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The Gorilla in the Room

Posted: 2013-06-10

Lisa Sanders' new book Every Patient Tells a Story: Medical Mysteries and the Art of Diagnosis (Broadway Books 2009) offers more material worthy of teacher reflection than all the pronouncements issued from the U. S. Department of Education since its inception.

Lisa Sanders, M. D., author of the New York Times Magazine "Diagnosis" column, and technical Advisor to the TV show "House, M.D.," offers many provocative stories in Every Patient Tells a Story: Medical Mysteries and the Art of Diagnosis. Before I was 42 pages into the book, she had me running to the New England Journal of Medicine for more info on the demise of the physical exam in patient diagnosis.

I'm still not 100 pages into the book but feel compelled to share the gorilla story. Sanders was invited by Dr. Marvin Chun, professor in the Visual Cognitive Neuroscience Lab at Yale to view a video quite famous in the field of vision and attention. Two teams, one dressed in white, one in black, are in the corridor of an unidentified office building. Each team has a basketball. Sanders’ job was to watch the white team and keep track of how many times the ball was passed between players—keeping separate counts of when it was passed overhead and when it was bounced from person to person.


The image started to move and I kept my eyes glued to the white team’s basketball as it was passed silently among the moving mass of black and white bodies. I got up to six overhead passes and one bounce pass and I lost track. Determined not to give up, I kept going until the thirty-second video was complete.

Eleven overhead passes and two bounce passes? I ventured. I told Chun that I got a little confused in the middle. Despite that, I'd done a good job, he told me. I missed only one overhead pass. Then he asked, "Did you see anything unusual in the video?" Other than the unusual setting for the game, no, I saw nothing at all out of the ordinary.

"Did you see a gorilla in the video?"

A gorilla? No, I had definitely not seen a gorilla.

"I'm going to show you the video again, and this time, no counting, just look at the game." He restarted the video. The white and black teams sprang back into action. Eighteen seconds into the game—around the time I lost my concentration—I saw someone (a woman, I find out later) in a gorilla suit enter the hallway court on the right. She strolled casually to the middle of the frame, beat her chest like a cartoon gorilla from a children's TV show, then calmly exited out of the left side of the picture. Her on-camera business lasted eight seconds and I hadn't seen her at all.

If you had asked me if I thought that I could miss a gorilla--or even a woman in a gorilla suit—strolling through the picture, I would have agreed that it was impossible to overlook such an extraordinary event. And yet I did. So did more than half of those who were given the same task by Daniel J. Simmons in his lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. How is that possible?

We have tremendous faith in our ability to see what is in front of our eyes. And yet the world provides us with millions of examples that this is not the case. . . . Researchers call this phenomenon "inattention blindness" because we often fail to notice an object or event simply because we are preoccupied with an attentionally demanding task. . . .

As it turns out, most of the time we see what we want to see, what we expect to see. Our ability to see objects or events that are unexpected and dissimilar to those that we are looking for is extremely limited. . . .

Based on research like this, Chun and many other researchers in this area now believe that the expectations of the viewer are the primary shapers of what is seen, and that the unexpected will often be missed. We become better seers when we have better expectations. When you are given a specific task—-follow the ball as it's passed between members of the white team—you can predict what the expectations might be, and that observers are unlikely to see the passing gorilla because it's not in their set of expectations.

What about in situations where you are looking but the task is more complex--the way it is in real life, or in the hospital taking care of patients? If their theory is true, what you see and what you don’t see will be shaped by what your experiences have led you to expect. Perhaps Osler was mistaken when he said that more diagnoses were missed because of not seeing than not knowing. Perhaps not knowing is what caused not seeing.


Arne Duncan and his Race to the Top minions could not see the gorilla in the classroom if it sat on their Blackberries. They are so busy counting things--and demanding that teachers count things--that they haven't a clue of what classrooms are about, what kids need, or what teachers' real jobs might look like.

And consider all the gorillas in the room that the teacher will miss when she is forced to devote her students' attention on test prep for consonant blends, apostrophes, or fractions. My point here is not that teachers should ignore such skills but that she must ever keep them in their place. And keep ever alert for what the grand philosopher of science David Hawkins called the bird in the window. Bird in the window/gorilla in the room. . . Choose the metaphor that appeals to you. And keep your eye on the real children, not the numbers ground out by some corporate conglomerate.

Any teacher worth her salt knows that children's learning does not have any close connection with adult lesson plans. You can lead a child to long division but that doesn't make him grasp it. And what he grasps one minute surely will disappear ten minutes later. Of course, if you drill kids on the multiplication facts every day for a month, they will do better on a test on multiplication facts than children who were not drilled. However, again to quote Hawkins, "We're not interested in one-month results; we're interested in, let's say, seven years." And the test for that hasn't been devised.

Could we hang this from banners in every school in the land? We're not interested in one-month results.

Writing in 1969, Hawkins insisted that "a fundamental aim of education is to organize schools, classrooms and our own performance as teachers in order to help children acquire the capacity for significant choice, and that learning is really a process of choice. If children are deprived of significant choice in their daily activities in school, if all their choices are made for them, then the most important thing that education is concerned with is simply being bypassed."

How quaint that seems now when choice isn't even considered for children and is being systematically removed from teachers, where teachers are required to follow a script while monitors roam the hall to make sure they're on the right page.

Hawkins rightly insisted that there's an essential lack of predictability about what's going to happen in a good classroom, not because there is no control but precisely because there is control of the right kind. In a good classroom the teacher bases her decisions on what she sees children doing. She pays close attention to the accidental things that happen along the way, the things nobody can anticipate. That gorilla. That bird in the window.

In Hawkins' words, "Everybody knows that the best times in teaching have always been the consequences of some little accident that happened to direct attention in some new way, to revitalize an old interest which has died out or to create a brand new interest that you hadn't had any notion about how to introduce. Suddenly, there it is. The bird flies in the window and that's the miracle you needed. Somebody once said about great discoveries in science,'Accidents happen to those that deserve them.'

Read that paragraph again and weep: Weep for pedagogy, for teachers, and for children. Today, the predictability of classrooms is devised by publishing/testing conglomerate committees and shipped out across the country. Today, Arne Duncan wants national standards so that all classroom will be alike, and there will be no "accidents."

In the Arne Duncan model school teachers are denied the capacity for significant choice. And instead of fighting for teachers and children, the NEA, AFT, NCTE, IRA, and all the rest of the camp followers ask for a seat at the corporate table. They exhibit both

  • an overweening confidence in their own abilities to negotiate with power

  • and

  • a sychophantic need to sit next to power instead of leading their members to fight for what's right.


  • The leaders of NEA, AFT, NCTE, IRA and all the rest of the Obama/Duncan camp followers choose not to see the gorilla in the room. As Dr. Sanders observed, "Most of the time we see what we want to see, what we expect to see. Our ability to see objects or events that are unexpected and dissimilar to those that we are looking for is extremely limited." People who were never in the classroom or haven't been there in a long time have tunnel vision.

    No, NEA's end-of-August carping about Race to the Top hasn't made me change my mind. When Race to the Top was only hurting kids NEA, looked the other way, but when teacher salary and security are under assault, then NEA goes into attack mode. This is exactly why the public hates teacher unions. When will they fight for what's right for kids?

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