When I adopted my two sons from an orphanage in Latvia, I faced the challenge of teaching my young boys to speak and read English. They picked up speaking pretty quickly, but reading and writing proved to be more challenging. We tried public schools, private schools, and most of the popular off-the-shelf reading programs. Nothing seemed to offer the breakthrough we all so desperately wanted.

Then one day, 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! I was surprised and delighted by my introduction to augmented reality (AR), and almost immediately I thought, “Why can’t we do that with zoo animals to teach reading?”

Trying to turn that sense of astonishment into a tool for education triggered a full supplemental reading curriculum that uses AR to engage early learners. My desire to help my boys learn to read actually launched a new company, Alive Studios.

How and why teachers should bring the element of surprise to the classroom

The science of surprise

Using the element of surprise to kick-start learning completely fascinated me. I became a student in the neuroscience of learning to find out why this method was so effective. There’s actually a scientific reason that explains our ability to remember times when we are startled. 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.” Chemicals or electrical signals 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 that lead to long-term memory.

(Next page: How to bring surprise to the classroom)

About the Author:

Cynthia B. Kaye is chief executive officer and chief zoo keeper of Alive Studios. Follow her on Twitter at @AliveStudiosK12.


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