Information Age Education
   Issue Number 88
April, 2012   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education project. See and the end of this newsletter. All back issues of this newsletter are available free online at

This is the 14th of a series of IAE Newsletters exploring educational aspects of the current cognitive neuroscience and technological revolution. Bob Sylwester (Newsletter # 75) and Dave Moursund (Newsletter # 76) provide two introductory articles. Newsletter #77 and subsequent newsletters are written by guests. However, Sylwester and Moursund also intend to contribute to this emerging collection.

For the most part, these guest articles will focus on cognitive neuroscience. Dave Moursund will provide Information and Communication Technology follow-up commentary to the articles. In addition, readers are invited to send their comments using the Reader Comments directions near the end of this newsletter.

We encourage you to tell your colleagues and students about the free IAE Newsletter. Free back issues and subscription information are available at

Creating an Appropriate 21st Century Education:
Surprise: It Makes Us Who We Are

Michael A. Rousell, Ph.D., C.Psy
Assistant Professor, Southern Oregon University

This article shows how recent advances in cognitive neuroscience equip us to form and transform students’ beliefs about their own capabilities.

Boy Scout Bobby thought he was a poor speaker but instantly changed his belief to that of a courageous orator. Lillian used to think she was “cool” but she transformed her belief to “nerd” in a heartbeat. Jeremy didn’t think he was “smart enough” until his teacher’s comment profoundly altered that self-assessment. Each of these life-changing events took only a moment and each surprised the recipient.

Our beliefs about our world and ourselves make us distinctive. They shape our behaviors, ideas, and responses. Beliefs about self-efficacy, confidence, and self-esteem typically arise from unpredictable events (Pinker, 2003). It’s not simply the events themselves but the meaning of the events to the recipient. Lacking context, children naturally look to others to explain appropriate responses to unexpected events (Sylwester, 2010).

Recent neurological and cognitive findings illustrate how and when beliefs are instantly formed, or transformed. We may now deliberately influence those in our care with the positive attributes and dispositions necessary to function effectively in this new millennium.

Important Context

I once went to a hypnotist’s show when I was a budding teacher. “Wow!” I thought. “Now that’s influence!”  Hypnosis momentarily changed what people believed about themselves or their situation. I thought that hypnosis must tap into a cognitive system that creates moments of soaring suggestibility. If I could uncover that system, I could create a life of confidence and aspiration in my students. The idea of spontaneous and dramatic influence captivated me, and became my doctoral program's focus.

My research gathered hundreds of stories of influence events—moments when people instantly changed beliefs about themselves and saw their situation or themselves differently. I term these Spontaneous Influence Events, SIEs (Rousell, 2007). SIEs are instantaneous, unexpected, and the subjective meaning is based upon a cognitive perception.

Spontaneous Influence Events

Envision a young Boy Scout delivering a presentation to the parents of the Scout troop. He stumbles with the oration, becoming visibly anxious, and upon finishing sits dejected beside his parents. In a case of classical conditioning, he might develop the most common fear in North America: a fear of public speaking. Except in this case the Scoutmaster took the podium after the bumbled presentation and lauded the young man for demonstrating the courage and dedication inherent in all good Scouts, the ability to overcome adversity and steadfastly remain committed to his purpose. Disaster averted, the surprised little boy begins to grin, accepting the truth of the Scoutmaster’s gracious comments (Canfield & Hansen, 1995).

The key component for an SIE is surprise. Learning instantly when surprised is part of our genetic heritage (Adler, 2008). We now also recognize surprise as the catalyst for instant belief formation and transformation.

Surprise Triggers Instant Learning

Surprise triggers the release of a cocktail of neurons creating a general “all alert” emotional arousal (LeDoux, 2003). During a surprise, contextual clues help the surprised person interpret this event as threatening or enticing. The Scoutmaster’s remark undoubtedly surprised him, spinning his emotional response into a positive experience.

Not all life-changing moments have a positive result. Consider the following surprise anecdote recalled by a graduate student.

When I was in fifth grade I looked up to my eighth grade cousin. To me she was perfect in every way, so naturally I tried to imitate her. That is until the day she came up to me while I was doing my homework and said, “You know you are just a nerd. You’re never going to be pretty or popular like me, so you should give up and stop trying to look cool.” I became almost invisible because I believed my cousin.

In an instant, her personal belief changed from “I’m cool” to “I’m a nerd.” The transformation triggered new emotional and cognitive responses.

Unconscious Emotional and Cognitive Assessments

Our brain accesses the environment, sensing opportunity or threat, and then immediately releases neurotransmitters to optimize the response to a situation (Damasio, 2010). Emotions, operating below our radar, allocate resources based on these assessments. This assessment is value driven. If important, allocate more resources, if unimportant, allocate fewer. Emotions also activate either “avoid” or “engage” behavior. The transformation of a belief or self-assessment of “I’m cool” to “I’m a nerd” triggers new emotional and cognitive responses.

From a cognitive point of view, since “being cool” is now off the table, a cognitive assessment of “don’t waste effort here” allocates fewer resources. As a nerd, underlying negative emotions activate avoid plans of action, such as withdrawal. She now has fewer cognitive resources and an emotionally activated avoid mindset. When she was cool, she had greater cognitive resources and an emotionally activated engage mindset. It’s easy to see how a self-perpetuating cycle ensues.

This new belief then generates a complementary worldview. When “cool” she inevitably interpreted casual glances from others as admiring. As a nerd, she now interprets casual glances as embarrassing. This self-affirming process characteristically cascades into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Into Practice

Armed with the knowledge of how influence events arise, we can watch for those “surprise” moments in our children, students, and those in our care. Doing the opposite of what a child expects may create a life-changing moment. The following example comes from Kristen, a practicing teacher.

I teach junior English. Jeremy, a quiet student with low self-efficacy, misses a lot of school. I learned recently that he works at a computer shop with his father, repairing and assembling all sorts of electronic equipment. He has impressive skills that I’ll never possess. One day he arrived late while students were already in working groups. I assigned him to a group. He asked if he could go to the resource room because he didn’t think he was smart enough to contribute to the group. Typically, I feel sorry for him and acquiesce. I decided to surprise him. I told him in a matter-of-fact tone, “Are you kidding me. You’re one of the smartest kids I know. Anyone who can do what you do with computers is brilliant.” He joined the group and participated. Since then, his attendance, while still low, vastly improved and he doesn’t ask to go to the resource room anymore.

When someone expects correction but receives encouragement, you’ve triggered surprise and an opportunity to boost a positive belief or transform a negative one. That’s the time to underscore a skill or aptitude.

Responsible education policy and practice should include the deliberate construction of belief formation and transformation in their discussion of effective teacher practices. These neurological and cognitive advances should be common curriculum in child development studies. We would do well to add alert sensitivity of student emotions to our pedagogical repertoire.

Applied neuroscience in the classroom may prove to be a key to school improvement in the 21st century. Curriculum overhauls and teacher development only deal with part of the issue. School improvement plans may prove anemic without explicit plans to foster self-efficacy in the students.


Adler, J. E. (2008). Surprise. Educational Theory. 58, 2, 149-173.

Canfield, Jack, and Hansen, Victor (1995). A second helping of chicken soup for the soul. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications Inc.

Damasio, A. (2010). Self comes to mind: Constructing the conscious brain. New York, New York: Random House.

LeDoux, J. (2003). The synaptic self: How our brains become who we are. New York, New York: Penguin Books Inc.

Pinker, S. (n.d.). The blank slate: The modern denial of human nature. New York, New York: Penguin Books Inc.

Rousell, M. A. (2007). Sudden influence: How spontaneous events shape our lives. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger.

Sylwester, Robert (2010). A child’s brain: The need for nurture. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Michael A. Rousell

Michael A. Rousell is a certified psychologist and assistant professor of Education at Southern Oregon University. His two-decade study of life-changing moments culminated in his award winning book, Sudden Influence: How Spontaneous Events Shape Our Lives (2007, Praeger).

Reader Comments

We are using the Disqus commenting system to facilitate comments and discussions pertaining to this newsletter. To use Disqus, please click the Login link below and sign in. If you have questions about how to use Disqus, please refer to this help page.
Readers may also send comments via email directly to

About Information Age Education, Inc.

Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world. Current IAE activities include a Wiki with address, a Website containing free books and articles at, a Blog at, and the free newsletter you are now reading.

For a free subscription to this twice a month newsletter and to see back issues, go to You can change your address or cancel your subscription by clicking on the “Manage your Subscription” link at the bottom of this message.