surprise

image credit: galleryhip.comPicture life a couple of centuries ago, when the only way to communicate is in person or with a physical letter. If you need to get a message to someone fast you send it by mail; if it’s really urgent you send a guy on a horse. Phishing is prevented by wax seal.

Against this world and these expectations, the telegraph was practically occult. There was something otherworldly about getting intimate, direct contact with someone who wasn’t physically there. (For a really cool account of this, see Haunted Media by Jeffrey Sconce.) The usually female operators were treated as mystics, celebrities of their day.

Fast forward fifty years. In the early 1890s, PowerPoint was still by Magic Lantern. World travelers like Nelly Bly and Mary Kingsley made money by music hall lecture, sharing their experiences in a sequence of illuminated stills.

Against this world and these expectations, people who in 1895 filed into the world’s first movie theater, in Paris, were in for a shock. They took their seats, saw an image of a train, and then it moved toward them. People screamed, and some ran for their lives. A woman fainted.

You can see all 50 seconds of that same movie right here:

What I find interesting about these two stories is how different the experiences are with hindsight. The moving train is anything but convincing – unless you’ve never seen a photograph move before. The blips of telegraphy sound to us like noise, not a disembodied consciousness.


We know pre-verbal infants are learning when they’ve expressed surprise. For example, if we want to know the day they acquire the beginnings of number sense, we hold up three toys, pass them behind a screen, and then show only two coming out the other side. For the newborn it’s all meaningless, but the day comes surprisingly soon when the baby has formed an expectation, defied by the result, and has to stop and stare.

For educators those are all powerful tells of cognitive growth: the society lady fainting in the back of the auditorium, the goose bumps on Morse’s arms, the slack-jawed infant. And all of them are expressing powerful learning experiences not because the event itself was so significant, but because it departed so profoundly from what was already known.

K-12 educators coined the term “scaffolding” for the sequential nature of learning and instruction. In higher ed we try to control the effect by making some courses the prerequisites to others. Before he retired last year, geologist Ed Nuhfer routinely had his students take a knowledge survey at the beginning of each course – sometimes before each class meeting – just to bring their expectations into sharper focus before he tampered with them.

I was reminded of this by a spate of recent articles relating to higher education’s likely future:

They’re mutually reinforcing, but that first one is the biggy: however it looks decades from now, higher education will succeed by approaching learning developmentally.  We’ll overturn the current, highly standardized model of delivery, using technology and big data to customize the learning at scale, calibrating it to where each learner is at entry.

In that world, we shouldn’t be surprised to find mentors and students paired fleetingly and opportunistically, the Uber of Ed.  Behind the scenes, my successors in the bureaucratia will connect such experiences to maximize personal, indelible responses, driven by the learner’s practicality and curiosity.

And surprise.

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