What if school was primarily a place where students and teachers co-searched for surprises?
We often find the best ideas, the most creative solutions, the profitable surprises, not in the expected, the well-trodden, the known, but in the outliers, the untested, and the unusual. Maybe they have been passed over by others because they are partially hidden by data, methods of observation, or point of view. Maybe they have been ignored because they run contrary to doctrine. These are the places of discovery, insight, and creational thinking. They are the canyons of the unknown that bisect the plateaus of the known.
Julia Galef, the president and co-founder of the Center for Applied Rationality wrote a wonderful piece in Slate (HT to Grant Wiggins for the Tweet I followed) on the nature of surprise and how it can dramatically enhance learner understanding. She largely cites the experience of science and the scientific mind:
If I could ensure that kids come away from science class with one thing only, it wouldn’t be a set of facts. It would be an attitude—something that the late physicist Richard Feynman called “scientific integrity,” the willingness to bend over backward to examine reasons your pet theories about the world might be wrong.
Surprising observations push science forward. Philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn sometimes called them “anomalies,” observations that don’t make sense under the current paradigm. Eventually they help replace that paradigm with a new one. In the 16th century, an inexplicable kink in the path of Mars across the night sky helped overturn the geocentric model of the solar system in favor of the heliocentric one. And in the 19th and 20th centuries, the unexpectedly fast rotation of Mercury’s orbit helped overturn Newtonian mechanics in favor of general relativity.
Galef’s arguments resonated profoundly with me; my first book, The Falconer, explores the nature of point of view, the balance of the possible and the probable, and the recognition of outlier ideas in a pathway of problem finding and solving that even young children can understand. Ultimately, what I believe we want for our students, the highest goal of learning, is for them to become creational thinkers, to find and fill in the gaps of the unknown, not to re-tread the known. An example from this week: Forbes introduces us to 30 entrepreneurs, all under the age of 30, who are successfully leading or contributing to new start-up businesses and not-for-profits in the K-12 education sector.
Galef started to keep a record of surprises in life, a “surprise journal,” to help her “notice moments of surprise or confusion, and use them as a cue to examine my assumptions.” A teacher-colleague took the idea of a surprise journal into the classroom, asking his students to record three elements of surprise: the moment; why it was surprising; and the lesson it tells one about one’s self. Galef shares several of these in the article, like:
Moment of surprise: When we thought we were early to the airport, but we were late.
Why it was surprising: Because we planned ahead before the night of the flight, but we had the time wrong.
What this tells me: that before planning ahead make sure the information you have is correct.
This kind of observation, understanding, synthesis, and reflection is not specific to scientific inquiry at all; it is a fundamental element of how we effectively identify opportunities and overcome obstacles in our daily lives…like being on time for airplanes! It reminds me of what the students learn from the observation walks and journalling in a Jill Gough/Bo Adams type Synergy class. It is an elegant, simple tool that we should be teaching all of our students, all the time, a tool of self-learning: to be aware of the unexpected; question the non-routine; learn from surprises.