Schools lean on routine for at least three reasons: (1) it makes standardization easier (2) it makes life easier for teachers and administrators (3) kids derive a sense of comfort and safety from routine. All of these reasons are legit. The problem is that we’re overdoing it.
Imagine our brains sitting atop a surprise seesaw. On one side of the seesaw sits too much surprise—a state that triggers anxiety. On the other side sits too little surprise—a state that triggers boredom (which, incidentally, increases our cortisol levels, interfering with learning, attention, and memory). To feel engaged, we need to find a balance on the seesaw. As a society, we’ve figured out the routine side; now it’s time to take the surprise side seriously.
Research shows that surprise is at the heart of learning. Surprising information and events capture our attention, intensify our emotions by around 400 percent, expand our mental models, and push us to talk about what we’ve learned. Even as infants, when we’re surprised, we become natural explorers—pulling in as much information as we can from the outside world to make sense of the surprise. Surprise creates a faster, richer, and more joyful learning experience. Surprise also increases creativity—sparking new neural connections in our brains that generate new perspectives.
How do you go about weaving surprise into the classroom (or home learning environment)?
Ask wonder-sparking questions. “Why do you think elephants are wrinkly? What do you think Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamt of as a kid?”
Give boring word problems and assignments a twist. “Selena Gomez and Emma Watson get into a food fight. Selena hurls a chunk of tofu at Emma. It flies at her with an average speed of 2 ft/hr for a distance of 8 ft. How much time does Emma have to duck before the tofu hits her?”
Use mystery and suspense. “We’re going to do something new today, but I won’t tell you yet what it will be!”
Transform a concept into a game. Play broken telephone to illustrate a message sent through a synaptic pathway.
Interact with the real world. Write letters, meet people, visit places. Remember the awesomeness of field trips?! You can take one anytime and anywhere.
In short, interrupt patterns. If our brains get too good at predicting what will happen next, we have no reason to stay alert and active.
No Tolerance for Ambiguity
A closely related deficit in our schools is our failure to help kids develop tolerance for ambiguity. We’re pretty good at teaching kids to know, but we are terrible at teaching them to not know—to wonder, to contemplate, to accept that sometimes there are no right answers and that life is full of surprises.
It’s no wonder that back when I taught college, every semester, my seniors would come to me with bitten-down nails and tears in their eyes. They were horrified that they still didn’t know what they should be when they grew up. All this time, someone was around to give them orders. Now, instead of thinking of themselves as explorers, they saw themselves as failures.
By contrast, consider this Hawaiian teaching method: when students have questions, they are asked to sit with them for an entire day. If they don’t figure out the answer (or a better question) by then, they are welcome to ask. They learn to embrace uncertainty and value doubt.
Embrace uncertainty. Value doubt.
Many “unschooling” families help their children develop tolerance for ambiguity by traveling to different countries. From an early age, kids start to realize that there are many ways to look at the world around them.
Want even simpler ways to help build tolerance for ambiguity? Here are some of my faves:
Encourage daydreaming. That’s right. It’s great for our brains. You can even swap out the occasional naptime with a daydream time as a family.
Ask questions that have no right answers. “What do you think makes people happiest? What is one of the best parts of being human?”
When kids ask you a question, respond with a question. “Well, what do you think?”
Invite over friends from different cultures. Or, better yet, ask if you can visit their homes.
Create artwork together that is template-free (no cutouts or instructions allowed).
Look, I’m not suggesting that we throw all routine and order out the window (even if you could throw something out of a school window), but I passionately believe that school should be at least as intriguing as a great book or a video game.
The reason page-turners keep us turning the page and video games keep us playing is their skillful application of surprise.
The reason page-turners keep us turning the page and video games keep us playing (even when they frustrate us) is their skillful application of surprise. They have the right balance on the surprise seesaw. We know that there will be a beginning, middle, and end. We know that there will be points to collect and boss fights to enter.
But we also know that there is predictable unpredictability ahead. We can’t resist paying attention when we suspect there are surprises in store. Some of these surprises will delight us. Some might be challenging, but we will walk away from them feeling accomplished because we’ve stretched our comfort zone. Like great books, games, and our best memories of discovery, school should feel less like a prison and more like an adventure.