Filling the Knowledge Gap: Creative Uses of the Unexpected


            This is the third post I have written that was inspired by the book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip and Dan Heath. According to the Heaths, one element that makes an idea “sticky” is the element of the unexpected. Ideas that are conveyed through the introduction of an unexpected event are more apt to stick and be remembered than is the case when the story line leads to an expected and predictable result. Great stand-up comedians are aware of this fact, and many of the jokes they tell that are later repeated at cocktail parties and in bars stick because the punch line is unexpected. Indeed, when the punch line is too predictable, one begins to hear faint “boos” from the audience. 

            I came of age as a student of education in an academic atmosphere where it was assumed that the primary task of the teacher was to bring students to profound academic understanding by challenging their present beliefs and present understandings. Many of my professors at Ohio State were Dewey disciples, and it was their understanding of Dewey that led them to the notion that an idea is more likely to stick if it is created or appropriated by students in response to some puzzle or problem for which the students’ present knowledge does not suffice. This being the case, one of the primary tools in the arsenal of great teachers is the art of asking confounding questions-questions that reveal disjunctions in the present knowledge and beliefs students have regarding the nature of things and the way things work. Sometimes these disjunctions are revealed in logical contradictions and sometimes they are revealed in competing facts. It is such disjunctions that constitute what the authors of Made to Stick refer to as “the knowledge gap.”

            Here is an example: Sometime back my youngest daughter took her son to the Patton Museum where he (then about 5 years old) saw many military tanks. A year later he and his mother decided it was time for an aquarium, so his Mother took him to the store to buy what his grandfather referred to as a fish tank. Eventually he put these pieces together in a way that led, for him, to a “knowledge gap.” How could those big things at the Patton Museum be tanks and that glass thing Mom bought be a tank as well, he queried. This led to a somewhat systematic inquiry, resulting in my grandson’s learning a great deal about tanks-including the fact that in Texas, farm ponds are called tanks as well-and in the process he learned something of the wonders of a Google search.

            In my work as a speaker and consultant, I use this story to illustrate how important it is to transform schools from push environments to pull environments. One of the ways this can be done is by transforming schools into platforms where students are provided experiences that confront them with disjunctions and with questions that challenge their present views of the world in which they live. Once the challenge is given and accepted it is, of course, necessary to provide students with the learning tools they need to satisfy their curiosity. Unfortunately, as schools are now organized, teachers are more likely to push knowledge down to students rather than encourage students to explore knowledge and make it their own.

2 Responses to “Filling the Knowledge Gap: Creative Uses of the Unexpected”

  1. Dalia Benavides says:

    With access to technology we would like to think that the knowledge gap is closing only to find out there is so much more knowledge and information to process. Self processing of knowledge also helps the learning “stick.”

  2. Steven Pynn says:

    I find that the very same principles apply to our teachers in promoting profound and deeper learning about instruction. To truly learn and advance we must challenge their present beliefs and present understandings about the fundamental nature of learning and therefore instruction. We have found that showing teachers video examples of different types of instruction coupled with provocative questions immediately results in rich discussion among teachers and administrators about learning and instruction. It can promote that dissonance and the unexpected that results in learning. We have found this approach far more effective than traditional PD, readings, supervision, etc. When this process continues over time the result is that beliefs, understandings and values begin to change and consequently instruction.

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