Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn

Steve Wheeler is convinced that we need new approaches for digitally remastered learners

September 8, 2011

We are constantly reminded that we live in an age in which digital media, mobile phones and social media are profoundly influencing communication, business, entertainment and learning. Not a day goes by without some mention of Facebook, Twitter or smartphones in mainstream media. The pace of change fomented by these technologies is rapid and unrelenting, giving rise to new and emerging literacies, connections, behaviours and risks. And of course many academics wish to know how these changes will affect university life.

Clearly, technology in all its forms is playing an ever-greater role in the lives of young people. Universities therefore need to pay attention to the impact that the appropriate deployment of digital tools can have on extending, enhancing and enriching the student learning experience, both on and off campus.

Moreover, sustained exposure to such a range of digital media demands a different kind of attention than we have previously required. This is the premise of Now You See It, whose author, Cathy Davidson, may be remembered as the Duke University academic who caused a bit of a stir in 2003 when she promoted the free distribution of Apple's brand-new iPod devices to an entire first-year population of 2,000 students. There followed an inevitable outcry from more conservative quarters of the academic community, who voiced the opinion that giving students "just another device for listening to music" was a profligate waste of money. Many argued that the iPod had no serious pedagogical application, while an editorial in The Chronicle, the Duke student newspaper, declared: "It is an unnecessarily expensive toy that does not become an academic tool simply by being thrown into a classroom."

There were no conditions attached to the free iPods, says Davidson. Students were simply asked to think up new learning applications for the device and then to share those ideas with teaching staff. The results of this experiment suggested that Davidson was right and her detractors in the academic community were wrong, for the iPod experiment turned out to be a perfect demonstration of the power of disruptive technology. New learning applications were discovered across all disciplines, and the iPod was instrumental in "flipping" the classroom, devolving from the staff to the students power over where, when and how they could study. These findings were later exemplified in the rapid worldwide success of iTunesU.

Davidson argues that because the world has changed, we need to restructure the way we work and learn to meet new demands. Her pedigree as a historian of technology has placed her in an ideal position to pick up this particular torch and run with it.

She uses technology as an analogy for the human mind. The brain is like an iPhone, she suggests. It has apps for just about everything. Some would argue the reverse - that perhaps it is the iPhone that mirrors the human brain that (after all) created it. But Davidson warms to her theme, taking us on a tour through a welter of psychological theories and principles as she explains how learning happens.

Along the way, she considers the Hebbian principle of neuronal pathways ("neurons that fire together, wire together"), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and Asperger's syndrome, Alzheimer's disease, Csikszentmihalyi's flow theory, Stanford-Binet intelligence testing, Freudian psychodynamics and a galaxy of other psychological theories and themes in order to illustrate and hammer home her point that education, as it is currently conducted, is preparing young people for the past, not the future. She critiques many of our tried and tested assessment methods as obsolete and in need of replacement, and argues that formalised learning environments fail to model new modes of working, many of which are ambient and untethered, arriving at the conclusion that we need to "question whether the form of learning and knowledge making we are instilling in our children is useful for their future".

Readers will very quickly recognise that this book is not specifically about psychology or brain science, nor does it dwell overly on other cerebral processes. These are merely stepping stones that Davidson uses to enable the reader to explore the main thread running throughout the entire length of this work: learning, and specifically learning within the digital age. Now You See It shows how mind and technology can meet, with the latter becoming an extension of the mind - not simply a tool, but a mind tool.

Davidson maintains that because we are now all connected in new ways, a different kind of attention is both possible and desirable. Mastering the art of multitasking is one approach, but there are alternatives. We can, she suggests, distribute various parts of any given task among others who are dedicated to the same task, and this process can be mediated through social media and technology. She calls this "collaboration by difference". Her approach is redolent of connectivist theory, which suggests that it is no longer as important what you know as who you know, and that we can successfully "store our knowledge with our friends". This position, like this book, will no doubt be unpalatable to some and extremely attractive to others. It all depends, argues Davidson, on how we connect with each other, because connected we certainly are. She cites a number of staggering statistics about the growing use of electronic media and communication tools such as email, texting and social networking services, points out that the world is quickly changing around us, and argues that we cannot effectively use 20th-century tools to tackle 21st-century tasks. I doubt that many of us would disagree.

Neatly presented in an accessible style, this account is peppered liberally with personal anecdotes and is laced with empirical evidence from psychological studies. Indeed, Davidson has taken great care in achieving this fine balance. Now You See It is humorous, poignant, entertaining, endearing, touching and challenging. It is a book I would happily recommend to anyone engaged in teaching at any level, because it aims both to comfort and to disrupt; it is devised to convince readers that the human mind is ready for the next quantum advance into our collective future, whatever that may be. It is certainly all-embracing in its scope, demonstrating how a sound knowledge of the many ways we can learn in new, media-rich environments might provide a better understanding of how individuals can attain their optimum potential.

Towards the end of the book, Davidson even dispels the myth of the "digital native versus digital immigrant" divide. She recounts the story of a 108-year-old blogger who was excluded from Facebook and MySpace because the social networking sites imposed an upper age limit of 100. The press took up her cause, and she became an overnight worldwide celebrity. Such heart-warming stories provide the richness that enables this book to rise above much of the rest in its field.

Were there any criticism to be levelled at this volume, it would stem from the fact that Davidson is occasionally overly optimistic and ambitious in her reading of the role of education in a digital world. However, in fairness to the author, she can and does play her part as a true evangelist with style and passion. As enjoyable as it is thought-provoking, Now You See It should find a sizeable readership. It has certainly grabbed and held my attention, and I will be adding it to my students' recommended reading list this year.

The Author

As a young girl, Cathy Davidson was an avid singer and dancer, and remembers singing The Blue Bird Wish on television as a guest on The Lee Phillip Show in Chicago, aged 10.

"Mahalia Jackson was singing right after me, and I was so embarrassed that I started weeping and apologising. However, after the performance Miss Jackson insisted we sit together on set and share Bresler's ice-cream treats," she recalls.

When she wasn't on stage, Davidson says, she frequented the Chicago Art Institute, the Field Museum and the Museum of Science and Industry Chicago.

She visits museums as regularly as possible and aspires to go to every museum and art gallery in the world - or at least those she has noted in a folder labelled "Dream Travel".

Davidson has "an abiding love of Japan" and spent several years there. She has written a memoir about her time in the country, 36 Views of Mt Fuji: On Finding Myself in Japan (2006). She has since turned the backyard of her 1920s bungalow in Durham, North Carolina into a classical Japanese garden.

Since 1996, Davidson has served as the Ruth F. DeVarney professor of English at Duke University and has held a second chair as the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute professor of interdisciplinary studies since 2006.

Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn

By Cathy N. Davidson

Viking, 352pp, £16.92

ISBN 9780670022823

Published 18 August 2011

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