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Surprise! How novelty can help students learn


With her adopted sons struggling to learn how to read and write in English, one mother discovered the engaging power of AR

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.

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)


With Google and a few hours of research time, you can find an array of studies that confirm how a novel event that interrupts a familiar context increases our ability to recall information. Once you understand this phenomenon, the next question is 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 surprising events play in an otherwise normal learning environment. In each case, memory and recollection improved when novel events were interjected.

4 ways to bring surprise to the classroom

Are there ways in which educators can structure their lessons to take advantage of the element of surprise? Again, the answer is yes. Dr. Willis suggests several ways that teachers can use surprise to bring students’ brains to attention and illuminate the pathways to memory storage:

  1. Introduce lessons while wearing a funny hat or an elaborate costume.
  2. Have students read stories in a new environment, such as a circle of bean bags or outside on the grass.
  3. Invite parents and local volunteers to present information or concepts with a refreshing perspective.
  4. Music, games, hands-on activities, friendly competitions, and project-based learning are effective ways to increase students’ knowledge retention.

Some of the most successful and celebrated early-ed teachers embrace the pedagogical power of novelty. 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 their 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 elementary-school teacher, chances are good they often broke the pattern of the familiar.

Today, Alive Studios embraces the element of surprise, along with a multi-modal and cross-curricular approach, to motivate early learners to become proficient in math and literacy. In Letters alive, 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 experience has kids giggling, squealing, and laughing as they recite the letters, words, and simple sentences.

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 capture our kids’ attention, we have to surprise them as much as they surprise us.

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