Published Online: December 20, 2011

First Person

Change Things Up With Novelty Learning

Some days when I drive into school in the mornings I go a different way. It takes a bit longer and my alternate route selection is met by a question from my 3rd grade daughter: "Dad, why are you going this way?" My response is always the same: "I just wanted to do something different, and it's good for the brain." That answer is usually enough and she goes about her morning car routine of cinnamon pop tart in one hand and The Guinness Book of World Records in the other.

Trying something new, exploring a new path, takes many forms in schools. It can be as big as a complete change in curriculum content and as small as the rearranging of desks in the classroom. Whether large or small, the result is good for the brain. It forces us to rethink what we are doing, why we are doing it, and how we might do it differently and perhaps more successfully. In the educational realm, it is called novelty learning and teaching.

Researchers know that novelty boosts learning. Brain imaging has shown that there are specific areas in our brain designed to recognize novelty. When a child notices that something has changed or something is new, areas of the brain are triggered and the result is a reexamination of static concepts or ideas.

Novelty can be a positive experience for all students and teachers, but for a smaller group it becomes an essential part of their education. Termed, "novelty learners," these children prefer activities that are multi-sensory and books that contain multiple facts—such as the one my daughter lugs to school each day—or books containing optical illusions. Why? Because each and every time these children open one of these books there exists the opportunity to learn or see something new. This is also true of classroom experiences. Children who are novelty learners tend to enjoy the sciences and the arts. Both are hands-on experiences that stimulate areas of the brain, primarily in the right hemisphere, triggering the release of dopamine. Additional brain imaging research conducted by Dr. Emrah Düzel from University College London’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience indicates that introducing "completely new facts when learning significantly improves memory performance."

Recently, my daughter was challenged by her 3rd grade teacher to research the Tlingit tribe as part of a social studies unit on Native American tribes of North America. She fastidiously researched the group, recording all of her information in a journal. When I would ask her about it she would reply, "I like finding new facts." The novelty of this learning experience was motivating her. However, it wasn't until she was asked to construct a model of a Tlingit plank home using whatever materials she could think of that I saw the spark in her eye. Each evening she would comb our house for potential building materials; popsicle sticks, branches, clay, and even part of our rug were "appropriated" for the project! The end result was a beautiful model and an inspired student.

Getting Past Fear of Change

I saw the middle grades at the school where I work use the benefits of novelty in a more subtle way—by conducting a "Locker Clean-out and Swap." The teens discovered, upon returning from vacation, that their locker assignments had been switched around. The result was a mixture of angst and excitement for a fresh and new beginning. The swap gave these students the chance to see their middle school hallway from a different perspective and to connect with new neighbors.

Of course, with novelty comes change, and change can be frightening. But who among us would claim that they are proud to be led by their fears? Instead, by remaining open to change and the novelty that it affords us, we avail ourselves to new opportunities for learning. Teachers should always be afforded opportunities to change, experiment, and try new ways of working with our children. The results would be classrooms where students' thinking is stretched in new directions and children are challenged to try new things. Whether it is a math problem, writing assignment, or art project, new and creative thinking instills in our children a love for creative problem solving.

Exploratory and experiential learning are at the core of this practice. Students need opportunities to explore and experience new ideas and concepts. It is not easy. Routine and repetition makes things easier and more efficient in our hectic lives. I'm sure I am not the only one who has driven all the way to work and then thought to myself, "I don't remember a bit of that drive." It is precisely why every so often, I go a different way. I may get to work a few minutes later, but I get there, and I and my brain are better for the experience. We owe it to our children to provide for them opportunities to go "a different way" in their learning, to try a new approach even when the "old way" works just fine.

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