Surprise Makes Us Curious for Longer


I have often referred to times when my son George is faced with new experiences as “moments of flux”. These newly discovered pieces of understanding cause a shift in the knowledge George has and creates moments when everything changes.

As with all new learning, working in the “zone of proximal development”, as Vygotsky described it, challenges what we know. A study by researchers Bonawitz, Schijndel, Friel, and Schulz, found that in fact children are more likely to remain curious in this challenged state. That surprising experiences or ones that challenge our existing knowledge cause us to remain exploring for longer and to prolong our state of curiosity.

“After observing a surprisingly or unsurprisingly balanced block, the children were allowed to play, and here’s where the authors’ first major finding emerged: Children tended to play longer with the block when its balance was surprising in light of their theory. In other words, children’s spontaneous curiosity compelled them to explore aspects of their environment that challenged their current theories, and therefore had the potential to teach them something new. Curiosity paved the way for learning.”

By spending longer exploring something new and remaining open, curious and interested the children maximised their potential for new learning. One of the ingredients of great learning that we know to be true is “challenge”, and it is clear from this research study that challenge leads to greater curiosity.

What a simple way to continue to develop a Culture of Curiosity in our schools and classrooms: make surprise part of the fabric of learning.

Pic Waaah, Santa Claus!! by PeterThoeny

Moving Back and Forth Between Fantasy and Reality

During my keynote at Edutech a few weeks back I outlined some of the false pedagogic dichotomies that are present in education. In addition to these supposed tensions there are natural forces and tendencies at play such as moving between fantasy and reality. In this post I will share some of my thinking on the importance of that creative thinking.

Previously I have outlined the importance of saying “I don’t know” to students, encouraging them to discover for longer – not just to start discovering, questioning and digging deeper, but to do it for longer. To stay in the question. Saying “I don’t know” opens learning up to students:

  • to take responsibility
  • to ask more questions and explore further
  • to remain in the state if the unknown for longer
  • to continually ask more complex questions

For youngsters they cannot readily explain their world away with existing knowledge and in fact they remain in the unknown for a long period of time. That world is surely a mysterious one, filled with sights and smells that make no sense. Colours and lights casting images on a young mind, a nurturing world filled with odd sounds and language that is not yet understood.


However that young learner does not attribute the same meaning to the world as we naturally do and so is free of such a burden. As a young adult we certainly go through a time when we think we know everything and the remnants of this mindset are still evident into our adult life. We see the world around us as Known. But it is not that simple.

For one thing as we grow older we are continuously learning, however that illusion of knowledge can descend and we are comforted by just enough information to get by, things become normalised, we begin to believe in the “illusion of the known”. A state that can breed assumption and potentially masks our natural instincts for curiosity.

Secondly the extreme of the Unknown is not so extreme after all. That colourless canvas is rich with ideas and connections. Because while we were choosing kidney beans, our little learners are devising an imaginary world along the Canned Fruit and Vegetables Aisle. Whilst we are watching out for traffic, our little learners are dodging spaceships. Whilst we are helping them to understand the concrete, known world around them, our little learners are dancing in the world of the abstract – splattering the canvas with rich imaginative explanations of their own.

This can often be an imaginary world we don’t see. We have all been there, quite possibly some of you are there now! We all have had our ticket stamped to this place and we must continue to remember that we work with children who are continually exploring this world. It is a world where we need to leave the illusion of knowledge at the door because almost anything is possible.

In this next clip, which I would hope you would have seen, a father who is a special effects technician for films has, in a way, begun to imagine what his own son’s view of the world would be like.

It would seem that the boy’s father deals with the imaginary world pretty regularly himself don’t you think? I love how he depicts what must be happening as his son imagines those scenes unfolding before him. I especially like the bubbling lava in the lounge amongst the sofas I remember leaping from sofa to sofa myself – “it’s crocodiles infested waters, now it’s lava!”

It is not as simple as saying learners are in a known state or in an unknown state when they are young, because they are rapidly moving from one world to the next, building and collapsing them as they go – inviting their friends into them and playing together – exploring and building again, refining and then abandoning them as quickly as they grew. Also they need little if anything at all to help them do this, stories, worlds, scenarios, predicaments and challenges can spring from them effortlessly – just spend some time watching children playing together freely.

Children use their imagination to explore both the things they know and the things they don’t.

Maurice Sendak – the author and illustrator of Where the Wild Things Are left an indelible mark on me as a youngster with his depiction of Max, in his wolf onesie and his imaginary world. We read the book when I was young and then for many years it drifted into my distant memory, returning with a significant bump when I became a teacher and I discovered the book in a class library whilst on teaching practice. I think it was the faces of the monsters that I remember the most, their beady eyes watching Max.

Sendak’s work perfectly captures how our young learners weave the tendrils of their imagination into and between the concrete world around them, not only shifting effortlessly between these worlds but blurring it too.



With Sendak’s words I will leave you and encourage you to see the world through the eyes of our youngsters. But also to continually consider how we can design conditions for learning that embrace these natural imaginative tendencies and present opportunities for children’s ideas and “What if’s” to have the impact on the world that they deserve.

Saying You Don’t Know Fuels the Desire to Find Out

It was with a fair dollop of trepidation I took to a stage last week at Edutech 2014 in Brisbane and shared some ideas about creative learning. Marginally due to the number of people, but mainly it was the fact that I had not done the keynote before, some new ideas / new keynote angst.

During my talk we explored the struggle for great pedagogy and the tension of creative learning. I outlined the need to dispel the myth that we are making such polarised choices about learning – the reality and the beauty of it is in the complexity.

I shared some research by Elizabeth Bonawitz, called the Double Edged Sword of Pedagogy that showed young learners are more likely to explore and discover for themselves if they are not taught all of the information. Their tendency to explore increases when adult instruction suggests there is more to find out.


Furthermore Bonawitz observed the emerging awareness to an instructional pedagogy even in youngsters:

“the results suggest a striking competence in young children: they are able to negotiate the trade-off between exploration and instruction such that they explore more when that can rationally infer that there is more information to be learned. Moreover, children demonstrate this competence remarkably early. By preschool, children seem actively to evaluate their teachers both for the knowledge they have and their ability to demonstrate it. Thus, well before children are immersed in formal education, they are sensitive to some conditions that promote effective instruction.”

Signalling that there is more to discover can be achieved by simply saying “I don’t know”. Not in any defeatist sense of closure but in one of open delight that there is much more to learn.

I have always believed that such a stance with learners should be a default option. Especially when we are fielding the questions they ask. In addition to encouraging further exploration we also encourage more questioning. Think of these questions as way-markers for that journey into a new land, over time they will leave a breadcrumb trail for us to look back upon and maybe for others to discover together.

Another important effect of saying “I don’t know” in terms of learning is the prolongment of the period of enquiry, providing more opportunities for further questions and discovery. If questions start everything a prolonged state of uncertainty maintains and deepens our thinking, as John Dewey outlined:

“To be genuinely thoughtful, we must be willing to sustain and protract that state of doubt which is the stimulus to thorough enquiry, so as not to accept an idea or make a positive assertion of a belief, until justifying reasons have been found.”

I thoroughly enjoyed sharing some of my ideas during the keynote and it has been lovely to have seen some of your feedback comments from those of you who were there. I will be exploring some more of the themes from my talk in future posts over on the NoTosh Facebook page and in much more detail here.

7 Things To Remember About Feedback


I came across this originally via David Truss on Twitter and Google+ and thought it would complement my previous post about the science and art of receiving feedback - 3 Variables That Profoundly Affect the Way We Respond to Feedback 

Or why not explore this piece I did a few years back about how video games provide feedback in a formative manner – What Can We Learn About Assessment From Video Games?

Interesting Ways to Use Evernote to Support Learning

Another Interesting Ways resource to share with you. This time we are looking at Evernote one of my tools I use daily and something that has great potential in the classroom.

As you can see we have just gotten started with this resource so I would be grateful if you could help by adding some ideas to the open, editable Google Presentation. Alternatively you could share this resource with your own network to help spread the word and encourage ideas to be added.

You can read more here about crowdsourcing great edu resources with the Interesting Ways series and catch up with the whole family over on the page.