Monday, August 22, 2011

Is the world right-brained or left-brained, IV: The end of linearity

If today's popular texts are to be believed, we live in an increasingly right-brained world. Most credited with originating this idea is Daniel Pink, the author of the 2005 Wired Magazine article, Revenge of the Right Brain and the follow-up best seller, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future.

The education world, of course, decided this long before Pink did. But Pink, a professional writer, makes his case more compellingly, and this has made him a much sought-after speaker at education world events. You'll find him, for example, as the keynote speaker at Solution Tree's first annual Authorspeak Conference this fall (Solution Tree being "a leading provider of educational strategies and tools that improve staff and student performance," which "for more than 20 years ... ha[s] helped K–12 teachers and administrators create schools where all children succeed.").  I know about this conference because Solution Tree placed two page ad about it in the middle of this past week's Education Week.

In other recent developments, there's Cathy N. Davidson's just-published, "Now You See It," already a top-seller on Amazon. Davidson is a Duke University professor specializing in American literature, and, as such, she explores the consequences of the new, ever changing 21st century world, and the resulting new, 21st century brain--a brain which (surprise, surprise!) is being rewired for relentless multi-tasking instead of linear thinking. According to the review in this past weekend's Wall Street Journal:

The author takes us on a journey through contemporary classrooms and offices to describe how they are changing—or, according to her, should change. Among much else, we need to build schools and workplaces that match the demands of our multitasking brains. That means emphasizing "nonlinear thinking," "social networks" and "crowdsourcing." 
Like so many people who haven't spent time in contemporary classrooms, Ms Davidson confidently notes that:
Our schoolmaster-led classrooms and grading customs look pretty much as they did not just in the last century but in the 19th century. 
Following this observation, as always, is the breathless description of the antithesis: the supposedly pioneering innovator. In this case:
Duncan Germain's classroom at Voyager Academy, a charter school in North Carolina, where learning is made to resemble a collaborative game. Self-organized teams engage in a contest to build the best bridge out of Popsicle sticks. Along the way they learn for themselves not just principles of engineering but also strategies of management—just what they need to thrive in the new world of work. Students in such a setting, Ms. Davidson writes, "are mastering the lessons of learning, relearning, and unlearning that are perfectly suited to a world where change is the only constant."
Reviewer Mark Changizi, a neurobiologist, is somewhat skeptical of some of Davidson's claims. She appears, he notes, to derive many of her conclusions, as well as her title, from the "gorilla" experiments of Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris, where subjects were asked to watch a video of basketball players and to count the number of times they passed the ball. With their brains focused on this task, many subjects failed to notice a man in a gorilla costume wandering through the frame. Davidson concludes, among other things, that inattentional blindness is rampant, and that therefore students should work in groups so that multiple viewpoints can help them compensate.

No matter that inattentional blindness would suggest that our brains, however 21st century they are, remain inept at multi-tasking. For, if you've set your mind on a particular task--say, proving that the today's classrooms should be right-brained so as to reflect today's brains--you will fail to notice the metaphorical man in the gorilla costume, whatever he may represent.

1 comment:

James O'Keeffe said...

Glad you mentioned Solution Tree, one of the most aggressive, irritating commercial solicitors I've ever encountered in the course of my job--I must delete their relentless e-mail pitches from my school Lotus Notes account about as regularly as I must those from ASCD and the numerous for-profit universities like Walden and Phoenix. Could it possibly be that these obnoxious cottage industries thrive precisely by perpetuating an urgent need for "21st-Century classrooms"? Methinks there's more than one gorilla in the room.