The Gorilla in the Classroom

Before reading the following blog please take a look at the video below and follow the instructions it gives.

The selective attention test shows how, by focusing too intently on a thing, we block out other information. We select what we wish to pay attention to, and ignore other information. It works in conjunction with the observers paradox, where we go out looking for information to confirm the beliefs we already hold.

Now, while this process is natural, and in some cases advantages from an evolutionary standpoint—it allows us to ignore distractions and focus intently—it can also have negative consequences, including car accidents, and witness testimony problems.

Gorillas in Classrooms

Whenever a teacher is so tightly focused on specifics, they run the risk of missing the gorillas. Two examples of this type follow.

While doing teacher training, I often ask teachers to think first of unexpected negative behaviors that they have seen in their classroom. This normally promotes a long story-telling session with many funny stories. Shortly after, I ask them to tell a story of a specific instance of unexpected good behavior. Often, this is met with silence as teachers struggle to remember.

The teacher is so focused on recognizing the bad behavior and paying attention to it, that unexpected good behavior becomes invisible. This can lead to an inaccurate view of the class’s abilities and actual behavior.

Another example is in the use of lesson planning. I have seen many novice teachers adhere strictly to their lesson plans. They spend more time focusing on moving the lesson along at the pace that has been dictated by the lesson—so much so that they fail to recognize when students may have benefited from having more time with an activity, or when an activity is not working at all and should be dumped.

Following the plan becomes counting the passes, and the teacher forgets the first law of military history, “Plans never survive first contact with the enemy.”

There are many more examples of gorillas in the classroom. Feel free to add your own examples in the comments below.

So what can be done?

The most important thing a teacher can do to combat the invisible gorilla problem is to know about it. Once you have seen the gorilla, it is much easier to spot it a second time.

However, to see it for the first time we need take a metaphorical step back. By widening the focus of our attention, we are more likely to see unexpected details. Taking a deep breath and pulling your attention back to a more global perspective helps, as does moving around the class and limiting the amount of time you are allowed to engage with any single student.

Classrooms will always contain the unexpected—which is one of the reasons why they are such interesting places to work. The struggle is to make sure we are able to see it.

For more information see The Invisible Gorilla by C. Chabris and D. Simons.

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