We Do Not See What We Do Not See

It’s always fun when different experiences we are having converge to give each of them a new and deeper meaning. This happened to me this past week. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been reading a book and a couple of articles about the biological roots of human understanding by Humberto Maturana, who for many years was a professor of biology in the medical school at the University of Santiago in Chile. In some significant ways, his work parallels the work of Piaget. Reading Maturana and thinking about and coming to understand some of his ideas was one of those experiences. I’ll come back to that in just a bit.

The second experience was watching Deb Porcarelli’s NCTM presentation at the conference in San Antonio this past week. Deb’s presentation was about professional noticing, something we’ve been working on here at the Center. What especially caught my attention was a video clip she used in her presentation to get the participants involved with thinking about their own ability to notice and give them the opportunity to reflect and talk to each other about their experience. Here is a link to the video, which I hope you will watch before reading on. As you watch, you will see two groups of people, one group is wearing white shirts and the other is wearing black shirts. Each group is tossing a ball back and forth within their group. As you watch the video, try to count the number of times the white group tosses their ball.

How did you do on the count? Did you get 38? In addition to the six people tossing balls, did you see anything else going on?  Did you see any other characters in the scene? The first time I watched the video I got a count of 37 tosses.  But as we talked together after watching it, some people mentioned a banana, a gorilla, and a chicken. I saw none of them.  I had no idea what they were talking about. When I watched a second time, I tried hard to look for these characters and I did see the banana and gorilla, but still missed the chicken.

Okay, now back to the book. What Maturana is challenging in the book is “our sense of living in a world of certainty, of undoubted, rock-ribbed perceptions: our convictions prove that things are the way we see them and there is no alternative to what we hold to be true.” He goes on to say, “this is our common way of being human.”

I believe this was my experience watching the video for the first time. While I was reasonably sure that 37 was close to the count of the tosses, I was certain that all I saw in the video was six people tossing two different balls, and even then, I was pretty much unaware even of the tosses by the black group, let alone a banana, a gorilla, and a chicken. So, if this happens in the experience of this video, how about what happens in our daily experience of life, especially as we experience it through our senses? How about in our reading and writing, how much do we miss? How certain are we or should we be about our understanding of what we read?

In her presentation, Deb says that as teachers, we only see what we know to look for. Maturana says it another way as it is in the title of the blog, “we do not see what we do not see.” Deb goes on to ask, what should we pay attention to? How do you really know if students are learning? Where do you look? What do you see? What does it mean? So how can we check our perceptions, how can we come to “see” what we do not see?

Maturana would suggest that one way we do this is “through a world created with others.” What happened to me in watching the video was that afterward I heard people talking about things I’d not seen and I had to take another look, and then yet another look before I found what some of them had already seen. Together with others I came to see what I failed to see on my own.

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