Alive Studios' Blog

The Instructional Value of Surprise for Knowledge Retention

Teachers can use unexpected events to bring students’ brains to attention and illuminate the pathways to memory storage.

Can you think of a time when you were surprised? Of course you can. We all can. There’s actually a scientific reason that explains our ability to recall such times, as Dr. Judy Willis, a neurologist and classroom teacher, explains in her book, Research-Based Strategies to Ignite Student Learning.

“Our brains are structured to remember novel events that are unexpected,” says Dr. Willis. There are chemicals or electrical signals that pass from neuron to neuron across synapses in our brain in normal thought processing. During a surprise or unexpected event, an extra dose of dopamine is released in our brains, creating stronger connections, which lead to long-term memory. “One of the most important brain regions involved in discovering, processing, and storing new sensory impressions is the hippocampus, located in the temporal lobe of the cerebral cortex. Novel stimuli tend to activate the hippocampus more than familiar stimuli do, which is why the hippocampus serves as the brain’s ‘novelty detector,’” cited Daniela Fenker, researcher at the University of Magdeburg’s Neurology Clinic II in Germany.

With Google and a few hours of research time, you can find countless studies that confirm the significance of a novel event that interrupts a familiar context and how it increases the ability to recall information. Understanding and accepting this phenomenon leads to the question of whether or not the surprise can come from an intended and purposeful source rather than by chance. The short answer is yes. Several studies in controlled settings have tested the effect that surprise events play in an otherwise normal learning environment. In each case, memory and recollection improved when novel events were interjected.

How does all this translate to education? Are there ways in which educators can structure their lessons to take advantage of “surprise”?

Dr. Willis suggests teachers use surprise to bring students’ brains to attention and illuminate the pathways to memory storage. For example, teachers can introduce lessons while wearing a funny hat or an elaborate costume; or, students can read stories in a new environment such as a circle of beanbags or outside on the grass. Parents and local volunteers can be invited to present information or concepts with a refreshing perspective. Music, games, hands-on activities, friendly competitions, team concepts, and project-based learning are effective ways to not only improve motivation and engagement, but also to increase students’ knowledge retention.

Some of the most successful and celebrated early-ed teachers today are known to embrace this concept. They have bright and colorful classrooms with creative, open seating. They have built a culture of fun, imagination, and sometimes their own language; they single out students with special nicknames, handwritten notes, or frequent eye-contact conversations to let them know they are loved and important. If you think of your favorite teachers from your elementary years, chances are good they followed practices similar to these. Each of these examples goes beyond the norm. They are unexpected and break the pattern of the familiar.

As a mother of two adopted sons from an orphanage in Latvia, I was faced with the challenge of teaching my young boys to speak and read English. Speaking wasn’t too bad, but reading and writing proved to be a source of many tears. We tried and failed with most of the popular off-the-shelf reading programs. Nothing seemed to offer the breakthrough we were so desperately seeking.

In the midst of our dilemma, I was introduced to augmented reality. One of my employees slid a flash card with a black square printed on it under a document camera, and the Eiffel Tower popped up in 3D on top of the card. Yes, that was a personal “novel event” that I will remember forever. It was that event that triggered a full supplemental reading curriculum based on augmented reality for early learners. My desire to help my boys with an engaging, “surprising” way to learn to read actually launched a new company.

Today, Alive Studios embraces the element of surprise, along with a multi-modal and cross-curricular approach, to motivate early learners towards proficiency. Each letter of the alphabet is coupled with an animal that springs to life in 3D and interacts with children as they control its actions by building sentences with sight words. This eye-popping (and kind of mind-boggling) experience has kids giggling, squealing, and laughing as they recite the letters, words, and simple sentences.

Whether it be the incorporation of the latest technologies like augmented reality or wearing a simple George Washington wig, the instructional value of surprise is proven and undisputed. In our modern world, children are peppered with visual and auditory stimuli from 500+ channels on TV, bottomless music sources, hundreds of thousands of mobile apps, and endless posts on social media feeds. In order to compete on that playing field, teachers should consider stepping outside the box and creating memorable lessons by adding a bit of “surprise.”