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This is the 14th of a
series of IAE Newsletters exploring educational aspects of the current
cognitive neuroscience and technological revolution. Bob Sylwester
(Newsletter # 75) and Dave Moursund (Newsletter # 76) provide two
introductory articles. Newsletter #77 and subsequent newsletters are
written by guests. However, Sylwester and Moursund also intend to
contribute to this emerging collection.
For the most part, these guest articles will focus on cognitive
neuroscience. Dave Moursund will provide Information and Communication
Technology follow-up commentary to the articles. In addition, readers
are invited to send their comments using the Reader Comments directions
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Appropriate 21st Century Education:
Surprise: It Makes Us Who We Are
Michael A. Rousell, Ph.D., C.Psy
Assistant Professor, Southern Oregon University
This article shows how recent advances in cognitive neuroscience equip
us to form and transform students’ beliefs about their own capabilities.
Boy Scout Bobby thought he was a poor speaker but instantly changed his
belief to that of a courageous orator. Lillian used to think she was
“cool” but she transformed her belief to “nerd” in a heartbeat. Jeremy
didn’t think he was “smart enough” until his teacher’s comment
profoundly altered that self-assessment. Each of these life-changing
events took only a moment and each surprised the recipient.
Our beliefs about our world and ourselves make us distinctive. They
shape our behaviors, ideas, and responses. Beliefs about self-efficacy,
confidence, and self-esteem typically arise from unpredictable events
(Pinker, 2003). It’s not simply the events themselves but the meaning of the events to the
recipient. Lacking context, children naturally look to others to
explain appropriate responses to unexpected events (Sylwester, 2010).
Recent neurological and cognitive findings illustrate how and when
beliefs are instantly formed, or transformed. We may now deliberately
influence those in our care with the positive attributes and
dispositions necessary to function effectively in this new millennium.
I once went to a hypnotist’s show when I was a budding teacher. “Wow!”
I thought. “Now that’s influence!” Hypnosis momentarily changed
what people believed about themselves or their situation. I thought
that hypnosis must tap into a cognitive system that creates moments of
soaring suggestibility. If I could uncover that system, I could create
a life of confidence and aspiration in my students. The idea of
spontaneous and dramatic influence captivated me, and became my
doctoral program's focus.
My research gathered hundreds of stories of influence events—moments
when people instantly changed beliefs about themselves and saw their
situation or themselves differently. I term these Spontaneous Influence
Events, SIEs (Rousell, 2007). SIEs are instantaneous, unexpected, and
the subjective meaning is based upon a cognitive perception.
Spontaneous Influence Events
Envision a young Boy Scout delivering a presentation to the parents of
the Scout troop. He stumbles with the oration, becoming visibly
anxious, and upon finishing sits dejected beside his parents. In a case
of classical conditioning, he might develop the most common fear in
North America: a fear of public speaking. Except in this case the
Scoutmaster took the podium after the bumbled presentation and lauded
the young man for demonstrating the courage and dedication inherent in
all good Scouts, the ability to overcome adversity and steadfastly
remain committed to his purpose. Disaster averted, the surprised little
boy begins to grin, accepting the truth of the Scoutmaster’s gracious
comments (Canfield & Hansen, 1995).
The key component for an SIE is surprise. Learning instantly when
surprised is part of our genetic heritage (Adler, 2008). We now also
recognize surprise as the
catalyst for instant belief formation and transformation.
Surprise Triggers Instant Learning
Surprise triggers the release of a cocktail of neurons creating a
general “all alert” emotional arousal (LeDoux, 2003). During a
surprise, contextual clues help the surprised person interpret this
event as threatening or enticing. The Scoutmaster’s remark undoubtedly
surprised him, spinning his emotional response into a positive
Not all life-changing moments have a positive result. Consider the
following surprise anecdote recalled by a graduate student.
When I was in fifth grade I looked up to my eighth grade cousin. To me
she was perfect in every way, so naturally I tried to imitate her. That
is until the day she came up to me while I was doing my homework and
said, “You know you are just a nerd. You’re never going to be pretty or
popular like me, so you should give up and stop trying to look cool.” I
became almost invisible because I believed my cousin.
In an instant, her personal belief changed from “I’m cool” to “I’m a
nerd.” The transformation triggered new emotional and cognitive
Unconscious Emotional and Cognitive Assessments
Our brain accesses the environment, sensing opportunity or
threat, and then immediately releases neurotransmitters to optimize the
response to a situation (Damasio, 2010). Emotions, operating below our radar,
allocate resources based on these assessments. This assessment is value
driven. If important, allocate more resources, if unimportant, allocate
fewer. Emotions also activate either “avoid” or “engage” behavior. The
transformation of a belief or self-assessment of “I’m cool” to “I’m a
nerd” triggers new emotional and cognitive responses.
From a cognitive point of view, since “being cool” is now off the
table, a cognitive assessment of “don’t waste effort here” allocates
fewer resources. As a nerd, underlying negative emotions activate avoid plans of action, such as withdrawal. She now has fewer cognitive resources and an emotionally activated avoid mindset. When she was cool, she had greater cognitive resources and an emotionally activated engage mindset. It’s easy to see how a self-perpetuating cycle ensues.
This new belief then generates a complementary worldview. When “cool”
she inevitably interpreted casual glances from others as admiring. As a
nerd, she now interprets casual glances as embarrassing. This
self-affirming process characteristically cascades into a
Armed with the knowledge of how influence events arise, we can watch
for those “surprise” moments in our children, students, and those in
our care. Doing the opposite of what a child expects may create a
life-changing moment. The following example comes from Kristen, a
I teach junior English. Jeremy, a quiet student with low self-efficacy,
misses a lot of school. I learned recently that he works at a computer
shop with his father, repairing and assembling all sorts of electronic
equipment. He has impressive skills that I’ll never possess. One day he
arrived late while students were already in working groups. I assigned
him to a group. He asked if he could go to the resource room because he
didn’t think he was smart enough to contribute to the group. Typically,
I feel sorry for him and acquiesce. I decided to surprise him. I told
him in a matter-of-fact tone, “Are you kidding me. You’re one of the
smartest kids I know. Anyone who can do what you do with computers is
brilliant.” He joined the group and participated. Since then, his
attendance, while still low, vastly improved and he doesn’t ask to go
to the resource room anymore.
When someone expects correction but receives encouragement, you’ve
triggered surprise and an opportunity to boost a positive belief or
transform a negative one. That’s the time to underscore a skill or
Responsible education policy and practice should include the deliberate
construction of belief formation and transformation in their discussion
of effective teacher practices. These neurological and cognitive
advances should be common curriculum in child development studies. We
would do well to add alert sensitivity of student emotions to our
Applied neuroscience in the classroom may prove to be a key to school
improvement in the 21st century. Curriculum overhauls and teacher
development only deal with part of the issue. School improvement plans
may prove anemic without explicit plans to foster self-efficacy in the
Adler, J. E. (2008). Surprise. Educational Theory. 58, 2, 149-173.
Canfield, Jack, and Hansen, Victor (1995). A second helping of chicken soup for the soul. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications Inc.
Damasio, A. (2010). Self comes to mind: Constructing the conscious brain. New York, New York: Random House.
LeDoux, J. (2003). The synaptic self: How our brains become who we are. New York, New York: Penguin Books Inc.
Pinker, S. (n.d.). The blank slate: The modern denial of human nature. New York, New York: Penguin Books Inc.
Rousell, M. A. (2007). Sudden influence: How spontaneous events shape our lives. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger.
Sylwester, Robert (2010). A child’s brain: The need for nurture. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Michael A. Rousell
Michael A. Rousell is a certified psychologist and assistant
professor of Education at Southern Oregon University. His two-decade
study of life-changing moments culminated in his award winning book,
Sudden Influence: How Spontaneous Events Shape Our Lives (2007,
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