The Role of Wonder in Education & Building a Team That Wants to Do Something About It

I could get excited about studying toll booths. That must just be how I’m wired. I remember a professor stating as much about me as well. It doesn’t take much to get me curious or to evoke a sense of wonder about something that others see as mundane. I’m not sure why I react that way to the world, but that is what it is like to live with my brain. I’m grateful for it. Life is a series of literally wonder-full experiences for me, even amid the less than pleasant times in life. There is so much to learn, discover, and explore.

I suspect that this is one of my greater weaknesses as an educator. If find it hard to relate when someone seems to be in a perpetual state of boredom regardless of the subject or activity. Yet, largely informed by my ongoing sense of wonder, I’m deeply curious about this reality, that people are wonderfully different, and part of our challenge and opportunity in education is to nurture an educational ecosystem that celebrates and helps people grow into their differences.

We all have a shared experience of wonder as humans. We might not all experience wonder about the same things, but we’ve all experienced this complex mix of emotions that we call wonder. It happens when we are confronted with something novel or grand. It might be a particularly striking sunset or picturesque view; an enhancing dance or athletic performance; a brilliant piece of prose or music, a fascinating theory, discovery, or concept; or perhaps an act of kindness or sacrifice that causes us to stand in amazement.

Wonder is, as Kieran Egan and many others have pointed out over the years, a powerful cognitive or learning tool, and it doesn’t require a large budget or complex technology. Yet, a single, vivid, memorable, powerful moment of wonder sometimes changes the course of a person’s life. With such a powerful tool at our disposal as learners and educators, it would seem wasteful, even foolish, to overlook it.

I recently re-read a delightful article about the role of wonder in math education called “Wondering About Wonder in Mathematics.” Even if you have no interest in math education, this is an excellent introduction to some of the more promising themes related to both wonder as a noun and a verb, and the role of both in education. One might experience wonder through novelty (wonder as a noun), but ¬†then there the question of when and how that turns into an act of wonder and wondering (wonder as a verb). Of course, the latter is our goal, and that is the incredible promise of this line of inquiry.

I’m convinced that wonder has much to teach us about how to improve student learning and engagement. We can experiment with different ways to evoke wonder, and those experiments can produce rich insights for the field. That is why I’m in the process of assembling a team of educators and researchers who can help lead the charge in this line of inquiry as one of the first Birdhouse Learning Laboratories. It will simply be called the “Wonder Lab”, a group of people committed to conducting simple and inexpensive experiments and designing/testing rudimentary prototypes that help us better understand the role of wonder and curiosity in enhancing student learning and engagement.¬†And while this will be a lab that does experiments, the goal will be to produce new methods or products that help make wonder a greater part of the modern educational ecosystem.

I’m excited to delve into this line of thinking over the upcoming months and more, conducting experiments to learn more and hopefully working with others to produce some prototypes of educational products and services as well. If this captures your interest or maybe leads you to wonder (as a verb), I would love to hear from you. You can share comments here, sign up below to get updates and news about Birdhouse Learning Laboratories (including announcements about openings for volunteers, internships, or part-time paid positions in the future), or you can also read more about Birdhouse Learning Laboratories by going to the BLL website.

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