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The College Prep Gorilla

In the early 1990's, Christ Chabris and Daniel Simons did a study at Harvard. They asked participants to count the number times a basketball was passed between different people. While the people passed the ball, a person in a gorilla suit walked into the middle of them, pounded his chest, and then walked off screen.
Shockingly, roughly half of the participants were so focused on their job-- counting the passes-- that they didn't even see the gorilla.

This experiment reveals two things: that we are missing a lot of what goes on around us, and we all unaware of how much we are missing.

And we do this in our college prep all the time.

Because we focus so much on the task we have been given, we can easily miss the big ideas that are right in front of us-- the gorilla.


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Welcome back to season two of the Ivy League Prep Academy Podcast. Equipping you to successfully pursue the college of your dreams. We believe everyone deserves to reach their full potential, and the admissions process shouldn't hold you back.

So much about College Prep today makes us completely oblivious to the gorillas around us. I don't know if you're familiar with what I'm referring to, but imagine you're watching a short video. There are six people in this video, three of them dressed in black, three of them dressed in white, and you're given some very simple instructions.

Count how many times the people in white pass the basketball to each other, and over the course of I think it's 15 or 16 passes, a gorilla walks into the middle of the passes, where people are walking around, passing the basketball and pounds on its chest, super obvious, and then walks off. About a third of the video has the gorilla inside of it. Now, if someone were to ask you, would you see the gorilla if this happened? Everyone, the intuition for everyone would be, of course I would.

However, way back in the early 90s, when this study was done at Harvard University, it was done by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simmons. About half of the people who watched the video and counted the passes missed the gorilla. Truly surprising findings.

People got so caught up in counting the passes and focusing on what they thought they needed to focus on that they missed the gorilla. They missed the big story. They missed the biggest, most important part of the video.

Now, I am of the opinion that College Prep makes us miss the gorillas all around us. How many times do we focus so much on what we're looking for that we miss what is right in front of our eyes? And also, in how many ways do we focus on what we're told to do and miss those important spontaneous events that occur around us before we get to students? I'm going to take some ownership here. As a longtime teacher, it was not easy to look past the instructions that I received to make sure that every student felt comfortable about every step along the way of whatever unit we were working on.

And to be clear, there is a lot of value in students understanding everything, and it's considered best practices in teaching to scaffold the idea. So, in other words, instead of just throwing the students out there in the middle of a big idea and asking them to kind of find their way through it, you give them a little bit of a path. You give them the first few steps, and maybe like Hansel and Gretel leaving breadcrumbs on their path so that they can find their way back home, you leave some breadcrumbs that lead the students through this maze so that they can figure out how to get to the other side and feel successful along the way.

But one of the things I know from my own life is that a whole lot of life does not work that way. That there are so many times when I am thrust into the middle of a problem and there are no breadcrumbs to help me through that problem. I need to test and I need to tinker, and I need to figure out my way through this maze.

And that happens over and over and over again. And it happened as a child and through teenage years and through young adulthood and into adulthood. So it's not like it's something that you don't need to worry about as a young person, and then it starts to become an issue as you get older.

This was just a part of my life. And today it's considered best practice to scaffold through this entire process. So make sure that students understand how to go from the tiniest incremental steps to the next tiniest incremental steps.

And I always felt like, you know what? Sometimes scaffolding is necessary, and sometimes that ambiguity is necessary. And yet, I'll be honest. After being instructed by my principal or by whoever was leading my group or my department at the time, if I was instructed that we needed to do a better job with Scaffolding, a better job helping students through each incremental step.

I lost track of the value of that ambiguity and the encouragement that someone can get from just tinkering and figuring something out. And I did that even though I have taken a class at Harvard called Design Thinking. It was probably my favorite class throughout that entire degree.

And in the class, we learned about what's called optimal ambiguity. And in education, in fact, there is optimal ambiguity. If things are too easy and too scaffolded, then we don't learn as much.

If things are too ambiguous and are too difficult to grasp, then we also don't learn as much. And there's kind of this not too hot, not too cold goldilocks principle that goes along with ambiguity. But as a teacher, it was easy to look past optimal ambiguity to ignore trying to build in optimal ambiguity into my units in favor of what my students or what the other teachers or administrators in my school felt was more important.

And at times, I believe I was not as good of a teacher. So, in other words, in my effort to scaffold and to provide clarity and ease of transition for my students, I know that there were times that I focused so much on what I was told to focus on so much on what I was told to do that I missed the gorilla in the middle of the learning opportunities. I missed the opportunity to add some ambiguity at times or to add some areas of friction where the students would have to kind of wrestle through ideas to figure things out because I was more focused on something else.

I think we do that as parents as well. Oftentimes parents have objectives, and if you're listening in, think about your objectives for your teens or your preteens or your young children. You want those children to develop certain qualities and attributes, and among them, I'm going to guess, you want them to be happy and successful people who make the world a better place in some way.

You want to instill kindness and generosity and service orientation along with resourcefulness and the ability to solve problems, to think through issues, to resolve issues, and so on. And often I will say just looking from the outside in, observing my own students in the classroom and seeing how they are parented, I can say that some of the parents who cared the most about making sure that their children were happy, successful, thriving individuals. Some of them, in their focus to make sure that they helped develop these character traits and develop these attributes within their teens, actually missed the big stories.

The gorillas that were right in front of them. I remember when I was still a teenager and my older brother was enough older than me I think he's nine years older than me, that he already had two kids and his third child had just been born. All right? So we were laughing because his child, his newborn, the binky, the pacifier, fell out of her lips and fell onto the floor.

And he just quickly grabbed it. He sucked on it for a second. He kind of sucked off whatever dust might have been on there and plopped it right back into her in her mouth.

And he laughed because as we talked, he told me, our first child, when he was born, we had a Ziploc bag full of pacifiers, and they're all sanitized, all boiled, everything is ready to go, just in case it falls out of his mouth. And if a pacifier fell out of his mouth, then we would pick it up, we would put it into the dirty pacifier, a Ziploc bag, put that back in the bag, and give him a clean, sanitized one. We'd take the dirty ones home and make sure that they were boiled and everything was ready before we put them back in.

The second child that we had, we didn't need to worry about being so careful, but we would take it if it fell out of her mouth, and we would go to some water source, go to the sink, rinse it off before putting it back in her mouth. We didn't worry about boiling it, but we weren't that uptight anymore with our second child. And now our third child has come along, and now we just suck it off with our own lips and put it, plop it right back into our mouth.

And it turns out this is the funniest part of all of this. Kind of almost ironic, but it's the third child, the fourth child, the fifth child that end up being the best adjusted that are the most resourceful, that have the healthiest immune systems. They're trying to protect their oldest child from getting sick, and so they want to boil the pacifier.

But actually it's the third child who has the best immune system, it's the third child who's the best adjusted and everything else. And I'm not saying this about that family in particular, but in general, we find that parents who don't stress about sanitizing the pacifier end up with healthier kids. And there's a lot to that.

Once you get to your preteen and your teenage years, think about the difference between helicopter parenting or now. What lawn mower or snowplow parenting or whatever metaphor is being used in your community. This idea that parents need to pave the way for their children and make sure that every piece along the way is done in a way that's going to ensure their success.

And it's almost like you rig the race to make sure that your child can win the race so that they don't feel bad that they weren't the winner. And if you can't rig the race because athletics, that's too obvious and that's not okay, that's obviously cheating. Can we rig the race towards college? Can we rig the race towards winning that award or that scholarship or whatever else? Earlier in a previous podcast, I talked about the metaphor of the basketball team, right? And the basketball coach who trusted his first five players, and they played so well that they blew out every team.

But instead of allowing his entire deep roster, all the players off the bench, to get into the real games and feel the heat of the moment and learn through those experiences, this coach only trusted his first five players. And when it came to the toughest game, the actual championship game, they also played a great team and the other team had a deep roster, not just five great players. And so once the first five players were exhausted but still didn't have a huge lead, this team won every single game all throughout the year, but then lost the national championship because there was no one on the bench that the coach could trust.

No one that had been in the experience of feeling the heat of the game and understanding the pressure of the moment that he could trust to go into the game and play well. It's one thing to practice well and do your best in practice. It's a full nother thing to be in the game where the coach can't guide you through every single step of the way, where you can have the experience to be able to trust your own judgment, to trust yourself as you do that.

And so, for example, if your child forgets their homework, do you drop everything and race to school to deliver it to them? If they forget their lunch, if they forget their shoes, if they forget something else, if your child makes a choice that's going to lead to a consequence. Do you try to remove the consequence from that child so that they can have a short term win instead of short term pain, but in the process create long term pain for them? I think that is something for us to consider as parents. We are missing the gorilla, the really big story, the opportunity for the true growth that we want our child to have when we try to remove the small short term consequences from their lives in an effort to make sure that they're happy and successful.

Right now, in this moment, of course, we're losing sight of the fact that in the long run, we're taking away their capacity to be happy and successful. And now students, let me talk to you for just a second. Sometimes we can work so hard to be the best at everything that we don't have time to figure out who we are and what we value.

And of course, as we've talked about before in this podcast, many, many times, the consequences of this perspective are extreme. We have talked about how so much of college prep changed from we need to prove that we are capable of performing in an academically rigorous environment, which is what colleges are looking for. And that has been just like a telephone game.

Over time, the message has changed to you need to take more APS than everyone else. If you don't take more APS than everyone else, what chance do you have? And so students end up, rather than having time to breathe, having time to see the gorillas in the mist, the big stories, the important things that occur in their lives from day to day, we miss them. As students, we can miss those important things because we're so focused on what we think we're supposed to be doing.

And for college prep, for most of us, that is taking the hardest classes that are available in our school and getting great grades, yeah, you do need to be academically rigorous, but that doesn't mean you need to take more APS than everyone else. And when you do take more APS than everyone else and you overload your schedule to the point that you cannot see the beauty and the joy around you and you cannot stop and experience your own values and what? You care about what you're willing to sacrifice for, what you are willing to be a better person for, then you're missing the whole point. Because college prep should not be a gauntlet of self sacrifice that you give up yourself so that you can become the facade of someone else in order to get into a great school.

And then after that, all of your life will be better. College prep should be about being the best version of you, and that means being the best high school student you can be, not just being the best preparer of a college student, right. Your goal in high school is not just to prepare to be the best college student possible and to get into the best college possible.

Life begins when you understand your core values. And so as a high school student, or even as a middle school student, rather than being so busy that you can't take the time to figure out who you are and what you care about, we need to stop. And allow ourselves to experience the beautiful moments in our lives to at least recognize when there's a big gorilla that jumps into the screen and spends a third of the time of the video staring us in the face.

We need to be able to see those opportunities and those big moments as they occur, rather than be blind to them. All right? So my challenge for all of us, as teachers, as parents, as students, is to stop and be reflective, stop and be aware, be present right now. Recognize who you are and think about how you can bring the best of what you are and who you can be to the environment where you find yourself in the classroom, in the work environment, and in the home, wherever you find yourself.

What's the best version of you? What's the happiest, most successful, best version of you? And live into that rather than trying to be so focused on the instructions of others that you miss the whole point.