Learning from the Unexpected

Learning from the unexpected is essential to establish our knowledge of the world. This capacity, as shown by the research, is already present in babies as young as 11 months.

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When the world is predictable and everything that exists in it behaves as expected, our attention diminishes, since everything happens as we imagine. No surprises However, when, suddenly, an event occurs that breaks our expectations, we pay the greatest possible attention and, in some cases, we learn of the unexpected.

Thus, we can affirm that there is no learning without attention and that attention is more easily directed towards that which surprises us. The surprise is therefore much easier to memorize or at least capture our attention or interest.

In this article we will discuss what and how to learn from the unexpected. We will also discover that this capacity is present almost from birth and that, undoubtedly, stands as an alternative to the classic conceptions of learning. Some psychologists and pedagogues have these processes very much in mind.

Learning from the unexpected: general concepts

Sometimes, science does not progress through the usual channel of logic. Interestingly, exactly the same thing happens in human beings: learning from the unexpected is usually much more efficient than learning from a predictable world.

In this line, the researchers Stahl, A. and Feigenson, L. (2015) published an article in the journal Science in which they describe this phenomenon. In addition, explain that babies as young as 11 months are bored when the world and objects behave predictably.

The authors observed that babies quickly stopped paying attention to a ball that moved predictably. However, in a different experimental condition, they focused much attention on a ball that moved in an unusual way, even through the walls. Let’s deepen.

We are born scientists: what to learn from the unexpected

In some way, at birth it seems that we behave like scientists. In this sense, the babies that participated in the mentioned study did not limit themselves to learn of the unexpected (as it happened with the ball that went through walls), but also, quickly, they wanted to experiment with those objects of unexpected behavior.

Thus, in the same way that scientists when looking at a fact want to test their hypotheses to experience what happens, babies behave similarly with what they observe.

For example, when babies saw a ball pass through a wall, they tried to catch it. Besides, once with her in his hands, they squeezed and hit her. Would they want to prove that it was a solid object? Did they want to experiment with the ball?

In another experimental condition, babies saw a ball move and go through a hole, but without falling into it. Anyone would have expected the ball to fall through the hole, but it did not. That was totally unexpected for the babies.

In this case, as soon as they had the opportunity, the babies went to the ball and began to experiment with it, throwing it several times to the ground, as if they wanted to check if it obeyed the laws of gravity. It is not surprising?

The mysteries of learning from the unexpected

For science, the mysteries of learning from the unexpected are still far from being explained in babies. Why does this happen? Do we have a kind of innate programming to understand the laws of physics? This issue would generate a heated debate between nativists and environmentalists. Who will be right?

It is quite surprising that babies with this young age seem to detect that which defies the laws of physics. Not only that: they also tend to explore and try to understand the “physically” unexpected events.

Thus, in the research of the aforementioned authors, the existence of some kind of innate laws of physics seems to be demonstrated, since it is extremely unlikely that babies of this age can make logical-causal inferences as if they had advanced reasoning.

Conclusions about the phenomenon of learning from the unexpected

As the aforementioned study points out, the main conclusions about the phenomenon of learning from the unexpected can be summarized as follows:

  • Babies try to learn more about the new, the unexpected, that what breaks their schemes.
  • In addition, they seem to discriminate between what is foreseeable and what is unexpected. Evidently, pay more attention to the latter.
  • In fact, it seems that babies can make predictions about what will happen to an object, so if something they think is going to happen does not happen, they are surprised and go on to explore the phenomenon.
  • When predictions about events turn out differently than expected, babies explore that dissonance in order to learn more about the world around them.
  • To date, the learning capacity of the human being has been underestimated, since in babies the circumstances for this type of new and different learning are given; that is, to learn from the unexpected.