Learning from Surprise


SCIENTIFIC THINKING is a routine of intentional coordination between what we think will happen, what actually happens, and adjusting based on what we learn from the difference.

The Johns Hopkins study described in this video shows that when babies see an object behave in an unexpected way, like passing through a wall, they are more likely to explore and learn about it than if the object behaved as expected. Through a series of experiments involving 11-month-old babies, cognitive psychologists Aimee E. Stahl and Lisa Feigenson showed that when the babies saw an unexpected event, like a ball appearing to pass through a wall, they identified the object involved as worthy of further exploration. Furthermore, when subsequently offered this object, they played with it in a manner that tested the property of interest. In the case of the ball passing through the wall, for example, they would bang on it to see if it was really solid. By contrast, when the babies were shown a new object that did not violate expectations, they showed less interest in playing with it (and thus in learning about it). The results support the hypothesis that situations contradictory to what we expect help shape our learning.

Prediction error leads us out of our assumptions and forces exploration. When experimentation is done right, small failures often provide new insight that advance your design. This is because a refuted hypotheses reveals a “knowledge threshold.” When something other than what you predicted happens — when a plan, step or belief turns out to be incorrect — it makes a knowledge threshold visible and puts us at the learning edge.

Watch the original video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oJjt5GRln-0 and see the full story at http://hub.jhu.edu/2015/04/02/surprise-babies-learning.

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