Friday, August 07, 2009


Have you ever played the game called associations? Two people face up to each other. One starts by saying a single word. The other responds with an associated word. The idea is not to hesitate or repeat any words. The idea is also... and this is the tricky bit... not to call out a word that is associated with your own last word, but with that of your opponent/partner.

There are certain things that just belong together in our minds. Certain words and phrases that evoke specific mental images.

For example, I'll bet if I said "skinned knee," most people would picture a school boy in short trousers. Skinned knees are things that happen on playgrounds, or out in the neighbourhood aren't they?

Well I skinned my knee yesterday. As I got out of my car, the door decided to swing shut again and smashed into my knee. The movement of my trouser leg against my skin under the weight and force of the door took the skin off my knee cap. Then, of course, my trouser leg stuck to the (ahem) wound, so that the next time I stood up, it ripped away painfully.

I had forgotten how painful a skinned knee can be. Even when it hardly bleeds.

In my days in the high school netball team, I skinned my knees many times on the tarmac surface of the court with my aggressive style of play (all determination and little skill). It was no big deal then. It was part of the scenery, and therefore unremarkable.

But take a thing out of context. Put it somewhere unexpected and it attracts a lot of attention. People ask me about my knee. A middle aged woman with a skinned knee is an unexpected sight.

Itiel Dror talks about this a lot in his work. One of the tests he does to demonstrate this is to read off a list of words to test subjects, then to give them a certain amount of time to recall as many of them as possible. Usually, many people recall the first few and the last few, with very few or none at all remembering those in the middle, resulting in a parabolic chart.

Then he repeats the experiment. This time, somewhere near the middle of the list, the word 'penis' is mentioned. Almost without fail, absolutely everyone remembers that word. The resulting chart is appropriately phallic (an effect that would no doubt be spoiled if you put the stand out word nearer to the start or end of the list - Itiel is something of a showman, too).

Even among intelligent, scholarly adults, the word is unexpected enough to draw attention. To be memorable.

It's a good learning design tip. Surprise them. Throw in a curved ball. Why not?

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