$.”

Of course she’s right, but since when is the notion of any academic administration being primarily concerned about money the least bit novel?  Davidson’s surprise here betrays her failure to consider the motives of university administrators in her approximately 300-page book.  What if administrators won’t let teachers or professors sidestep outmoded practices?  What if schools can’t afford or won’t spend the money needed to get the technologies that teachers want and need?

I think the freedom to innovate is the other gorilla in any discussion of classroom technology.  Without that freedom (as well as the shared governance needed in order to protect it), none of the kinds of changes that Davidson advocates will ever live up to their full potential.  Indeed, they might even make matters worse for students and faculty alike.

6 thoughts on “The other gorilla.

  1. Interesting.

    I want to extrapolate a bit from what you say: It remains true that standardized testing or assessment is inherently conservative. That is, it looks back to standards established for education yesterday and gives us only yesterday’s possibilities. One cannot innovate when one is held to such standards. By definition, they are reliant on the past.

    Even as administrators trumpet their MOOCs or other “new” possibilities, they are restricting teachers to look only to what has “worked” in the past each time they attempt to bring assessment into quantifiable line… or even attempt to establish “outcomes,” for these, too, are based on the past, not on new possibilities. They don’t trust teachers to use their own judgment, so attempt to judge for them, before the fact–always a restrictive and narrowing activity.

  2. Thanks for this blog. I wrote a very long, thoughtful response but WordPress wouldn’t accept my password (even though my http://www.nowyouseeit.net site is WordPress). So this will be brief: Now You See It is a trade book about how we came to think of attention the way we do, based on Industrial Age ideas of the assembly line, distributed labor, and hierarchies of factory and corporate power, and substitution of consumerism for artisanship. It’s a cultural re-reading of brain biology and a lesson plan for reforming school and work for a digital age, based on the idea that we created our institutions of education (especially the research university and all else, working backwords) and our systems of assessment (multiple choice test invented in 1914 and based on Fordism and mass production of students during a teacher shortage crisis) for training industrial age workers and supervisors. We need a new system now. Of work and school. This is a “big think” book designed to inspire change. I’ve written for decades with a more academic focus and you can find that in a book I wrote with David Theo Goldberg, The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age (MIT Press 2010), that, even in method, exemplifies new, parallel forms of peer learning: we wrote it on an open peer-contribution Word Press/Comment Press blog and held four Town Halls for feedback and credited everyone who contributed to the project in the book itself. We also cofounded HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Sciences, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory or “haystack”) in 2002 and it now has 9500+ network members. You join by signing in and then you can contribute to discussions, many about institutional change and virtual mentoring. In other words, I share the critique of this book. That’s not its purpose. And have dedicated most of my career exactly to the kinds of institutional change you promote here. Except I don’t blame “administrators.” They are simply carrying out a larger social, cultural, political, and economic mission. Blame “administrators” and we let ourselves off the hook. In Future of Thinking, David and I proposed a radically contrarian definition of “institution” as a “mobilizing network”: meaning, within every institution are those of us who dislike what we see. Instead of complaining, mobilize. If our educational institutions were created in the 19th century for an industrial model, we can recreate them now. It’s not easy. Institutions “tend to preserve the problem them were designed to solve” Clay Shirky says. But we are all complicit in institutions unless we work to change them. Thanks for the review, much appreciated, and thanks for your participation in this mobilizing network.

    • Cathy:

      We’ve got the _Future of Thinking_ in e-book form at my library. I promise I’ll read it as soon as I can.

      With respect to this post, I continue to mostly agree with you and will likely agree with you more when I read your last book too. However, I don’t think I’m blaming administrators. In any employment relationship, there’s going to be a tension between the interests of the employer and the employee. While academics are not steelworkers, I think that tension still exists all the same. That tension can be mitigated or even eliminated through real shared governance and that’s what I support in education across the board. However, it’s hard to mitigate that tension when we don’t recognize that it exists.

      Maybe that’s the third gorilla! Or perhaps I’ve just figured out how to define my gorilla better with your prompting.

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