NOVELTY IN LEARNING
Barbara Allen-Lyall, Ph.D.
The brain craves novel experiences and processes them with high priority (Schomaker & Meeter, 2014). When novelty is detected, learning and behavior is instantly affected as the brain readies us for interaction with our environment (2014). While detecting and processing novelty is pertinent to our general involvement in life, recognizing its influence on learning is specifically relevant for special education teachers. Importantly, understanding how students perceive both common and unusual stimuli in the learning process may inspire teaching innovation and create exciting learning opportunities (Beike & Zentall, 2012; Fuchs, Fuchs, Finelli, Courey, & Hamlett, 2004). To better understand the impact of novelty on learning in childhood, we can examine its effects in early childhood as a way to create a supportive framework for students with exceptional learning needs in subsequent years.
The human process of detecting novelty can play out in seemingly small ways. For example, during recess a six-year-old girl noticed her teacher’s new coat. He replied that it was not in fact new, but perhaps she had not seen it before. The child’s response was, “It’s a different color.” The girl had perceived something different, perhaps the somewhat unusual teal hue, or she had simply contrasted it with a tan garment the teacher often wears while out on the playground. In this instance, novelty induced a cognitive response, a comparing/contrasting/assimilating process at the core of the cognitive phenomenon we call learning.
Learning that is most engaging involves the reworking of previous experiences in the face of novel input (Gluck, Mercado, & Myers, 2014). This usually occurs with a good outcome. However, too much novelty can actually cause confusion. For example, a boy enjoying a Frisbee throwing session with his cousin might find a few moments of disk tossing instruction by his uncle to be an exciting turn of events. But when someone else suggests yet another way to flip the Frisbee, the situation becomes overwhelming. The boy returns to his previously used approach without integrating any new strategies. A scenario like this makes us wonder how new information is coordinated with what is already understood. What cognitive processes allow novel input to be accepted or rejected? These questions fascinate researchers. Studies that consider these questions have produced interesting results.
Researchers Price and Goodman (1990) studied girls of 2 ½, 4 and 5 ½ years of age to see what happened when a novel task was introduced in a ritual that involved looking at picture cues and helping a wizard character to find a hidden toy. Children were asked to stand in a certain spot to receive a picture card and hear a task explanation from a cheerful researcher. A particular verbal clue in the directives allowed each child to choose the door that would allow entry to a room with an interactive toy. Then the prompt changed. How did the girls respond?
The youngest girls had not fully integrated the original ritual as a cognitive script, so they were more flexible in adjusting to new information (Price & Goodman, 1990). What they already thought to be true was not deeply internalized. However, they were not able to respond with verbal input alone. Physical evidence was required. A researcher stepped in to model how to proceed using cards as props. The 4-year-olds were in a transitional stage where they had organized the cognitive task sequence but were unable to make changes easily with verbal-only input (Price & Goodman, 1990). When the novel cues were physical props, however, they did well. The 5 ½-year-olds were able to organize the steps in the task with aplomb and modify the script with verbal-only cues but were unable to verbally recite the task steps during recall as well as the 4 and 2 ½- year-olds who used physical props to do so. Researchers determined that while integrating novel input is part of childhood development, children can be helped in the process by providing adequate physical experience and modeling (1990). As a result, young learners may not move along the continuum more quickly but might do so with less confusion and more confidence in their own ability to make sense of the world.
The above study suggests that younger children are able to rehearse understanding more effectively with props than they are with words. While this usually changes with age, some children are never as comfortable having to use verbal-only reports of prior learning or events. This is an important point for teachers to consider when teaching students with learning disabilities.
Another study of 3-year-olds by Williamson, Meltzoff and Markham (2008) involved asking boys and girls to perform both easy and difficult tasks. They were invited to open drawers or boxes that held toys. A vexing problem arose, however, because some of the tasks were actually not doable. During the study, researchers offered novel strategies to help open items when a child seemed confused. Most children responded in predictable ways to the introduction of a new approach with results suggesting that preschoolers are able to acquire new strategies when confronted with a novel experience (2008). Interestingly however, young children may not immediately incorporate new strategies into subsequent tasks. They may first call upon their own prior experience and then adaptably use new information to solve a problem if and when it seems necessary or beneficial to do so. Importantly, in this study, children at age three more quickly incorporated physical, non-verbal input for a concrete task, a demonstration rather than an explanation, and were able to do so in the future even when the novel adult input had not been observed for some time (2008).
Here we learn that physical modeling of novel input may be more effective than verbal directives for young children. Modeling also has more long-lasting impact than the spoken word. Parents and teachers of preschool children can use such information to their advantage in helping children to negotiate an ever-changing world. For example, if we wish a child to place her storybooks in a new, specific location, it is more effective to physically model (act out) the task than to simply ask for it to be done. Sometimes it takes several rehearsals for a child to incorporate novel input.
For elementary school students with learning challenges, how does novelty affect their learning when tasks are different and may possess higher stakes? A compelling study of reading comprehension for first through fifth grade students at risk of reading disability and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) showed unexpected comprehension improvement when high-novelty fables were experienced as focus texts in lieu of traditional fable versions (Beike & Zentall, 2012). In this study, researchers inserted novel characters into fables to replace common characters (an orangutan rather than a fox) and adapted story endings to be more active, emotional and contemporary (for example, a snake was cut in two and Pokeman cards were mentioned) (p. 532). Elementary educators evaluated student outcomes and researchers discovered that all students who read adapted fables reported greater task interest than did children who read the original, low-novelty versions. Task interest invariably increases motivation for learning (Gluck, Mercado, & Myers 2014), something all teachers hope to see in their students.
Research illuminates compelling ideas for education. Important threads selected from studies about novelty in learning suggest that children are better accommodators of novel information when they hold prior knowledge, receive good modeling or physical input, and are allowed time to organize novel stimuli (for example, Beike & Zentall, 2012; English, 1996).
In conclusion, it is generally accepted that novel stimuli are examined for about twice as long as familiar stimuli (Gluck, Mercado, & Myers, 2014) as the brain responds with a burst of interconnected neural activity whenever it detects something new (Schomaker & Meeter, 2015). Such connectivity may translate into extended task engagement if novel stimuli are interesting to the learner. This is especially important for special educators to consider as they seek ways to extend their students’ task engagement. If we embrace the idea of incorporating novelty into learning experiences with reasonable regularity, students with exceptional learning needs will have more opportunities to develop into engaged, successful learners.
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Barbara Allen-Lyall, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Manhattanville College located in Purchase, New York. Dr. Allen-Lyall teaches courses in elementary mathematics methods; teacher research; and classroom management, curriculum development, and assessment. She speaks at national conferences on topics related to mathematics education research and cognition. She also presents on topics related to the brain and learning as part of the Gural Mind Matters series in New York City. Dr. Allen-Lyall can be reached at Barbara.AllenLyall@mville.edu.