Learning and Surprise

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A Harrisburg colleague, Carol McQuiggan pointed out an interesting article on teaching from the New York Times "Geek Lessons" (Sep 21, 2008). One of the interesting points is that the author, Mark Edmundson argues that the role of the instructor is to introduce some surprise into the student's life.

An astronomer has to explain that the Earth is actually the furthest from the sun during summer in North America. A classics professor may explain that the classic Greek drama Oedipus Rex was partly a political response against contemporary Athenian-Spartan politics. And linguists get to explain that people "who ain't speaking right" aren't stupid, just speaking a different dialect.

Edmundson argues that the role of surprise isn't just to "open student eyes" but rather to keep them open and combat that assumption that "you're on top of things and in charge." In other words, Edmunson asks can you question what underlies conventional wisdom - even when conventional wisdom is converging on James Dean. Trickier than this looks.

This reminds me of another secret principle of mine which is that a research method isn't really valid unless the data can surprise you. I've been exposed to lots of valid methods (statistical, ethnographic, traditional lab techniques), but they all share one thing in common - the ability to pull up data you weren't expecting. The examples I cited above are based on research, some of which pulled up counterintuitive data.

I think that is one of the great rewards of learning - finding out new information you weren't expecting, then re-evaluating what you think you learn. Sometimes I do a mini-research project and find an answer I don't like (i.e. one that contradicts my initial assumption.). But it's acknowledging that sometimes what you don't like is probably true that hopefully makes me a better learner/researcher. I may even learn more about how the world really works - if I can "handle the truth."

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