By JEFFREY L. MITCHELL
While each year thousands of studies are completed in psychology and education, there are a handful that over the years have had a lasting impact on education and learning. In a series of Extra Credit articles, I will highlight a number of seminal studies that have had a profound impact on teaching and learning.
The second article in this series is based on the so-called “gorilla study” and explores some interesting ideas pertaining to how we attend to the world.
Introduction – The Study
If I told you a person in a gorilla suit would appear in a video you were watching, and that you would not notice, would you think I’m crazy?
The remarkable gorilla study was conducted by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris in 1999 at Harvard University. Participants in the study were asked to watch a video and count how many passes occurred among a number of people throwing a basketball to each other. Keeping track of the number of passes takes concentration, but it is a very manageable. What over half of those who viewed the video did not notice is that right in the middle of this relatively short video a person in a gorilla suit walks into the video frame, stops in the middle of the circle of people passing the basketball, and thumps his chest for a few seconds before walking off-screen. Before reading on you may want to watch the video.
The study demonstrates both the limits and the power of our attentional abilities. The limits of attention are shown by via a clear demonstration of our inability to multitask. That is, while doing something as seemingly simple as counting passes, many subjects could not attend to a man in a gorilla suit walking on camera for several seconds. On the other hand, the study also shows the power of concentration. That is, despite the fact that a man in gorilla suit made an unscheduled and totally out-of-context appearance in a video, human beings can zone this out and concentrate on the task at hand (counting passes).
Inattentional Blindness: An Everyday Occurrence
Have you ever been driving along and suddenly realize several miles have gone by and you cannot remember paying attention to the road? It’s a scary feeling. Were you actually paying attention to the road while your thoughts were consumed by the events of your day? You must have, at some level, because you were still on the road. But, inattentional blindness suggests that due to your focus on the events of the day and not the road you were more liable to miss the unexpected occurrence of a figurative gorilla crossing your path.
For example, many collisions between cars and motorcycles involve cars turning in front of an oncoming motorcycle, with the car driver “not seeing” the motorcyclist. In many contexts, motorcycles are less common than cars, thus inattentional blindness is more likely. The same likely applies to talking on a cell phone. Your attention is redirected and “blindness” occurs to the unexpected. Whether the distraction is visual or aural in nature, seemingly obvious distractions can be missed when attention is focused elsewhere.
Implications for Education
The implications for education are rather profound. After all, paying attention is the first step for learning. More specifically, the degree of control one can wage over how they selectively attend to a given task will have an important bearing on learning efficiency. Fortunately, human beings generally have a remarkable ability to attend to what’s perceived as most important at any moment in time.
An enemy of learning can be seen as anything that impedes the attentional process. For example, when a student knows that the material in his class is critical but the instruction is less than stimulating, he will start looking for the “gorilla.” What if the student comes to the learning situation with preexisting conditions that impede his ability to attend, like coming to school hungry? What if there are way too many distractions in the classroom? Finally, what if the student was born with a brain that does not have the same capacity for attention as the average brain, and thus is at a disadvantage from the start? These students are less likely to attend to what has been deemed important by a teacher (unless they are really into it) … but probably more likely to notice the gorilla.
At Currey Ingram Academy, many of our students have attentional difficulties related to a diagnosis such as ADHD, so it is our business to educate our students to their potential. To do so, we first ensure we have an accurate diagnosis via a formal psychoeducational evaluation and, if needed, a medical opinion.
As for all students at Currey Ingram, we craft an Individualized Learning Plan (ILP) that follows the student through their tenure at the school. Most of the ILP details academic progress and goals, but the ILP also spells out very specific personal goals and supports. Highly trained teachers use evidence-based instructional techniques and very small class sizes to support the ILP goals.
In our setting, common evidence-based supports for students with attention deficits might include preferential seating, frequent teacher check-ins to gauge understanding, cueing for when to pay close attention, assignment and pacing adjustments, extended time for testing, organizational support, multi-sensory delivery of instruction, opportunities to move or chew gum or sit on a ball or wiggle stool, the use of fidget objects, and more. Finally, and most important of all, the entire culture intentionally celebrates and embraces students with learning differences, e.g., some students’ abilities to see the gorilla and to offer a unique perspective. We see it as our professional mission. For those who perhaps need even more wrap-around support, we also offer an intensive summer ADHD program for students ages 8 to 12, and this is open to the public.
This gorilla study demonstrates that our mind is an ever-curious thing and does not always work the way we think it should. We miss things, often big things, such as gorillas. When our attention is focused on one thing, we fail to notice other, unexpected things. Creating and restructuring learning environments to take this science into account makes better attenders, and thus better learners, out of all of us.
Dr. Jeffrey L. Mitchell is the head of school for Currey Ingram Academy. “Extra Credit” is provided each month by Currey Ingram Academy to help parents at all schools and at all stages of the parenting journey. Currey Ingram Academy is a coed, independent K-12 school in Brentwood for students with learning differences such as dyslexia and ADHD. For more information, click here.