Surprise and Learning

I used to teach literature, writing, and research at the college level. Over time, I learned to pay careful attention to planning and staging the first few meetings of a class each semester, for that was my window to set expectations. There was usually a lot to clarify.

Of course, there was also a lot to bring to the surface, especially in my classes on African American literature and culture. Students in those classes were usually surprised when I arrived. I could see it: puzzled looks, quizzical glances exchanged; perhaps a bit of eye contact offered and then dropped, or a steady gaze as I went from the door to the front of the class.

I always asked them about it: “Welcome to English 264, Major Black Writers. Now, raise your hand if you were surprised when the door opened and the professor walked in, and it turned out that he was a big white guy.” Every time, at least half of the hands went up.

With that, I gave them a definition: “Surprise is the signal that you get when the world violates an assumption that you didn’t even know that you had.” And so I opened what would always prove to be one of the deepest lines of discussion throughout the class: What is the relationship between the way that we see the world and the way that the world sees us?

that is a strange sort of business, indeed

When you’re surprised, you look around to see if anyone else has that same reaction. What you’re trying to do, I think, is re-establish the validity of the assumption. If others are reacting in the same way that you are reacting, then you can feel that the assumption underlying the surprise is one that’s held in common, perhaps even held as valuable. The violation still exists, of course. But a shared surprise reaffirms the sense that the underlying assumption has validity.

By contrast, an unexpected occurrence that lacks this sort of relationship to the background ideas, values, or assumptions that make up one’s world-view would more likely be startling, and thereby provoke disbelief or incredulity. And when your conscious assumptions are violated, the reaction is probably more typically disquiet, irritation, or even anger.

In my experience, these instances are very rich learning moments that potentially expose a whole range of meta-cognitive, social, cultural, and individual mechanisms that all have in common one thing: they teach people what to expect as “normal.” Surprise is a signal that these mechanisms are there, and are closer to the surface of our lives than we often know.

Of course, there’s an element of risk in violating assumptions: they may prove to be ideas to which your audience has a conscious attachment! Paul Ekman, one of the pioneers of the study of facial expressions, suggests as much in some of his best-known research.

Ekman’s work with the Fore of New Guinea four decades ago indicated that six facial expressions are universal across human cultures: happiness, anger, sadness, disgust, surprise, and fear. When shown photographs of people from other parts of the world displaying these expressions, the Fore people that Ekman questioned consistently identified the emotions correctly, with one exception: fear and surprise were difficult to tell apart. The likely reason, Ekman writes, is that “in this culture fearful events are almost always also surprising; that is, the sudden appearance of a hostile member of another village, the unexpected meeting of a ghost or sorcerer, etc.” To be surprised was to be afraid.

In the case of the learning professional, I’d say that there will be times when we have to run the risk of looking like a hostile, a ghost, or a sorcerer, even deliberately assuming that appearance. Properly negotiated, all of us can ultimately gain through the surfacing of unacknowledged background assumptions. But learning is a risk, so we had best pay attention to as many layers of the process as we can capably track at once!

Copyright (2012) David D. LaCroix. All Rights Reserved.

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About David D. LaCroix

Learning and education strategist; Director of Operations at Versatile PhD. All opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent those of my clients, partners, or employers.
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