Written by Charles James

Artwork by Ashlynn Smith, St. Andrew’s Class of 2019

Across millions of years, humans and our ancient ancestors survived by constantly living lives between the familiar and the novel. Student learning and memory operate in that same zone between the familiar and the new. As teachers, how we take advantage of novel routines and experiences may be some of the most important things we do to help our students remember and think. 

For much of human history, life was like the TV show “Survivor.”  Every episode of Survivor highlights four defining characteristics of humankind… novelty, gossip, competition and talent. In Part 1 of this series I will talk about the first- the educational value of novelty.  The show Survivor thrives on introducing novel settings, challenges and constraints. Response to novelty is not unfamiliar to humankind. 

The human brain did not evolve to see a fixed, unchanging world, rather, a changing world where novelty expresses itself every day in the form of new situations, threats, and challenges. Humans did not survive simply by learning stuff- they learned by recognizing the changes in the stuff around them- an expression, a color, a shape, a smell, a taste, a shadow, or a movement. It turns out that novelty is a defining feature of our ability to remember. Novelty makes ideas stick in our brain in a way that only pain and emotion do as effectively.

When my son was little, we were out in the country visiting a friend’s barn and he was examining the fly paper, those sticky long ribbons designed to trap unsuspecting flies. He said, “I wish my brain were like that.” “In what way?” I asked. Sticky. Everything would just get trapped. Minus the fly carcasses, he made a most astute connection. Learning and thinking are two different brain functions. The former requires memory and the latter requires synthesis.  If we want the latter, we must remember long enough to put ideas together. Like a bin of Lego pieces, learning is not much use until we put the pieces together. Novelty helps that happen. (In another part of this series, the idea of the brain as a Legomaster will be introduced.)

Novelty is a prerequisite to creativity, thought and learning. Before humans could even talk, the brain could recognize patterns. Patterns are nothing more than strongly correlated neural connections in our brain. In order to recognize patterns, you have to recognize differences. Think about a face. Faces are the most relevant pattern recognitions that humans (and some animals) possess. In humans, general pattern recognition predates human language by millions of years. In our brains there is some hemispheric specialization of novelty.  Specific patterns (a specific face) are a right brain function while general features of a face are largely a left-brain function. Hemisphere specialization and novelty is well researched. Evidence now supports the role of hemispheric specialization as it relates to novelty. In brain imaging, new and unpracticed material light up the right hemisphere of the brain. Tasks that are well known and familiar light up the left hemisphere of the brain. (1)

The question is, how did humans get from recognizing general and specific patterns related to faces and foes to constructing novel monsters and mermaids? Forty thousand years ago, we know some ancient human relative with a well-developed prefrontal cortex carved a Lion-Man out of wood. Our ability to create imagined realities is creativity. That creativity depends on specific knowledge constructed in novel ways. Our ability to juxtapose distant ideas, concepts and facts in unusual and unexpected combinations is the heart of innovation and creativity. That is the point of this series.

What creates the arc that drives information from practice to proficiency and from novelty to familiarity? What makes something memorable?  In general, there are four predominant ways information is carried across the divide between hemispheres of the brain- from novice to experienced.  Emotion and pain translate ideas into experience rapidly. When my son was a toddler, he wandered up to a water dispenser and dispensed hot water onto his hand. He possesses a vivid memory of the incident courtesy of the pain it caused. To this day he pauses and checks the spigots. The second way that information is carried across the divide is chemicals- specifically neurotransmitters that bridge the gap and make some information “sticky”. Novelty incites our brain to take notice. Humans are wired for novelty. Attention to unexpected, novel, or discrepant events is an evolutionary trigger for our memory.  Lastly, context and a connection of new material with prior ideas or familiar circumstances send information more easily across the hemispheric divide of our brain. Often, that context and connection is a good story. Abraham Lincoln once said of storytelling… “I reckon that the reason I tell stories is not the story itself, but its purpose that interests me. I often avoid long and useless discussion or a laborious explanation by a story that illustrates my point of view.” Over 100 years later people are still making points with Abraham Lincoln’s stories because stories help us remember. 

In this series, we will explore how learning, thinking and creativity are linked in the functions of the brain. Learning requires memory. Cobbling together mundane ideas into unique patterns is by definition creative. Both learning and thinking begin with novelty- an important tool for educators.  Novelty super charges our memory and enlivens our thought. In Part II we look at how our ingenious new ideas are cobbled together and in Part III the role of novelty in design thinking.  

  1. Creativity: The Human Brain in the Age of Innovation. Elkhonon Goldberg, PhD. London: Oxford Press, 2018.

Ⓒ Charles C. James 2020

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Charles (Chuck) James is an educator and curriculum development specialist in science and design education. Chuck’s experience education spans three decades and includes work as Director of Education and Public Outreach for the NASA’s Astrobiology Division and Carnegie Institution’s CASE program. His instructional work in Design, technology, and innovation, includes creating curricula for The National Science Foundation, NASA, The American Geologic Institute, Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and the American Chemical Society. He is a Director of St. Andrew’s D! Lab and a faculty member at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School and the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning in Potomac, Maryland.