Spot the gorilla. Be your school’s Cathy.

Cathy Davidson is a Distinguished Professor of English and Founding Director of the Futures Initiative and works at Duke University in the US. Her work usually focuses on technology, collaboration, cognition and technology. In one of her most notable books, Now You See It, she describes the following video (see below):

A group of people, all dressed in white, are tossing a ball between each other. At the conference where Prof. Davidson first saw it, the attendees, all university professors, were instructed to count the amount of times the ball is tossed. Here is the twist: in the middle of the video, a person dressed in a gorilla suit enters the frame, thumps on his/her chest and then walks out of the picture. Turns out that whilst the number of ball tosses were counter alright at the conference (with varying numbers given as you might expect), but barely anyone spotted the gorilla!

Prof. Davidson was one of the very few who did. The reason? As she was one of the organisers of the conference, she had a lot of things on her mind and didn’t focus on the task and her mind wandered. It is precisely because she wasn’t paying attention and was distracted away from the task at hand that she noticed the gorilla!

This observation has led her to conclude that distraction is often a very good thing (for the purposes of this post, I am simplifying this, but do watch YouTube videos on this if interested – this is a good start).

In schools, senior leadership teams and teachers often become focused on issues such as accountability, behaviour issues, the next OFSTED inspection, pupil premium data, then certain issues – such as those related to EAL – become the gorilla. Nobody notices! Nobody can spot the gorilla even if it is in plain sight! Now, I am not for a second suggesting that issues around behaviour, GCSE grades or pupil premium are not of crucial importance to schools. But too often the way schools focus on these is much like those academics at Cathy Davidson’s conference – they look so hard at these that it becomes difficult to see an issue painfully obvious to others, “hiding” in plain sight.

In British schools, the matters of EAL and the English language could be such a gorilla. A good example is something I referred to in my previous post and have written extensively on this website before about it: it is a well-known fact that pupil premium learners’ attainment is considerably lower than that of students who are not on pupil premium and do not receive free school meals. However, in my own class, where I work day in day out with EAL learners, this quite simply did not play out. It appeared completely random. Some of my most attaining/achieving students were, in fact, on pupil premium. This did not make any sense! – but nobody else noticed this, it seemed! There, my gorilla was there! A report from Kings College came out around the same time and I came across it as I started researching it. Turns out that, for EAL children from Eastern Europe at least, this difference varied from as little in 1.5% to 10.7% (between 2009 and 2013). The report suggests that social aspects such as the working ethic of immigrant families (parents pushing children to do well in school so they can get good jobs) and the fact that many ex-communist Eastern Europe societies are only beginning to develop working and middle classes after years of being under the USSR rule contribute to this difference. 

There! I spotted my gorilla by not being entirely focused on the fact that all pupil premium pupils underachieve. No one else had thought to pull off that statistic off SISRA. 

As EAL professionals, we have to be those gorilla spotters. Rather than let school pressures focus our attentions on the mainstream demands and accountability, we need to remain distracted from that and look around in the area of bilingualism, English language learning and diversity. Simply put, we might be the only ones being able to see what’s hiding in plain sight. Look around and don’t get sucked in by the mainstream. Get busy and distracted. It’s good for us, EAL teachers and coordinators, but more importantly, it’s good for our schools and our talents are needed at times where the data-driven pressures on senior leadership teams may often narrow the schools’ focus to only counting those ball tosses.

Don’t let that happen. Be your school’s gorilla spotter. Be their Cathy.

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