- Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn
It is an information-age commonplace that educators warm up to new technologies slowly. Often, we fail to recognize how students incorporate new technologies into their lives, and we can be similarly reluctant to account for the ways our students are already thinking, writing, and communicating before they enter the classroom. This is the point of departure for Cathy N. Davidson's Now You See It, which suggests [End Page 104] that breakthroughs in cognitive science should recalibrate our sense of what it means to learn. According to Davidson, those of us in higher education are paradoxically obsessed with the implications of living in the "digital age," even though we have "yet to rethink how we need to be organizing our institutions—our schools, our offices—to maximize the opportunities of our digital era." (p. 12) We tend to uphold models of teaching and assessment that no longer serve a generation of students who face challenges as they learn to think critically in an era of information overload.
Decades of teaching and institutional experience inform Now You See It. In addition to helping start Duke University's Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, Davidson codirects the Humanities, Arts, Sciences, and Advanced Technology Collaboratory (HASTAC), an interdisciplinary center for participatory learning in the digital age. She also taught a course entitled "This is Your Brain on the Internet," which provided many anecdotes in this book. The most important concept Davidson takes away from scholarship in the cognitive sciences is the principle of attention blindness, or the assertion that learning is a physiological process in which neuron connections are constantly formed and re-formed as we select what we pay attention to and what we ignore. Under this model, human attention is always "on," ever switching from one context to another. So-called "digital natives," to use a well-circulated term, do not actually "multi-task" in the literal sense of the phrase; rather, today's students are incredibly adept at oscillating between different foci. Now You See It builds upon this theory and suggests that the quality of attention we need to cultivate in the digital age is profoundly different than anything we have needed so far.
Today, mainstream education privileges a certain kind of attention, designed to prepare workers for industrial economies. Many of these models serve the ends of capital/labor and feature mechanized, task-oriented approaches to learning. Offering a history of America's culture of assessment in education, Davidson suggests that the "roots of our twenty-first century educational philosophy go back to the machine age and its model of linear, specialized assembly-line efficiency, everyone on the same page, everyone striving for the same answer to a question that both offers uniformity and suffers from it." (p. 117) The strategies many educators use to assess knowledge—mainly with standardized tests—only perpetuate this dehumanizing model of learning as rote memory and do not prepare students to be informed citizens or effective workers in a global economy.
So what kinds of changes does Davidson suggest? The new kind of learning that embraces digital technology is fluid and participatory. The helpful appendix at the end of the book provides a "twenty-first century literacies" checklist, a catalogue of the patterns and values that constitute effective approaches to education in the Internet age. The implications of Now You See It for librarians—particularly those responsible for information literacy instruction—are manifold. Information seeking should not be seen as a task-oriented project, but rather as a fluid process that incorporates some of the important aspects of digital age learning, especially curation and critical consumption of information. Because they are locked into outdated models of learning, today's students often leave high school or college without the ability to excel at higher-order critical thinking, especially in environments like the Internet [End Page...