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The WTF learning principle


The best learning happens when you're surprised... when you don't get what you expect. (I talked about this earlier in getting what you expect is boring.)

The brain is a prediction machine. It's constantly scanning to make sure that nothing fails to meet its predictions. And as long as everything is just as the brain expected, there's no need to wake up and pay attention.

Think about it... you come home from work, you throw your keys in the bowl on the little table beside the door (where you always put them) without looking. But then your keys fall straight to the floor! Someone moved the little table 6 inches to the right. NOW you notice the keys, bowl, table, and all your attention is on who moved your table and why. But had that not happened, you wouldn't have spent a synapse thinking about that table or your keys or the bowl. Your brain would have gotten exactly what it expected.

Think about the times you've done something that made intuitive or logical sense, but turned out to be SO wrong. The times where you've said, "Whoa--I'll never do that again." Those are the memorable moments where you really learned something.

This is where so many teachers (and books) go wrong. In trying to make the learning smooth, and in a well-intentioned attempt to save the learner from having to learn the hard way, they simply tell you in advance what to do and what not to do. If there's a surprise lurking, they just tell you up front and spare you the trouble.

But they just robbed you of the chance to remember. To have that thing seared into your brain. What's worse, is that after they tell you how things really work, then they give you a lab exercise that simply demonstrates exactly what they told you. No surprises there, and your brain never really wakes up. At least not until someone really hot walks into the room. (Remember, at that point your brain is thinking... "UDP socket programming or survival of the species...")

If you're designing learning of any kind -- whether it's user documentation, training courses, or something to get your users excited... be surprising. If there's a gotcha, or anything that might be surprising in either a good OR bad way, for gosh sakes don't just spit it out. Give them a chance to experience it either for real, or at the least -- as we do in our books -- by weaving a story that leads them right into the trap, springing it on them when they least expect it.

Put a post-it note on your computer that says "Surprise!" Practice surprising your friends or co-workers. Do something unexpected every day until it becomes a habit to look for the opportunity to surprise. (This does not mean that everyone will appreciate your surprises, of course. After all, you really did look better as a blonde...) Valentine's day is coming, so you might as well start prepping now : )

Posted by Kathy on February 4, 2005 | Permalink


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» Do something unexpected every day from Kinetic Energy
Creating Passionate Users has a good post on how the best learning happens when you're surprised. Unfortunately most educational material spell out exactly what you need to know, how to do it and what to avoid - leaving little opportunity for suprise... [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 6, 2005 3:21:23 AM

» WTF Learning Principle from Cafe La Coach
I'm fast becoming a fan of Kathy Sierra and the rest of the gang over at the Create Passionate Users blog. Check out what Kathy has to say about how to make an impression on your own brain in her WTF Learning Principle post. And while you're there, imp... [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 26, 2005 5:05:33 PM


If I put up a post-it note that says "surprise", I'll just get used to it being there, and tune it out.

Posted by: AcouSvnt | Feb 5, 2005 8:08:48 AM

That's when you paint your walls red!

(the point is to fight habit. of course an old surprise note would become normal: you have constantly shake things up)

Posted by: themadjuggler | Feb 5, 2005 9:06:06 AM

I completely agree about the post-it... and the time between when you first put it up and when your brain starts expecting it is ridiculously short. So it really has to be an everyday kind of thing. I struggle with this a lot... how to keep my *reminders* from becoming part of the expected background. The "constantly shake things up" does seem to be the solution. Assuming you can keep remembering to do *that*. : ) For post-it reminders, I have to keep changing the color, shape, location, picture, etc. I tend to rewrite them constantly. But once things become a habit (3-6 weeks for many things), I can move on to reminding myself of something *else*.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Feb 5, 2005 12:02:33 PM

Information theoretically, the suprising event is the one with that conveys the most information, as it's the one that either did not confirm our predicitions, or verify existing knowledge. It's no suprise that our brains would prefer it; there's just more information to absorb.

It's the same idea that explains why you remove the cruft from your writing to make it read better, or why einstein said something should be as simple as possible, but no simpler. If the information is diluted, there's just less punch.

Posted by: Ian Barber | Feb 7, 2005 10:25:54 AM

"If I put up a post-it note that says "surprise", I'll just get used to it being there, and tune it out."
Not if it's in a different language everyday ... :P

Posted by: The Pageman | Aug 8, 2005 7:10:14 AM

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