The Case for More Wonder & Awe in Life, Learning, & Education

While attending a conference in Las Vegas many years ago, a friend gave me a free ticket to a Cirque du Soleil show called La Reve (the dream). It was a mesmerizing, beautiful, musical, display of artistry and physical precision. I witnessed constant and flawless movement that invited me into this magical dreamscape. I walked away from the show silent and stunned. I remember the feeling of awe and wonder at the fact that people could perform such a complex, beautiful, dangerous show night after night. How is it possible to achieve that level of excellence and precision, I wondered? Those two hours provided me with a heightened sense of possibility, but also greater humility. My standard for excellence was deepened by this experience.

I’d like to say that this experience catapulted me to new levels of excellence in my own life. It didn’t. I persisted with many of my mediocre way of doing many things in my life, but I was less comfortable with them. Seeing such excellence made it easier for me to see where excellence lacked. Now came the true challenge. Was I willing to make the changes and commitments necessary to achieve that level of excellence in some domain of my life? That might seem like a question with an easy answer, but mediocrity pays moderately well. It is the norm in education, work, and life. It is sometimes safer too.

This experience led me on an exploration of the psychology and philosophy of wonder and awe that continues. I’ve decided to make this area of inquiry an even greater emphasis in my thinking this year, with particular interest in the implications of wonder and awe upon our personal learning journeys and nurturing more deeply humane and self-empowering learning communities.

The writing and research on awe and wonder rarely finds its way into conversations about learning and education, but the more that I learn, the more I realize that this body of research brings immense insight and value to such work and discussion. How can we leverage this relatively new and growing body of research about awe and wonder to create richer, better, engaging, memorable and lasting, meaningful learning experiences? Consider just a few valuable insights.

One study indicated increased acts of generosity and a decreased sense of entitlement in a game after having an experience of awe.

Another study showed that experiencing wonder (the noun) about math can lead to greater wonder (the verb…a sort of curiosity and motivation to learn more).

There is further research about the role of awe in healing from past and present social and emotional experiences in life.

There is also research to indicate that shared experiences of awe can lead to greater openness to and acceptance of people who are different from us in some way.

Then there are centuries of texts that describe the role of wonder and awe in personal transformations, some that seem to occur suddenly, but others that develop over a lifetime.

This is a growing theme for study, and the body of research will likely double in the upcoming years. It is the perfect time to explore the literature, begin our own personal experiments with awe and wonder, and join the conversation about awe and wonder as fundamental building blocks for rich, lasting, and engaging learning.

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