S P A C E || End of grade testing

AMERICAN BUSINESS and education needs to dump today’s cubicle and classroom.

The way we’re taught drives us to focus on a task until it’s completed, then move on to the next.

Sounds perfectly reasonable, right?

But truly, we can only focus for three minutes.

We also slice the world into parts that we can relate to.

“That’s how the visual cortex works. We think we see the world, but we only see a very particular part of it,” said Duke professor Cathy Davidson, whom I went to see read from her new book, Now You See It, at the Regulator last night.

“Our ability to pinpoint a problem and solve it — a skill honed by years of school — may be our limitation.”

If work and school want to catch up to momentous change in how we communicate, interact, and think, we have to toss outmoded ideas like you have to concentrate on something for an hour and you have to finish x before you start on y.


Because if you’re too narrowly concentrating on one way of thinking, you miss out on a million other ones that float right by.

“The more urgent in one way of thinking, the more oblivious we are to others.”

She tells of us an experiment where people are asked to count basketballs in a room, and only a tenth notice a massive gorilla walking by. Academics failed to note the gorilla more often than non-academics, she said, because “they really like to do well on tests.”

The system of testing and idolizing “correctness” misses the point.

The point is being able to see what else is out there.

Other ways of thinking. Other people’s points of views.

Americans tend to devalue the intelligence of children, people with disabilities, and people of other cultures, Davidson said. But a project like the “Human Library,” where children can “check out” an elder for a day and walk around asking any question they want, can really open the eyes of young and old.

End of grade testing

“KIDS, TEACHERS, and parents everywhere get nightmares in March.”

But the best teachers, Davidson said, have a kind of cynical optimism. They run creative programs through the year. They do their best when March comes, and it’s time to teach the test.

Being allowed to explore just isn’t part of the American business and school curriculum.

Rather than insist on your way of thinking—and trying to argue your way to persuade others—a better way to be is open.

Look for possibilities


Unlearn the patterns of focus and attention that have corded your ability to see what else is there.

Figure “a way out of your own mind,” because attention limits perspectives.

Here’s what’s hindering us:

  • Limited perspectives. The inability to see what’s outside a given boundary hinders the kind of creative thinking we need to replace what’s rote.
  • “Attention blindness.” Focus on one problem can only last three minutes. During that time, we’re so particular on getting it accomplished that we tend to miss potentially more interesting things that float outside that frame.
  • Outmoded approach. Lesson plans and tests are designed for today’s kids’ great great great great grandparents. Davidson said in her time, you had to stand when a doctor entered the room.
  • Truncated ideas about the nature of work. “When one is not gainfully employed, one is not important.” Teachers aren’t valued. People who aren’t in a role of “job” are not considered.


In the whole of human history, never have we been able to talk to so many so fast. Yet our ways of approaching teaching and the layouts of offices don’t reflect the novel shift.

The Internet shift has created millions of opportunites for people to create their own work environments through virtual connections. Yet the mindset of most Americans continues to be “You don’t count unless you’re gainfully employed.” (Akira is writing a blog about the coworking option at Gin & Watercooler.)

President Obama nominated Cathy Davidson for the National Council on the Humanities. She teaches interdisciplinary studies at the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute at Duke University. She co-founded a “collaboratory”, which claims to be “a network of educators dedicated to new modes of learning for the digital age.”

Several dozen teachers, psychologists, teens, and the likes of DK came to learn something new.

Teachers in the crowd who were retired, or parents with kids newly in school, complained a lot about school system. This reminded me of a talk by neuroscientist John Medina on Brain Rules. Play really matters. Recess is where learning happens for kids, he’d said.

I wanna break free
‘Just what is it that you want to do?’ ‘Loaded’ by Primal Scream


In a pre-DK life, I taught.

At Durham Tech, I taught basic math.

In Ireland, I taught older folks about the Internet and a middle school boys about porn.

Just kidding.

About Photoshop. (I had to get their attention, so one day one I go, “What’s the most widely searched term on the Net?” And one kid, who had given me a hard time about my accent, goes, “Porn, heh.” And I said, “That’s exactly right!”)

Wait, you missed that?

You mean you weren’t paying attention when I said PORN!?

(Hey, do I get a bunch of hits to this site now, since I said PORN?)

The dialogue

I’m very excited to hear someone pointing out that thinking about solutions from multiple angles is really important. (And that this person is someone other than Akira Morita, my partner in life and work here at DK.)

But I feel the book might be trying to brush over too many topics at once. I’ve focused on just one aspect here–the need to be able to think creatively—but there was a bunch of other stuff like why people who are Internet users don’t need as much antidepressant medicine, how older people find community online, and some stuff about Movable Type.

I wouldn’t recommend buying the book. It might be a little convoluted when it comes to exploring one topic with depth and clarity.

I’m also a little miffed Davidson seemed to misattribute a famous theory to someone who tweeted. “He called it, ‘the butterfly effect,’” she said.

Initial conditions at one place in a system can result in large differences to a later state, like a butterfly’s wings. “That’s just how he writes. Not bad for a retired guy.”

Hmmmmm. You can read all about chaos and the butterfly effect here.

But did I detect a bit of bias against retirees? That seemed to go against everything up until that point about how the Internet community can help older people feel more in touch, important, and valued.

I wasn’t sure how I felt about the attitude, too, towards kids in “schools where they had subsidized lunches.”

But I would welcome a dialogue with any of you who think there’s more to say about psychology, work, and play. That’s the big work we’re doing next. Orangutan Swing with Design Kompany.

Just to, you know, let the orangutan out of the bag.


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