Are our schools and workplaces designed to match our brains?

Sixth grade teacher Sandy Tevelin (R) shows students how to win as they enjoy a mah-jongg game during their lunch break at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Arlington, Va.

Cathy Davidson is author of the new book "Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn."

The book's cover features illustrations of a bunch of basketball players and one gorilla. It's a reference to a famous psychology experiment wherein subjects are asked to watch a video and pay close attention to how many passes some basketball players make. Afterward, they're asked if they saw a gorilla walk by in the background of the video. Most of them didn't notice it. Even though it's, you know, a gorilla.

Davidson thinks our schools and workplaces make us count too many passes and miss too many gorillas, focus on small tasks at the expense of larger meaning. She says, "We're still worrying about things like multi-tasking. Now we have to do email at the same time that we're tempted to go look at our Facebook page. What we're missing is how huge this is in all human history -- to go through such a remarkable transformation in how we communicate to one another. If institutions are to prepare us for the age we live in, especially in education, or if the workplace is supposed to maximize opportunities, why is it we've gone through a tremendous tech change without really thinking about how we change our institutions to support us?"

Davidson says her workplace is "a little cubicle that shuts out the world so I can concentrate. Then I turn on my desktop, and in one click, there's the memo from my supervisor saying, 'that grant budget better be revised and on my desk at four, or you're going to be in big trouble.' But there's also something from my kid's teacher saying, 'you know he got in a fight on the playground again, and we're thinking about suspending him.' And there's news about the stock market going crazy and everything is there. So my office is cordoned off, but my work life isn't."

Davidson teaches at Duke University and says, "I teach a class called 'This Is Your Brain on the Internet.' I don't set the syllabus. I propose a syllabus and every week, two students are in charge. They have to read what I've assigned, and then they have to make the decision whether to use it; to use their own resources instead and make their own assignment; or to augment my assignment. And it's their call. They're constantly in a role of do-it-yourself in a classroom situation, which is a very safe and experimental place to be allowed to do that. I've gotten a lot of hate mail for being willing to do that. Fortunately, I've got a dean who thinks it's a great thing and pushes me to be more and more experimental. But many teachers are afraid of giving up the role that we've had for the last 150 years. You know, Ichabod Crane -- front of the classroom, standing stern, telling everybody else what they need to learn. And I'm basically saying the schoolmaster isn't very effective in a DIY world."

Also in this program, we teach a new tech vocabulary word: "dorking". It's like hacking but much, much simpler. All it takes is searching for open servers out of Google results. Someone recently dorked Yale University and made off with personal information on 43,000 people.

About the author

John Moe is the host of Marketplace Tech Report, where he provides an insightful overview of the latest tech news.

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