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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A Tale of a Curious Student: From Troublemaker to Creator

You couldn’t find a more curious and committed student than Janet. She had an incredible thirst for knowledge. She wasn’t a documented genius. Far from that. Janet worked hard to understand new ideas. It sometimes took her twice as long to read a book, but she also seemed to enjoy it twice as much as anybody else. It was just that she loved learning.

At the same time, Janet was not a big fan of school policies and practices. Because she was so curious, she liked to question just about any policy or practice in school. It wasn’t that she was trying to be a troublemaker, although she did enjoy a good debate. In fact, she seemed to learn a great deal through debates so she looked forward to them. In addition, she didn’t just give school leaders or teachers the benefit of the doubt. She had this craving to understand why and enjoyed being a part of making decisions that impacted her education. When that wasn’t welcome, she could get a little frustrated. She wasn’t violent or verbally abusive, but she clearly didn’t like it very much. She wanted to learn and while it didn’t all need to be on her terms, she certainly thrived when a teacher gave her voice and input on the learning experience.

This independent streak is what most teachers noticed. Plenty of teachers tired of Janet’s curiosity and questioning. They interpreted it as disrespectful and thought that it detracted from a positive classroom environment. Some dealt with her questions through formal disciplinary action, so Janet was not unfamiliar with afterschool detention. Others just did their best to ignore her, pretending like they didn’t see her hand raised when Janet had something to say. Janet wasn’t oblivious to this strategy. She would eventually just check out, so perhaps the teachers saw it as an effective strategy.

Yet, Janet didn’t give up on people or school no matter how much people seemed to struggle with her personality. Each day, she came to school ready to learn something new. She didn’t always come to school the most prepared, but she was definitely excited to learning something new, to experience something new, to have great conversations about ideas that matter to her and the world. So, she kept positive and just looked for the classes, teachers, and opportunities to explore and learn. Some days were better than others, but she had an incredible persistence.

One day, Janet overheard a couple of teachers talking about a new experiment at the school. The principal challenged a couple of creative teachers to help research and explore the possibility of creating a school-within-a-school, an experimental project-based learning program. Students would have the opportunity to apply to be part of the new program. As she listened to them talk about this over lunch, she couldn’t help herself. Janet was not short on confidence, so she walked over to the teachers, one of whom she had for social studies, and mentioned that she overheard what they were talking about. She asked if there might be any possibility for her to help as a student advisor of this project, just to give a student perspective.

She realized that asking this was a longshot, but she was delighted when they both responded in the affirmative. In fact, they had not thought of getting a student view, and they charged her to find two more classmates who would be willing to serve on a student advisory board for this project. She gladly accepted that challenge and had herself and two student volunteers ready for an after school meeting the very next day.

Over the next months, Janey, these two teachers, and the other two students met several times a week. They planned. They researched. They reached out to  other project-based learning schools, interviewing teachers and students about what worked and what didn’t. They read articles and discussed them. They also worked together to create a thirty-page document that outlined the plans for this new school. This was one of the most exhilarating learning experiences of Janet’s formal schooling experience. Also, when the project was approved and announced to launch the next year, she was the first one to sign up.

A Tale of a Bullied Boy and a School Where Curious is Cool

This is the tale of a bullied boy and a school where curious is cool.

Kathy and Jim both drove their only child, Nathaniel, to his first day of 6th grade in a new school. Like many parents, they were as nervous as their son about this new adventure. They were also excited for him. Both of them loved middle school as kids and they looked forward to him having the same experience. Perhaps that is why is was so hard when they picked up Nathaniel at the end of the day, and his first words were, “I hate school.” The bullying started on that day and didn’t let up the entire year. Of course, they talked to the teacher about it, and the teacher seemed responsive at first. Yet, nothing changed.

Kathy and Jim both drove their only child, Nathaniel, to his first day of 6th grade in a new school. Like many parents, they were as nervous as their son about this new adventure. They were also excited for him. Both of them loved middle school as kids and they looked forward to him having the same experience. Perhaps that is why is was so hard when they picked up Nathaniel at the end of the day, and his first words were, “I hate school.” The bullying started on that day and didn’t let up the entire year. Of course, they talked to the teacher about it, and the teacher seemed responsive at first. Yet, nothing changed.

Nathaniel wasn’t being physically bullied but he was ostracized and mocked throughout each day. It was a school with a heavy athletics culture and Nathaniel was not very athletic. He was a curious boy who loved to talk about ideas, but he was disappointed that nobody else in the class seemed to have shared interest in such things. People mocked him in subtle ways that were hard for the teacher to identify. In fact, to the teacher, it just looked like Nathaniel was a depressed and unmotivated loner, even though the unmotivated part from far from the truth.

Each day, Nathaniel got up and went to school. He dreaded it, but he didn’t say much. He also didn’t smile much, at least not during the school week. Day after day, Nathaniel spent hours in a building, trying to learn and make friends, but with little success. The more people made fun of him, the less others were willing to take the risk of befriending him. His mood spread to the classroom too. It is hard to be interested in learning when you are in a room of people who don’t seem to like you or care about you.

The teacher was nice enough, but as Nathaniel became increasingly disengaged in and out of class, the teacher seemed to lose patience with him. While she never used the word, to herself she thought he was lazy and distracted. Before long, Nathaniel not only had his classmates rejecting him, but he felt the same sort of ridicule from the teacher. It was subtle, but he felt it nonetheless.

As unhappy as Nathaniel was, he was also a wonderfully curious boy. That is why the one thing that he looked forward to each week was Saturday morning. That is when he got to work with his dad on any number of fun projects. His dad was a mechanical engineer by day, but on the weekends, he loved to work on several projects at once. He had a classic car that he’d spent the last five years rebuilding with an electric motor. He was remodeling the basement, turning it into their very own home theater. In addition to that, he was working on building his own cedar strip canoe after seeing someone else do it while they were on family vacation last summer. Nathaniel loved working with his dad on these projects.

Nathaniel usually woke up before his dad each Saturday. He made himself and his parents breakfast (just cereal and milk, but it is the thought that counts, right?) while waiting anxiously for when they would head out to the shop and get started on one or more of the projects. His dad treated him like a true partner. Nathaniel already knew quite a bit about electronics and was a sponge when it came to learning about how to build a boat from scratch. As they worked on the car and canoe, they would daydream about what they would do with them when they were finished. Nathaniel dreamt of creating a mount for the canoe so they could use the electric car to drive over to the state park. Then they’d spend the day fishing and talking as they canoed around the lake. He even had the snacks and lunches planned out in his head.

One Sunday, as Nathaniel and his dad worked on the car, Nathaniel said, “Dad, I wish this could be school. I learn more on the weekend with you than I do all week at school. And this makes me happy. School is a sad place where I don’t learn much of anything except how to stay strong while people are making fun of you.” Jim stopped working as he let those words sink in. He didn’t say anything out loud at the moment but what he thought to himself was this. “Why couldn’t this be school?” That night Jim retold this conversation to Kathy.

Jim talked to Kathy talked for hours, deciding to start researching homeschool possibilities. As they browsed the web, however, they also stumbled across this movement of parent-led and parent-designed schools. They discovered a whole new world of education that they didn’t know existed. They had no idea that so many parents were dissatisfied with school for one reason or another, and that they used that to fuel their efforts to create any number of wonderfully rich and interesting new schools.

As Kathy read more, she explained her thinking to Jim in this way. “So many parents just put up with the existing school system. They see it as some sort of necessary rite of passage, even if it is a terrible experience for their kids. I don’t want to teach Nathaniel to run away from his problems. At the same time, this school is a toxic place for him, and the teachers and administrators don’t seem to be doing anything to change that. What would it take for us to start our own school, one that really is based upon the sort of things that you do with Nathaniel on the weekend? They could learn science by building and making. They could even learn history by creating museum exhibits for the community. Imagine how fun that would be for us and the kids.” Kathy was an art major, and she was already starting to imagine how they could create this wonderfully rich, creative hands-on type of learning.

Their next step was to talk to others about the idea. They started with some of their friends, and everyone seemed to think it sounded like an amazing idea. Of course, many of them also thought it was idealistic and unlikely to happen. As a last chance for the school, Kathy and Jim set up a meeting with a couple of the school leaders to share what they had been learning. They wanted to see if the school might be interested in working with them to create some sort of school within a school project. Unfortunately, the leaders didn’t have much interest. The idea didn’t fit into their existing strategic plan and it just didn’t seem to resonate with their idea of what a school should be.

So, after months of reading, research, and conversations, Kathy and Jim decided to take the next step. They pulled Nathaniel out of school and started to homeschool him, building the entire curriculum around rich, hands-on projects, including connecting those weekend projects into the “schooling” experience. They also started to invite other homeschool families to join them for various projects.

Before long, Kathy and Jim were facilitating over eight different immersive hands-on projects throughout the semester that were tied into various content areas, and there were between ten and twenty students participating in every project. They had an aviation class where students studied physical science while building their own remote control airplanes. They had another one that blended science, economics, and business; where they got to work on building actual electric cars, but they also worked on research about the viability of electric cars as replacements for the standard cars of our day. They had a third project where they partnered with the local history museum for a completely student-designed series of exhibits focused on the question of whether stricter gun laws would decrease violent crime. Students grappled with the issue, looked at it from an historical perspective, a criminal justice perspective, a sociological perspective, and they also studied issues related to constitutional rights. They provided exhibits that represented different stances and the reasons behind those stances. This turned out to be the highest traffic exhibit in the museum that year.

By the end of the year, they had over a hundred different kids engaged in their programs, so they decided to take it to the next level. They continued the homeschool model the next year while raising the funds and doing the preparatory work needed to launch a new school that would be completely built upon hands-on learning and immersive projects. In a matter of months, their first class was full, and the school launched in the fall. They continued to run the homeschool projects alongside the school, and allowed families to opt in for only parts of the school experience. Some were there for full days, while others came and went for certain projects.

What was even more exciting is that they didn’t have bullies in this school. The kids didn’t tolerate it. The teachers guided the young people, but over time, it was the students themselves who built the culture, and they decided that school would be a place where you are welcome, cared for, you are free to be curious, and you are challenged to be kind and collaborative. They created a school where curious is cool.

A Tale of a Quantified Boy

Once upon a time there was a boy who measured his worth by the numbers. When he was number one, he felt valued and important. When he was not, doubt and disappointment consumed his thoughts. This applied to playing a game of pickup basketball, being the top scorer on the teen bowling team, playing a family board game, getting the highest score on the school math test, even being among the first to finish the test. Since as far back as he could remember, this boy loved numbers and what they said about him. He tracked his numbers on a large whiteboard that he kept in his bedroom. He fell asleep each night scanning his numbers, and he woke up thinking about the new numbers that he would earn that day.

The Joy of School

Every day he woke up focused on the numbers. School was an especially enjoyable place for this boy. He worked hard to get the highest test scores and the highest grades. He spent every day of school focused on that prized top of the class number. After school, he participated in extracurriculars and a sport for every season. If it had numbers to earn, he wanted to be part of it.

When the FitBit came out, he asked for it for his birthday. Ever since, he lived his day by the numbers. 10,000 steps a day was the baseline, along with at least 10 flights of stairs, 30+ minutes of being in the aerobic level, 8 hours of sleep, and being ranked among the top ranked among his friends.

He was an Eagle Scout by age twelve, largely because he loved to be the one with the most badges and set his mind on being the first in his age group and troop to become one. When his state adopted the mandate to measure BMI of every student in school at certain grades, he cheered. He starved himself for weeks to get the best possible BMI when the testing day arrived.

One semester he showed up for his first day of class, sophomore English. He sat in the front row confident and excited to rack up some more academic numbers. The teacher passed out the course syllabus and as he started to read through it, he came across a troubling paragraph.

The Troubling Paragarph

“In this class, you have the opportunity to participate in a learning community committed to reading, discussing and learning from great books of the past and present. As an experiment, I have special permission to run this class without traditional letter grades and point systems. Instead, we are going to be about deep and authentic learning. There are no rubrics, no traditional test scores, and no letter grades. There will be plenty of thinking, reading, writing, laughing, collaborating, deep thinking, and rich conversation. I will give you feedback on all of your work, providing you with suggestions, offering questions to guide your thinking, and challenging you to stretch yourself to higher and higher levels. I invite you to join me by fully devoting yourself to this experiment and helping to create a rich and rewarding learning community for all.”

The Quantified Boy’s Dilemma

“This is terrible!”, he thought to himself. “How can you possibly have a class without points and grades? What would be the point of such a stupid experiment? Why would I do any of this work it didn’t help my GPA?” He found it hard to hide his outrage at this distasteful “experiment.” “Stupid” was the word that kept coming to mind for him.

Right after class, this quantified boy marched to the principal’s office to express his displeasure and outrage. He started by making sure the principal fully understood this boy’s numbers: number one in class rank, 4.0 GPA, over a 30 on his first attempt at the ACT (and he wasn’t even a junior yet), a perfect score on his last six tests, and much more. The principal listened and nodded, but once the quantified boy finished speaking, the principal simply said. “I really think this course might be a good experience for you. How about this? Why don’t you give it a try for the semester? If you still feel this way at the end of the class, I will talk to the English department to see if we can arrange for you to take a test on the course content and get a traditional grade. Then you can work as hard as you want for that perfect ‘100%.'”

He didn’t like it, but this offer placated the boy enough to give a try. He still had the hope of getting his numbers. So, he agreed to continue participating in this “stupid experiment”, but he wasn’t going to like it.

He went to class the next day and decided to sit in the back. “Why sit in the front if there are no grades to earn,” he thought. The teacher began class by reading a strange poem. The words didn’t seem to have any apparent meaning. Determined to not be interested in what happened in this class, the quantified boy feined a yawn or two. Wide awake, he listened to every word. He vaguely remembered hearing this poem before. In fact, he heard it back in 4th grade, but he didn’t remember that at the time. Something in the words drew him into the story, craving to understand what he didn’t, but also enjoying the fact that he found some sort of meaning in a collection of otherwise meaningless words.

The Challenge

After reading the poem, the teacher provided a brief background to this well-known poem, Jabberwocky, explaining that it as part of a larger book, but that the term jabberwocky found its way into the English language as more generally referring to “meaningless speech or writing.” As such, the teacher provided the students with a challenge for the next class. “I would like each of you to either find or write a short excerpt of what you consider to be a perseonally meaingful piece of writing. What makes a piece of writing meaningful to you? What makes it meaningless to you? Be prepared to read your piece to the class and discuss it.

The quantified boy found himself actually thinking about the assignment. Yet, he couldn’t leave class without asking for clarification about how he would be evaluated. The teacher reminded him of the experiment, which frustrated him and others in the class. “How are you supposed to do well on this assignment with such unclear expectations?” The teacher assured him and others that there will not be an evaluation. There will be a converastion, one shaped by the writing brought and shared by everyone in the class. After a bit of back and forth about expectations, the bell rang and the quantified boy, along with others, left the class a little confused and frustrated.

The Library Encounter

He went online after school and started doing random searches for things like “meaningful writing”, “What makes writing meaningful?”, and “What is the definition of meaingful?” He didn’t find much that helped, so he deided to go “old school”, heading down the block to the local library. This quantified boy knew the library well, being one of his favorite places to study for tests, but he never wandered the shelves before.

He didn’t read books unless he had to for a paper or project. So, it was an altogether different experience to wander the shelves, scanning different titles, pulling a book out, paging through it, and going on from there. He did this for over an hour, wandering from history to biology, carpentry to mythology, parenting and computer repair to archeology, gardening to psychology, politics and poetry to scientology, American novels and philosophy to ethnology. He didn’t read all of these, of course, but what struck him was how much of this never occurred to him before. Very little of this ever showed upon on a past test or as part of a course. Plenty was generally familiar, for sure, but in less than a couple hours, he came across countless ideas that sparked his curiosity. The world seemed a little larger than it was before he wandered those shelves.

I don’t want to overstate what happened to him. It wasn’t like he had some instant, life-changing epiphany. He was still the same quantified boy, but now he tapped into something that he didn’t have much time for in the past, his curiosity. In the past, when he had to write a paper or do a project for a class, he read and learned new things, but he didn’t let himself get too caught up in them. What mattered most was getting the best grade.

Yet, at this moment, he wasn’t absorbed in figuring out how to get the highest score, mark off all the elements on a provided checklist, get the perfect rubric evaluation, or even competing with his classmates. Surprising even to himself, he thought this assignment sounded sort of fun…albiet part of a larger “stupid experiment.”

The Subtle Change

Nonetheless, he persisted. He found something meaningful to him, shared it in class, and joined in what turned out to be a rather fun an interesting conversation with his classmates. This first “assignment” was just the beginning of what turned into a semester of personal “passion” projects for the students. They read together, laughed together, debated, practicing writing and sharing their ideas with each other. They explored books and ideas that never found their way into past classes. The teacher guided them with lots of questions and ocassional direct suggestions or a slight re-direction. She also introduced them to new ideas and resources, and set them up for group and indivudual explorations. Some learning happened through games and simulations. Some happened through role-playing activites. Others were just groups gathering in a circle and unpacking ideas in a text, or debriefing a recent learning experience together.

By the end of the semester, the quantified boy still loved numbers. He maintained his 4.0, continued his record of perfect test scores in other classes, and preserved his prized first in class ranking. Yet, for one hour a day, he set the numbers aside and let his curiosity take the lead. He read. He wrote. He laughed. He questioned. He explored. He learned. And in the eventings or on weekends, you could even find him hanging out in the library studying for the next test, but with an interesting book nearby, one that he didn’t have to read for any test or course requirement. He read it just because it interested him.