Rethinking Learning and Learning Spaces (Pt. 3 of 4): Cathy Davidson’s Now You See It

After devouring developmental molecular biologist John Medina’s Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School and author-presenter-entrepreneur Seth Godin’s Stop Stealing Dreams (What Is School For?), we’re almost left with no other choice than to continue our rethinking by turning our capital-A Attention to Cathy Davidson’s Now You See it: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn.

It’s not just that Davidson is an engaging, thoughtful, and thought-provoking writer; she also is a justifiably admired educator (former vice provost for interdisciplinary studies at Duke University) who clearly puts her attention on the learners she serves. And she has plenty to teach all trainer-teacher-learners about what we’re doing right as well as what we’re failing miserably to achieve.

Her goal, she tells us right up front, is to provide “a positive, practical, and even hopeful story about attention in our digital age” by exposing us to “ research in brain science, education, and workplace psychology to find the best ways to learn and change in challenging times” (p. 6). And she delivers. Convincingly.

Starting with a summary of an experiment that shows how much we miss around us by focusing too closely on certain details because we have learned to block out the overwhelming amount of stimulation that routinely comes our way, Davidson suggests that our learning process needs to include at least three steps: learning, unlearning, and relearning—and the sort of collaboration that allows us to rely on others to help us see what we otherwise would miss.

Now You See It walks us through that process. We travel with Davidson through studies of how gaming can effectively be used in learning. How engaging learners in the learning process by making them partners—as she did in an innovative course called “This Is Your Brain on the Internet” —recreates the learning experience to produce tremendously positive results (including a sense of empowerment so productive that the learners actually scheduled an innovative class session while Davidson was away on business, much to her delight).

There are also wonderful stories illustrating the difference in attitudes between young learners—in a failing magnet school—faced with posted written rules (“Most of the kids are too young to actually read, so I assume this sign is as much a symbol as it is a message,” she quips) and with young learners in a demographically similar school that “exemplifies the best in public education” (p. 97). The classroom in the better school offers us a lesson relevant to learners of all ages: the room “is alive with life and spaces and animals and computers and interesting things, great stuff to look at and do things with” (p. 98)—a reminder that if we’re going to create effective learning spaces, we have to make them as interesting as the lessons we are trying to provide for learners of all ages.

It’s difficult to single out specific high points in a book so full of them, but one of my favorites is the entire seventh chapter—“The Changing Worker”—which provides a series of portraits of those who are providing the sort of workplaces requiring the type of creative, attentive, inquisitive, and flexible learners we need to be preparing whether we’re working in K-12, at the college and university level, or within workplace learning and performance (staff training) programs.

And that, Davidson consistently maintains, is what we’re currently missing in our learning and our learning spaces: we are relying on 19th- and 20th-century models that were appropriate for 19th- and 20th-century workplaces even though we’re clearly in that very painful yet dynamic transition to learning that supports a 21st-century digital workplace and world: “In one generation, our world has changed radically,” she writes. “Our habits and practices have been transformed seemingly overnight. But our key institutions of school and work have not kept up. We’re often in a position of judging our new lives by old standards. We can feel loss and feel as if we are lost, failed, living in a condition of deficit” (p. 291).

Fortunately for all of us—and for the learners we serve—she offers plenty of guidance. Examples. And encouragement. Those of us who take the time to read—and reread—what she offers in Now You See It, giving it the Attention it deserves, may be able to help others past those feelings of loss and deficit and failure. And help ourselves as well.

Next: Rethinking With the Authors We Are Reading

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