Saturday, January 3, 2015

Dropping the Bomb: Using New Information to Zap Life into Learners - Tip #46

Ever been to a surprise party or having received one? How was the experience? What do you remember most about it?

Surprise parties are extraordinary experiences. You take an ordinary day, with ordinary events and then suddenly: BOOM! The bomb drops and you're thrown into a frenzy of activity and color and enjoyment. Your mood skyrockets, your normal day turns amazing and you just know that you will never forget this day for a very long time.

Throwing a Learning Surprise Party

The essence of an effective surprise is contrast.

From a background of dull, boring, normal details we introduce something new, fresh, vibrant, unpredicted, extraordinary. Adam Gopnik's 2008 article in the New Yorker stipulates that good stories are strange, startling and original. These are the stories that stay with us because they challenge what we know to be normal and that delights us.

In the same vein, new information presented in an interesting approach makes learners remember better. They recall things more easily because they associate it with heightened emotion and an overall more enjoyable experience. In a study conducted in Germany's University of Magdeburg in 2008, they showed new images to one group and common images to another and tested how much they remember. This group shown new images remembered more and better than the other group, because what they saw was fresh and effectively surprised the brain into remembering and learning.

The Science of Surprise

This article in Scientific American tells us that processing and storing new sensory impressions happen in the hippocampus, located in the temporal lobe of the cerebral cortex. The hippocampus is the brain's "novelty detector" because it reacts more to new stimuli than to familiar ones.

The hippocampus compares the incoming information with stored knowledge. If these differ, the brain releases dopamine, a hormone and neurotransmitter that controls our pleasure and reward center, turning these new knowledge into pleasurable stimuli. This in turn, helps us remember it better.

Make the Extraordinary Your Secret Weapon

How do we use this in learning? Think CONTRAST.

o    Build an understanding of how huge the challenge is, how insurmountable the dilemma. Paint a picture of a problem that seems impossible to solve. Then, surprise! Give them the startling solution! You thought all was lost? That the odds were too great? Well, think again!"
o   Create a story in a setting that is common and usual for everyone. In that normal, everyday setting, inject a situation that is out-of-the-ordinary.

If you decide to use data to support your topic, use comparative statistics that will dwarf other numbers and magnify the figures you want them to remember

o   Emotional surprise is also a good teaching tool. Go for the emotional core and get that emotional score! A good workplace example is the movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty:

Walter is an introverted, shy and meek employee at the publishing offices of LIFE magazine. After decades of history, LIFE magazine is shutting down and Walter now has the impossible task of tracking down a reclusive photographer who has the 'perfect photo' that captures the essence of LIFE.

Walter breaks through his long-held personal barriers and travels for the first time in his life to dangerous and crazy places, does unbelievable things, and overcomes massive obstacles in search of the perfect photograph to honour a magazine he has devoted his life to.

In the end, after all the grand adventures, it is revealed that the perfect photograph is no less than a photo of Walter Mitty, working earnestly at the LIFE offices, a symbol of all the people who made the great magazine what it was.


Human experience is all about finding or creating new sensations, new experiences. If we can use that innate thirst for newness in our learning design, we can be sure to foster an audience of engaged and energized learners.  


Can Science Explain Why We Tell Stories?   

Learning By Surprise

Tip #34: Are You A Master Storyteller Trainer and Designer?

Tip #44: Creating Perfect Learning Moments

Ray Jimenez, PhD
Vignettes Learning
"Helping Learners Learn Their Way"

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