The Invisible Gorilla in Online Teaching

Dr. Emad A. S. Abu-Ayyash

Faculty of Education



Almost half way through an English class to Grade 8 students, the below conversation took place:

Teacher: What is this kind of theatre called?

(Students do not respond)

Teacher calling out the first name: …, do you know the answer?

(Student does not respond)

Teacher calling out the second name (my son’s):…, what about you? Do you know the answer?

(My son does not respond)

Teacher to the whole class: Who knows what we call this kind of theatre?

The teacher’s question hangs in the air, unanswered, unnoticed.

The teacher gives the answer.


Now, if I tell you that this conversation occurred in a physical, face-to-face classroom, you might be surprised and you would probably blame the teacher for not being able to engage the students. But, if I tell you that the above conversation transpired in an online class, you may be less surprised, if at all.

In fact, this was part of a class that I accidentally came across when I entered the classroom, sorry, the living room where one of my kids was taking his online lessons.

You might be aware, dear teachers, of the ‘typical’, and probably ‘idealistic, kind of interaction that happens in the classroom, an interaction that follows the sequence: Initiation-Response-Feedback (IRF), where the teacher initiates a question or a statement, the student responds, and the teacher gives feedback, and everybody lives happily ever after!

The conversation above is anything but this sequence since the initiations were met with zero responses and were, quite understandably, followed by zero feedback.


So, what happened?

I can partly relate this break in the IRF sequence to ‘inattentional blindness’ – a concept borrowed from psychology. In our online class excerpt above, this phenomenon implies that the students did not notice the utterance of the teacher but that their unnoticing was inattentional and inadvertent. One of the most relevant experiments done on inattentional blindness was that of Daniel Simon’s, which he called ‘the invisible gorilla test’.

The ‘invisible gorilla’ is a concept that taps into how people do not notice obvious stimuli or events even though they are right in front of them. Participants in Simon’s experiment were asked to watch a video of two teams (one wearing white T-shirts, the other black T-shirts) passing two basketballs within their respective groups. The task was simple. The participants were asked to count how many times the basketball was passed in one group.


As the two teams passed the basketballs among them, a person in a gorilla suit walked to the centre, beat his chest, and then walked off screen.

When the video was over, the participants were asked if they had noticed anything unusual while they were counting the basketball passes among the team members, and in most cases, 50 percent of the participants had not seen the gorilla!


So, what does this have to do with online teaching?

In online teaching that is dominant nowadays due to COVID-19 outburst, and in many cases, the information uttered by the teacher becomes the invisible gorilla to many students, hopefully less than 50% of them. I argue that the teacher’s information becomes invisible to students primarily because a plethora of stimuli that distract them exist in their immediate learning environment: Mouse, keyboard, computer screen (and sometimes TV screen), texts, images, furniture, blinds (most probably tugged down), fingers fiddling with almost everything they can reach around the computer, eyes loitering in each and every corner in the room searching for nothing, or anything but the screen in front of them. What is worse, this recipe of physical stimuli can be ‘spiced’ up with ingredients of mental distractions – boredom, sleepiness, thinking about Growtopia or Fortnight gains or losses. Add these to those and the ‘content recipe’ gets ‘burned’. The information that the teacher is fighting tooth and nail to convey darts out from the computer, wafts through the still air of the living room, sorry the classroom, and scoots out through the door, mostly unnoticed, invisible.


And when the teacher’s words become unnoticed, even if inattentively, when the information becomes invisible, one can rightly wonder: What remains visible in an online lesson?

That said, a caveat is in order here. This article is not a teeth-gnashing attempt at online learning, which has its own merits if done right; rather, this article is a sincere call to think about ways (teacher training, parental involvement, content adaptation, interesting online resources; flipped classrooms) that would reduce our kids’ inattentive blindness to the content delivered in online lessons, so that they will hopefully notice the gorilla coming out on their screens.


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