The Remarkable Power of Surprise as a Teaching Tool

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One of the most important landmark literature reviews in recent memory, Teaching Adolescents to Become Learners, poses the following, all too common, situation:

Consider the example of a ninth-grader who enters high school unsure of his academic ability and worried about finding friends. When he struggles with the problems on his first math assignment and has a hard time finding a lab partner in science class, he interprets these situations as evidence of his intellectual and social shortcomings. These experiences contribute to growing preoccupations with a lack of belonging and ability which then begin to undermine the student’s academic performance, leading to further academic difficulties and lack of confidence. Though the student entered high school feeling unsure of himself, his interactions within the high school context and his participation in its routines reinforce his initial self-doubts and lead to increasingly negative mindsets. These mindsets can become self-perpetuating as the student interprets his school experiences in a way that further undermines his self-efficacy and self-confidence. He withdraws effort from his schoolwork, which results in further poor performance, [creating] a recursive, negative loop between academic mindsets, academic behavior, and academic performance.

-Teaching Adolescents to Become Learners

This situation or ones like it are far too common in our schools, and while the answer to them–breaking the cycle–is pretty clear, how to do that for any given case is an incredibly difficult question. The tricky part is that persuading someone to change a deeply-held belief is one of the hardest things for a human to do. If you don’t believe me on this, I encourage you to come to Thanksgiving with me next year and say something political.

The reason for why shifting a belief in someone is so hard, according to Dr. Michael Rousell, a psychologist and professor at Souther Oregon University, is that once the brain forms a belief, it almost instantly begins to scan the world in a search for evidence to support the new world view. In this search it tends to ignore or downplay anything that contradicts the belief, while simultaneously picking up every little affirmation it can find. The example Dr. Rousell gives is that for the person who feels attractive, every glance directed at that person is generally interpreted by him/her as looks of admiration or infatuation, thus reinforcing the perception of attractiveness, while for the person who feels unattractive, each non-glance represents another person overlooking him/her, which in turn deepens the negative feelings.

For more on these ideas, here is Michael Rousell’s Ted Talk

This tendency toward confirmation bias is why it can be so maddeningly hard to turn our students–like the 9th grader above–away from the negative beliefs they hold about themselves as students. Even if lots of things go well, for a student who believes that he/she is not good at math or reading or writing, every error along the way might speak louder than the dozens of tasks done well.

But, while daunting, changing beliefs is not impossible. I’ve talked previously about how cultivating a narrative of progress or using wise interventions can shift beliefs in some pretty remarkable ways, but according to Rousell the most effective tool we have when it comes to changing beliefs is something you might not expect: the element of surprise.

Rousell’s research, which for thirty years has focused on formative events where beliefs or viewpoints were formed or shifted in significant ways, has found the common denominator of surprise in nearly all moments of major change. In the TED Talk above, he explains that the reason for this is that surprise is meant to serve as a “neurological error signal” that literally tells the brain that there is something incorrect with our current viewpoint of the world and that we need to find a new one. For example, if we don’t believe in aliens and then one knocks at our door, the surprise we feel tells our brain that it needs to shift its deeply held beliefs to fit with the new information we now have.

This ability surprise has to shift even the deepest held beliefs makes it a potent tool to use with students whose beliefs are getting in the way of their achievement. To see an example of this one has to go no further than me as a young writer.

At 20, I was a middling and unmotivated writer until I took a creative nonfiction course my second semester of my sophomore year of college. In it, I wrote an also somewhat middling paper about joining the fencing team for a week, but the professor–instead of covering it with corrections like the others I’d had–simply circled one section where I talked about the endless shuffling back and forth in fencing and wrote: “Great metaphor for life. Did you mean this to be about our modern political landscape?”

For the record, I did not mean that, and when we conferenced, I said as much, but once again his response surprised me. He looked at me and said, “I think at some level the poet in you noticed this,” and he moved on to the next student.

At this point in school I was undeclared and moving towards science as a major. I also considered myself a mediocre writer and wrote only when required. But by the start of junior year I was an English major and had dusted off a journal from my freshman year of high school, kicking off a daily writing habit that continues to this day.

According to surprise expert Tania Luna, when we are surprised, the progression of events is quite predictable. We literally freeze for 1/25 of a second, then develop extreme curiosity about whatever is happening, and lastly open up for a brief moment to new perspectives.

As a teacher, hacking into this sequence in the right moments can have tremendous power because surprise is designed to quiet the things that commonly get in the way of us hearing other people–namely our biases, the baggage we carry from our pasts, and our endless monologues–and prime us to potentially shift even our deepest held beliefs. This means that the right surprises can momentarily open even the most guarded students, like the student at the start, to new stories they might never normally consider about what they can do, how they belong, and who they are. So if you have a student with a story you’d like to shift–ranging from the belief that he/she is not a reader or writer to the narrative that he/she doesn’t belong in the class–consider using a surprise. The results might, well, surprise you!

Thanks as always for reading!

Yours in teaching,



Teachers are busy–too busy–so we need to share with each other. That is why this blog exists. I’ve studied and written about writing instruction for over ten years and would love to share what I’ve found with you. Join my mailing list now and I will send you a thoughtful post about teaching writing each week. As a thank you, you will also receive a copy of my free ebook A Game of Inches: Making the most of your feedback to student writing and deals on my upcoming book from Corwin Literacy on how to give feedback faster and better.

4 responses to “The Remarkable Power of Surprise as a Teaching Tool”

  1. Great inspiration!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Again, posting on another great entry on this blog, so true. I’ve taught other teachers for years how classroom ending “cliffhangers”, etc. are great motivators for students to look forward to the next day’s class. Relating it to real life isn’t just a phrase (for which I worry at times is only that for some teachers and live in hope that it is simply that someone hasn’t pointed it out to them or just needed the inspiration) but truly helping change life perspectives through fully understanding your students but also kindling underlying thought processing they didn’t even know they had…great reminder and refresher.


    1. I love the idea of cliffhangers at the end of class. I’d never really thought of it that way, but it is a very cool pedagogical idea!


  3. […] think there are a lot of potential reasons for this. There is the unexpectedness of analyzing something like Silverstein that generates attention, the element of choice empowers […]


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