We are designed to be delighted by novelty. That is, our brain is built to focus our attention on things in our enviroment that are new or changing. This is true on even the most basic level. Think about it... as you travel down the same city street day after day, you don't notice the color of the buildings, the landscaping along the side of the road, or the signs that you have seen hundreds of times. But, if someone cuts down a tree or removes one of the signs, you will instantly know that something is different. You might not be able to nail down what has changed, but you do know in your gut that something is different. This is true for sounds as well. We become alert to noises that are changing as opposed to those that are constant. We all know the experience of sitting in a room with an abundance of ambient noise, such as a clicking fan or a humming refrigerator. We don't even notice the sounds... until they suddenly stop.

This characteristic is easily exploited by authors, film makers, and comics who are masters of the unexpected. They start their stories or jokes with surprising hooks or end them with unexpected twists. We love the novelty and are drawn to it. And, we remember stories when they're extraordinary.

We actively seek out surprises in our lives by reading fiction (they are called "novels", aren't they), going to movies, trying new restaurants, and heading to exotic places for vacation. Most people would find it painfully dull if they were confined to doing the same thing day after day, without any changes in their routine. Days would blend into one another and not much would be remembered.

Unfortunately, most classrooms are not designed to exploit our natural drive for novelty. Instead, they are built for consistency, leading to a terribly poor learning environment. The students sit quietly in rows day after day, with their chairs bolted to the floor. They are asked to regurgitate facts that the teacher pours into their heads. When asked years, weeks, or even days in the future to recall what they learned, most of it is forgotten. The information that was neatly poured into their heads leaks out as soon as the exam is over. What a huge waste of time for everyone!

Education should be designed to tap into our natural attraction to novelty! Most material is inherently surprising and should be presented in a way that allows students to be astonished by the unexpected. For example, science is filled with surprises. Consider uncovering the mechanisms of evolution, discovering the structure of DNA, or figuring out the rotation of the planets. None of this was routine nor expected. History is naturally filled with surprises. We don't study ordinary historical events, but events that changed the course of civilization. Instead of memorizing names and dates from the past, we should be uncovering the remarkable stories behind them.

Our natural desire for surprise should be a driving force in teaching. We should be crafting learning experiences that provide as much novelty as possible - not just because it's fun, but because it's effective! We learn and we remember when our brain identifies something as novel. This can be done in an endless number of ways. In fact, teaching methods should change frequenlty, making the learning experience that much more interesting. For example, it should be easy to rearrange the room, teachers should be encouraged to get the students out of the building, and the material should be presented in a variety of ways.

If we embrace the idea that education should harness our natural drive for novelty, then students will rush to learn the same way that they rush to a new video game, where they look forward to the process of mastering a new skill and discovering something surprising.

About the Author

Tina Seelig

Tina Seelig, Ph.D., is a professor at the Stanford School of Engineering. Her latest book is Insight Out.

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