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 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.

A Tale of a Curious Boy

Once upon a time, a curious boy spent his day asking and exploring questions. He asked questions about everyone and everything. He loved the mystery of the world around him and craved to explore it through questions and experiences. He did not get bored because his questioning nature always found something worth exploring in any person, topic or experience.

Every day he awoke with a smile on his face and a question to explore. He fell asleep the same way. He experienced his share of challenges ranging from the loss of loved ones to living in a family with few resources and uncertain income to pay for even the basics. Yet, he constantly asked questions and he immersed himself in asking them and exploring answers to them each day.

Life as a Curious Boy

In fact, he didn’t even need to leave the bed in the morning before the questions would begin. One morning he woke up early but stayed in bed for almost two hours, staring at the ceiling and wondering about how houses were built and held together. “What keeps the ceiling from falling on me?” When he got up, he wandered to the attic to inspect what was behind that ceiling that he had just stared at for hours. After that he wandered some more, this time online, and then to the library down the road to find out more. This represented a common day for the curious boy. He occupied his days and mind with the interesting, mysterious, and adventurous.

He did not go to school in these early years. In fact, he did not start going to school until he turned nine. By that time he read well because his curiosity drove him to explore the answers found in books. His mother didn’t read, but he talked the next door neighbor into helping him read in exchange for assisting with a few household chores. He knew his math too, but not the sort of math that you see in school. In fact, he didn’t really think of what he knew as math. He just learned what he needed to in order to explore those many questions that occupied his curious mind each day.

The Change

One day all of this changed. Someone in the neighborhood found out that this young man did not attend school, so she reported the parents to the authorities. The boy overheard someone knocking at the door, entering the home, and then the ensuing conversation about how their son needed to be in school, or else…or else something. He did not know what that something else might be, but he knew it sounded like a big deal. For some reason, his parents refused to talk to him about it.

Because of that, his parents sent the curious boy to school the very next day. His mom walked him five blocks from the apartment, and he loved going on walks in the neighborhood because neighborhoods are full of people and buildings and lots of interesting things. His mother walked him into school, went to the front office, signed a few papers, and hugged her curious boy goodbye.

New Ways of Learning

He did not get scared or worried easily, so school seemed like just another wonderful place full of people and curiosities. In fact, when he arrived that first day, he rejoiced at the idea of spending his day asking, exploring and discovering answers to questions. Yet, they did not put him in class right away. Instead they brought him to a small room where a friendly man greeted him and proceeded to ask him all sorts of questions about his family and his life. Then the man gave him puzzles and riddles to solve. From there they gave him papers with lots of questions and they told him to answer the questions to the best of his ability. As he read the questions, he had his own questions and tried to ask them to the man in the room, but the man did not seem to welcome these questions. He insisted that the curious boy focus on answering the questions instead of asking his own. So he did. He answered question after question, took a short break and had a snack, and then answered more questions. Then they sent him home, explaining they would see him again the next day.

That next day his mother walked him to school again, went to that same front office, and then they escorted him to his first class. He wondered about all the questions that they asked him the day before but the teacher in the classroom did not know and encouraged him not to worry about that. He was not worried. He was just curious.

Letting Go of Questions

As the class started, he began to ask questions. The teacher explained to him that he was here to learn. He liked the sound of that so he asked the teacher more question until the teacher asked him to slow down and quiet down. So he did.

He sat in his desk. He listened. He answered the teacher’s questions. He followed the teacher’s instructions. He learned the rules. He stopped asking so many questions and instead devoted himself to answering the questions posed to him, and preparing for the tests that the teacher said were VERY important.

He enjoyed this enough, but he also missed the times when he could ask a question and spend hours discovering the answer to it. He missed exploring, experimenting, researching and discovering on his own. It is one thing for the teacher to tell you the answers and an altogether different thing to come up with your own questions, answers and the pathway to finding those answers. He tried to imitate the other kids. He sat quietly. He listened. He gave answers that seemed to please the teacher. He performed well on tests, which is something that people in the school liked very much. He asked questions but not too many or any that would seem to detract from the narrow scope of the teacher’s plan for the lesson. He took tests and quizzes. He completed the occasional project.

The Result

Because of that, he stopped asking so many questions outside of school as well. The curious boy became a good, compliant boy. He earned good grades. He pleased the teacher. He followed the rules. He passed the tests. He also spent very little time wondering, imagining, creating, exploring, researching, and experimenting. He just did the homework, followed the rules, and learned that questions and curiosity are not nearly as important as passing the tests and pleasing the teacher. After all, he learned to focus on what really mattered, to prepare for middle school, then high school, then college, and then the expectations of an employer.

Until finally, the curious boy disappeared. He didn’t love school. He didn’t hate it. He just did it. He enjoyed those occasional moments of fun and curiosity, but carefully contained and controlled them, none of that wild and untamed questioning that drove him to lose track of time, force himself to learn new skills to answer them, or hunt down the answer across multiple sources and contexts. Learning became civil and formal. Learning became controlled and calculated. He became a controlled and calculated boy.