Happy Birthday Surpr@ise

“A single metaphor can give birth to love.”

 Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being



It’s amazing how a metaphor can help you see more clearly what you have always understood to be true. This is what happened to me when I used crayons to form a new word on the poster I was preparing for TESOL France last year. As I took the words surprise and praise and turned them into surpr@ise I saw how this word frames my philosophy about what happens in good classrooms. In the classrooms I enjoy most, teachers surprise their students with interesting tasks and activities. Then they praise them for trying new things and taking risks. This is what I do in my own classroom, too. It’s a simple but very powerful idea and I have been very happy to see that the idea of surpr@ise has begun to resonate with other teachers around the world as well and is now part of their working vocabulary.  Since on it’s first birthday this has become a small organic movement, now might be a good time to share some principles of surpr@ise.


1.     Surpr@ise is for everyone

Every single teacher can work with surpr@ise no matter what method or technique you use, no matter whether or not you like using coursebooks, no matter whether you are an experienced or newer teacher.  No matter what kind of class you teach,  I believe it’s important for both students and teachers to stay motivated and by doing so  to move education forward. You do this by providing students with unexpectedly interesting, even challenging tasks and activities, working with them as a fellow learner, and encouraging and praising them for their efforts and attitudes. That’s surpr@ise.

2.     Surpr@ise starts with your smile

Surpr@ise is not only about activities. It’s also about attitude. Most students have come from traditional classrooms where teachers teach in unsurpr@ising ways. As you introduce more unexpected activities into the classroom, some students might be a bit uneasy. If you have been a more traditional teacher, it might make you feel a bit uneasy at first, too. Take things slow.

Be gentle and encouraging with your students and yourself.  Start with a smile.

 3.  Provide a Map

As you introduce change into the classroom, make sure to explain the reasons for the change to your students. As you choose tasks over exercises, everyone needs to understand why. Of course students will see why when you finish doing a project, for example, and see the results but as they work, students need to see where things are headed. Show students the finished product and then break it down into small steps. This is like a map that leads to treasure. Without it, students are likely to get lost or lose their motivation.

 4.     Surprise should always be positive.

A whole body of research suggests that we learn more deeply when encountering anything surprising, shocking, strange or unique. In the world, it’s true that we tend to remember bad things that happen even more easily than we do ordinary everyday things. It’s also even more true that we not only remember but also hold on to the very good, happy things that happen to us. We want to remember things that made us feel good and happy because by remembering them we get to experience them again. This is why in the classroom we want to always

create positive experiences for our students. Create a meaningful context for what you want to teach. Make everyone feel good about what they are doing. Smile and make others smile as well.

 5.  Praise should be more than just words.

Everyone likes to be praised but simply saying good job or well done is not enough. Praise needs to be accompanied by useful feedback on how to move forward. This is why I like the idea of medal + mission.  Handing out medals is praise. Giving students feedback that allows them to see how they can become even better is the mission. As they work to achieve a goal or complete a project, students will see the results so you don’t really need to say too much — just enough to be encouraging while helping them keep the mission in mind.

 6.     See how surpr@ise works when you step back.

As your students work, step back far enough to allow them room to be creative and do things in their own way.  Don’t worry. You’re not about  to lose control in your classroom. If you include them in the planning and stay involved by empowering and encouraging them, then follow the medal + mission model of providing feedback as students work, they will very likely end up surpr@ising you with results better than you even expected.


This pretty much sums up my basic ideas about surpr@ise one year after I first came upon the idea. So far it’s been a really useful framework for me to think about teaching and learning. Still, like with any idea, it continues to change as I do and as more teachers share their ideas with me about surpr@ise in their own classrooms. If any of this resonates with you, I’d love to know about it and share ideas.

“Stay committed to your decisions,

but stay flexible in your approach.”  

 ps:  In November, I’ll be talking with teachers about surpr@ise at TESOL France and then giving a Pecha Kucha about creating surpr@ising environments in the classroom in Tokyo at the JALT (Japan Association of Language Teachers) Conference.