Blog Post

Collaborative Learning: Filling the Gaps of Attention Blindness

In This is Your Brain on the Internet (TYBI) we take a novel approach to learning.  That is, we share our work with one another by posting our assignments on a blog so that our classmates and instructors can view and comment on our work.  A lot of our assignments are also open-ended so that we are able to choose to explore topics that we find genuinely interesting.  The extent to which our class emphasizes collaboration and intellectual-curiosity is part of a new approach to learning that is still highly uncommon. Fortunately, I am among the lucky few to experience the benefits of this new style

In order to make clear the benefits of this class, I will juxtapose my experience in the TYBI classroom with that of other classes Ive taken in college and high school.  While attending Phillips Andover, I received an education that seemed to utilize technology to the fullest extent; we had state-of-the-art science equipment; we used a modern software client (Blackboard) to organize our academic commitments; we were able to access syllabi, send assignments, and receive input from our teachers all online, and it was expected that one checked his email regularly throughout the day.  However, we did not use this technology to change the learning process.  That is, we still followed the same class structure and balanced core-curriculum the academy set forth many years ago.  In most classes we were either lectured or took part in a instructor led discussion, and the majority of the work outside of class was conducted individually. 

Under this structure, it seemed as though individuals were often times driven to study by their competitiveness and desire to succeed, rather than by genuine intellectual curiosity. There is no doubt that this approach to education is effective in that it teaches us how to learn and to be productive.  However, after taking This is Your Brain on the Internet I have come to realize that my classmates and I in high school missed out on a lot of potential learning we could have gained from each other. 

Furthermore, the curriculum was designed to give us a strong foundation in every subject, but the departments did not communicate to arrange any form of inter-disciplinary learning.  For example, during my junior year everyone must take a standard English course as well as an American history course.  I remember reading Ralph Ellisons Invisible Man in English class while learning about the civil rights movement in history class.  Even though in both classes our discussions were about Booker T. Washington and the Tuskeegee institute, neither teacher was aware of the coincidence.  In fact, a few people even failed to make the connection that we were learning about the same thing.

I would argue that this is a microcosm for a problem with our current education system.  That is, it allows for and inherently promotes what Professor Davidson calls Attention Blindness. This term refers to a much broader phenomenon, but in the context of our educational system, it refers the tendency for students to isolate and categorize subjects instead of cultivating a broader understanding of concepts.  Another example of this I often see occurs in the math classroom; many students are trained by the teacher or textbook to solve certain types of problems.  The problems in the textbook are grouped by similarity so that the student is able to focus on practicing certain types of problems.   The issue here is that students tend to learn how to recognize certain types of problems rather than grasping the larger concepts that apply to all of the problems.  Thus, on the tests when there is a question that takes aspects from several types of problems found in the textbook, students are often stumped. 

Conversely, in TYBI we partake in primarily student-facilitated discussions, which usually follow a student-taught lesson on a student-chosen topic.  During our discussions, people are frequently looking up definitions, articles, or even videos on their laptops to share with the class or to clarify a question.  Through this collective effort, we naturally experience a wide-ranging, multidisciplinary approach to learning; we receive input from many different people with different perspectives and interests.  Furthermore, our instant access to the Internet equips us with an even more diverse pool of data and perspectives. Rather than each student interpreting the same thing individually, a group that learns from each others diverse perspectives will lead to the development a broader, more conceptual understanding of a complex subject.  Whereas the former allows for each persons innate interests and background to lead to attention blindness, the compilation of everyones thoughts into what I would call a melting pot helps to fill in the holes of attention blindness.  In other words, when exposed to a given topic, each person will naturally form a specific opinion or understanding based on what they naturally believe is important.  This discrepancy in understanding is due to the fact that we all have been raised in different environments and our brains are not all the same.  Thus, by sharing our unique thoughts, we realize certain important details that we would have overlooked because our attention was preoccupied with what we initially thought was most important.

In conclusion, I think the collaborated learning effort that comprises the TYBI classroom, at the very least, is a step towards solving the attention blindness problem of our current education system.

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