Defamiliarize the Familiar: Learn by Doing

Defamiliarize the Familiar: Learn by Doing

How to create the conditions for your learners to defamiliarize familiar things and encourage wonder.


4 - 12


Biology, Storytelling, Experiential Learning, Photography

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The Burroughs Wellcome Fund

This is part 2 of 3 in the Defamiliarize the Familiar Learning Package. Explore more WonderLab Learning Resources.

In the I Wonder: Defamiliarize the Familiar video, Anand says, “I'm always trying to find some new way to present this subject, some way to surprise people, because to me, that’s…the first step to curiosity.” To be able to present the familiar in unfamiliar and surprising ways, Anand needs to engage in his own exploration of the phenomenon to uncover the questions that might be worth investigating. Using the physical space and tools in the WonderLab, making space for reflection, and allowing awe to motivate inquiry are three practices Anand and his team members use to defamiliarize the familiar.

1. Using Tools to Notice Differently (2:29-3:36, 8:39-9:02)

In the video, I Wonder: Defamiliarize the Familiar, Anand and his team designed space in the WonderLab to observe everyday cuttlefish behavior - like laying eggs and nighttime behavior - in new, surprising ways. For six months, Anand and his team had cuttlefish in their lab. The daily behaviors of the cuttlefish became a “normal, familiar part” of the WonderLab team’s lives. Anand then used an infrared modified camera to record these “normal, familiar” behaviors to provide a new perspective that inspires awe and wonder around the cuttlefish (TIME STAMP 2:29-3:36). “As soon as we turned on the camera and kind of zoomed in on them, it was almost like we were seeing them with fresh eyes. It’s like, whoa, I’d forgotten how cool these animals are.” (TIME STAMP 8:39-9:02) In Anand’s WonderLab, the camera allowed the team to zoom in and see the cuttlefish more closely, to slow down to explore movement, interactions, cuttlefish behavior, and rewind to watch things they might have missed.

Your Turn: Using Tools to Notice Differently

As an educator, take the opportunity to help your students slow down their observation. Take everyday, familiar objects and have students explore them by holding them, talking about them, or drawing them, like in An Artist's Notebook. Then provide tools like magnifying glasses, magnets, and water (to see if they sink or float), or allow students to use phone cameras to learn more about these objects in new ways.

  • How did the tools help you notice differently?
  • What questions emerged when you explored the objects – before and after using the tools?
  • What other tools might help you explore differently?

Another great way to notice differently is to place two seemingly similar objects side-by-side and compare them. What starts to emerge through careful observation is subtle differences. Perhaps learners notice details in the object that were not noticed previously. Paying attention to details is part of noticing things differently. A great tool to practice attending to and communicating to others the details that one sees is the Which One Is Unique tool.

2. Making Space to Observe (8:10-9:01)

There are multiple times in the video where Anand and his team members step back and just look at the cuttlefish on the computer screen or through the tank. There is also one time when one team member asks if he wants to change something and Anand says, “I don’t want to do anything right now. I just want to watch this. This is crazy” (TIME STAMP 8:10-9:01). Anand sits quietly staring at the wonder of the cuttlefish. It’s important to not rush observations.

Your Turn: Making Space to Observe

Find a space that is relatively quiet, but has something familiar worth watching for a few minutes: an ant walking up a tree; the clouds moving over the sky; a goldfish in its bowl; cookies baking in an oven.

  • As you watch these familiar things over time, how do they change?
  • What do you notice about these changes that you might have taken for granted?

3. Allowing Surprise to Inspire Questions (Cuttlefish eating: 4:36-6:36; Cuttlefish mating: 9:49-10:27)

Sometimes things happen so quickly or so slowly that we miss noticing them in real time. For example, when Anand’s team put the shrimp in the tank with the cuttlefish, the cuttlefish grabbed the shrimp before anyone noticed (TIME STAMP 5:00-5:08). Anand noticed the antennae sticking out of the cuttlefish and started asking questions about what happened, if they missed it, and how it happened so quickly. Similarly, when the two cuttlefish mated, the moment was surprising and quick (TIME STAMP 9:49-10:27). The surprising quickness of these moments inspired Anand to revisit them through the recording to answer some of his questions and explore more carefully how the cuttlefish ate and mated.

Your Turn: Allowing Surprise to Inspire Questions

When something unexpected happens, it is surprising to us. It’s important to step back in these moments and ask:

  • What were you expecting to happen?
  • Why did the expected event not happen?
  • What are all the possible reasons the unexpected was able to happen?

Unexpected moments become moments that can lead to multiple lines of inquiry. Think about a surprising event that recently happened. Reflect on this moment and start asking questions around that moment.

Conijn, J., Rietdijk, W., Broekhof, E., Andre, L., & Schinkel, A. (2021). A theoretical framework and questionnaire for wonder-full education. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 54(3), 423-444.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Elizabeth Wolzak, Director, Learning Innovation, Edu Lab, National Geographic
Heather J. Johnson, Vanderbilt University
Sheron Fraser-Burgess, Education Consultant, Global Inclusive Learning Design Reviewer
Bayan Atari, National Geographic Society
Bayan Atari, National Geographic Society
Graphic Design
Patrick Cavanagh, National Geographic Society
Rights Clearance
Jean Cantu, National Geographic Society
Last Updated

April 26, 2024

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