photograph of gray cat in front of an orange background with a surprised look on its face

Successful Learning Programs Are Designed to Surprise

May 26, 2021 Learning and Development
mary slaughter
By Mary Slaughter LinkedIn

One of the biggest challenges I faced during the pandemic was the sameness of daily routines. There were only so many new neighborhood routes to walk, so many ways to cook chicken, and so many movies to stream before boredom set in.

The same is true at work. We long for social connections, yet we’re weary of back-to-back meetings on video.

The routines we’ve all developed over the last year certainly have been a coping mechanism. As humans, we crave predictability and certainty — it’s just part of our biology. Through evolution, our brains prefer to consume the least amount of energy when processing information, completing tasks or making decisions.

One of the most common examples of this is bias, which in reality is a naturally occurring decision-making shortcut that all brains possess. Unfortunately, biases cause us trouble when the assumptions and generalizations behind those shortcuts are invalid, causing us to reach completely inaccurate conclusions.

We like patterns that we can recognize with little effort, as well as routines that are well-known to us. The more familiar, the less attention we need to pay to the task at hand, and therefore the lower the energy consumption required of our brains to process the task at hand. A “happy” brain is one that doesn’t have to think too much. But that tendency can be a hindrance to our ability to adapt and learn new things.

The Battle for Attention

It’s not news that the competition for our attention is enormous and unrelenting. While you’re reading this short article, it’s virtually guaranteed that you’ll receive new emails, texts, news alerts and social media messages that you’ll want to read as well. Over the last two decades, the social science and neuroscience fields have provided huge insights into how learning actually works, and the core tenet begins with the need for attention. Without a purposeful focus and interaction with new information, learning simply doesn’t last.

Given that our brains prefer a resting state, the battle for attention is a central problem when learning something new. I asked a longtime friend and colleague, Mike Pino, to offer his perspective on what the research has to say about this challenge in our fast-paced, digital world.

Mike Pino,  principal in PwC’s Organization and Workforce Transformation practice
Mike Pino, PhD is a principal at PwC in organization and workforce development and has used his experience as a consultant, practitioner and researcher to co-develop learning platforms, help bring critical interoperability standards into use, and produce new approaches and patents in learning technologies.

Learning and Performance and the Surprising Path Forward

Recent discoveries in neuroscience research have started to add a lot more insight into the importance of emotions and affective state when it comes to learning skills to apply as part of a team — whether these skills are to be applied in sport, in social settings, or at work.

For instance, this recently published research by JA Henning et al in Nature Neuroscience combines a thoughtfully designed experiment with improvements in brain-computer interface technology to explore how an individual's level of engagement or attention can make things easier or harder to learn. What they found is that it's probably just as important to surprise through unexpected situations to reinforce the core principles as it is to repeat critical pieces over time.

Surprise wakes us from our slumber of autopilot, and we can learn more deeply when that happens. What’s more, this surprise is a place we can integrate machines using noninvasive methods to identify when we are likely more attentive or primed to make better decisions (see RA Cohen Hoffing et al's work published in PLoS ONE).    

What should we take away from this research? Besides needing to rethink learning toward performance, such as how to assure the design is appropriate to building skills, reinforcing them and/or applying them on teams, we need to rethink how we use, for example, surprise to activate attention for the next level of learning or performance.

Designing for Surprise

Some of the most successful learning programs I ever designed and delivered included elements of surprise. They were not silly, contrived “gotcha” moments that only served to embarrass participants, but moments of genuine cognitive surprise when all the elements didn’t match the learner’s preconceived expectations. 

The common ground for effective surprise seems to be when the new information and the context co-exist in ways that we didn’t expect. The more experienced the learner is, the more impactful the element of surprise can be.

Here are a few examples of how to leverage the element of surprise to enhance recall and learning that lasts:

  • Leadership Development: Use live performing arts organizations to demonstrate the power of feedback, coaching and collaboration.
  • Cross Cultural Acumen: Conduct role plays or case studies that require participants to model and deconstruct negotiation patterns between countries with differing cultural norms.
  • Sales Expertise: Introduce previously unknown interpersonal dynamics within the customer organization late in the sales process that dramatically impact decision making.
  • Transformational Change: Purposefully sequence critical missing elements within a simulation to amplify the interdependencies within an organization.

Both Mike and I agree that not only can surprise be a great learning technique, but that it builds stronger teams through shared experiences and insights that can be sustained.

About the Author

Mary Slaughter is the Global Head of Employee Experience at Morningstar, an investment research and management firm headquartered in Chicago, IL. Prior to joining Morningstar, she served as a managing director, People Advisory Services at EY.


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