Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Parent, Teacher, Author

The Future of Higher Ed: Isn’t it Obvious?


Perception, Obviousness and Questions about the Future of Higher Education

Teppo Felin on Blindness, Rationality, and Perception with Russ Roberts on EconTalk

In the EconTalk segment linked above, Teppo Felin talks about what he calls the fallacy of obviousness. In the talk and in his article in Aeon on the topic, Felin references the Selective Attention Task . In this task, people are told to count how many times a certain uniformed team passes a basketball. In doing so, subjects will focus so much on counting passes that they completely miss the person dressed as a gorilla who walks right through the frame of the video. Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman talks about this experiment as highlighting that humans are “blind to the obvious” and even to our own blindness. But Felin has an alternative explanation. He says that it’s not that humans are blind to the obvious, but that obviousness is dependent upon what we find relevant for a particular question or task.

In fact we are looking for specific items or actions that are relevant to the question we’re asking. In the case of the experiment, we ask how many passes the team in the white jerseys make. Thus, we do not attend to anything that’s not relevant for answering that question. So, we notice the things that answer the questions that we are asking. Felin states that “there are not neutral observations. The world doesn’t tell us what is relevant. Instead, it responds to questions.” Felin argues that in our daily lives, just as in the experiment, we are bombarded by stimuli, so we have to screen out that stimuli that isn’t relevant, attending to what is “meaningful and useful.” In psychology we call this “selective attention,” meaning that we focus on or attend to those aspects of our environment that are relevant and ignore those that aren’t.

This idea of the fallacy of obviousness is important when thinking about higher education, especially in this age of increasing pressure to innovate.

I’ve been reading Steven Johnson’s book Where Good Ideas Come From, and in this book he talks about the idea of the adjacent possible. He says, “The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.” Johnson claims that the idea of the adjacent possible is that at any moment the world is “capable of extraordinary change” and that the “strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore those boundaries.” In the same vein, Catmull’s Unmade Future in Creativity, Inc. is “a sweet spot between the known and the unknown where originality happens.”

Thinking about these ideas in the context of higher education, I’ve been wondering about the push for innovation. Those of us in higher education are constantly hearing the call to come up with new ways to serve students. Out of this has come mobile learning, MOOCs, online learning, and new products and modes that continue to evolve. I’m not against any of these developments themselves. But, reading Felin’s piece and listening to the podcast did make me wonder if the ideas that we’re coming up with for the future of higher education are due to the specific questions we’re asking right now. I wonder if there is a strange and beautiful truth in an adjacent possible or unmade future that we’re missing because we’re asking the wrong questions.

My proposal is this. We’ve been asking questions like, “How do we use technology to teach students more economically?” or “How do we increase efficiencies to lower the cost of education?” What if, instead, we asked, “How do we best promote growth and discovery? How do we best build relationships that nurture students in their growth and discovery?” Is it possible that there is a gorilla in our midst that we are not seeing because we need to ask different questions? If we start asking new questions of higher education, I wonder what strange and beautiful truths we would discover. 


Catmull, E. E., & Wallace, A. (2014). Creativity, Inc. : overcoming the unseen forces that stand in the way of true inspiration. New York : Random House, [2014].

Felin, Teppo (retrieved 2018). The fallacy of obviousness. Aeon Essays.https://aeon.co/essays/are-humans-really-blind-to-the-gorilla-on-the-basketball-court


2 comments on “The Future of Higher Ed: Isn’t it Obvious?

  1. Pingback: Part 4: Courage and Leadership in the Future of Higher Ed | Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

  2. Pingback: Part 2: Curiosity, Courage and Creativity as the Future of Higher Ed | Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

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