How do we bring wonder back into the classroom?

never forget to embrace wonder

A few years ago, I had the chance to teach science in a self-contained classroom (teaching all subjects). I scoured the Internet for examples of great demonstrations that would captivate my students’ attention. It worked at first. I did the typical experiments. You know, add baking soda to vinegar. Pop some Mentos in Diet Coke. Get a hard-boiled egg to fall into a jar. That sort of stuff.

However, the only thing my students learned in the process was that their teacher had scoured the Internet and could replicate the experiments in a classroom. I upped the ante a week later by doing a few experiments first and having students follow directions to do the same. But it was exactly that: following directions.

My students were supposed to be learning how to think like scientists but all they had learned was how to think like me. They hadn’t owned the learning because they hadn’t owned the process. They hadn’t owned the questions.

That evening when I drove home, I emptied the dishwasher while my three-year-old son bombarded me with questions. Why does the sky turn orange on only some nights? Why does the moon show up in the day on some days and not others? What would happen if someone ate poop? The last question was admittedly disturbing, but I had to hand it to him – he knew how to ask questions.

Later, I watched him running around the backyard, filled with wonder at everything he was experiencing (note that he’s now seven years old and still just as curious). Why did some bugs jump and others fly? What made the whiffle ball move funny? Sometimes it wasn’t even a matter of questions. It was simply chasing after bubbles and squealing when they popped. It struck me that this sense of wonder and wild curiosity was the beginning of real science. This barrage of questions was precisely what I wanted to see with my students.

So, I changed things up. The next day, I invited students to continue the experiment or to move on to their own form of inquiry. The questions are all over the place:

  • Why does water suck when there aren’t any clouds inside? (Then, in parenthesis, she writes, “I think the word is evaporate”) Where does that water go if not in the clouds?
  • Is it true that you can’t drink a whole gallon of milk in an hour?
  • Would you die if you drank Diet Coke and downed a pack of Mentos in the same minute?
  • What makes stuff float? Why do certain heavy things not sink but light things sink?
  • Why does metal always seem cold in a classroom if it’s been in the same room temperature? Is it really getting colder? Or does it just feel that way?
  • What makes paper airplanes fly faster?
  • What makes the ripples in water?
  • Why does stuff burn when it’s together but not when it’s apart?
  • Why do some chemicals burn green?
  • Why does it smoke afterward when you mix vinegar and baking soda together? Is that really smoke?
  • If you kept a species of lizard in a totally yellow container, would the color change after years in that environment, even if there was nothing to force natural selection? I mean, if you had a room and all the lizards were normal, would they turn yellow in twenty years? Or a hundred years? Or never?

The questions varied in practicality and in the understanding of science. There were certainly questions we couldn’t pursue (burning chemicals or “making lizards evolve” or eating tons of Mentos and drinking Diet Coke). In some cases, students simply had to find the information online. However, in most cases, these questions were the start of science experiments.

It wasn’t pretty. It was loud. It was messy. It was fun. Kind-of. Actually, the students were getting frustrated half the time and then excited the other half. But in the process, they were engaged. They were hitting a place of flow.

It was the start of deliberately embracing a state of wonder in the classroom. On other occasions, I had students look at various species and study them. That slow, deliberate act of observation was a different form of wonder. It was a slower, quieter curiosity, but it was just as powerful.

Later, when I moved from self-contained to teaching computers, I often began our design projects with a sense of wonder. I know that the design thinking process usually starts with empathy. However, I found that sometimes empathy is tricky. Sometimes you don’t know what you’re going to make or who your audience will be until you’ve experienced a sense of wonder and curiosity.

Seven Ways to Bring Wonder Back Into the Classroom

There’s something disarming about starting with a sense of wonder. It doesn’t feel as heavy as thinking about a specific audience or a really important product. But that general sense of wonder is ultimately what leads to bigger things. Note how many artists began, not by thinking about an audience, but by this sense of wonder in the act of making art. Note how many amazing products began, not by focusing on a specific problem, but by embracing a natural state of wonder that, in turn, led to divergent thinking and eventually helped people find innovative ways to solve problems.

So it has me thinking about ways that teachers can both recover and create a sense of wonder in their classrooms. Here are a few ideas:

  1. Make stuff for the sake of making. I’m a fan of having students publish to an authentic audience. However, I also believe that some of the best moments of wonder occur when students are making something small for no other reason than the fact that it’s naturally intriguing. It might be a marshmallow challenge or a cardboard arcade or an interactive journal. In the moment, something clicks and kids are consumed with curiosity.
  2. Slow down. I remember as a child feeling a sense of amazement at the ability to pull iron out of sand. We pulled out magnets and stuck them in all kinds of soil until it worked. The process was slow. We weren’t hurried. But this was precisely what led to wonder. Often, moments of wonder happen in these relaxed times.
  3. Promote play. Wonder is both something we can promote in schools but also something we can allow – and the best way we allow this to happen is by promoting play. I find it sad that students often get blocks of play time only when they are younger. I would love to see schools create recess time for middle schoolers.
  4. Incorporate student choice. This isn’t just a matter of topics or interests. Students can tap into their natural wonder when they get to choose some of the bigger themes and questions. Which leads to . . .
  5. Have students create questions. I remember visiting a kindergarten class on a prep period. It was amazing how many questions students asked. That same day, I watched my own students and noticed that even in an inquiry-based project, many of them were reluctant to ask questions. I had to build in more opportunities to ask questions. Creative classrooms are the ones where students are able to question answers as often as they answer questions.
  6. Follow rabbit trails. When I was a pre-service teacher, my mentor said something so often it became a mantra for me. “We must seize the moment of excited curiosity for the acquisition of wisdom.” He wasn’t sure where it originally came from but the idea was that in that single moment when your curiosity is sparked, you should chase it. If you put it off until later, you miss something in the process.
  7. Embrace wonder in your own life.  It’s contagious when a teacher is naturally curious. I used to love it when a teacher would say, “Yeah, I’m trying to figure out __________” or “I’ve been exploring ___________.” This last weekend, my friend George suggested that I give Vine another chance. I had created two videos years ago and let it go because it “wasn’t practical.” However, I started back up. In trying it out again, I am struck by the sense of wonder that goes with creating small, six-second videos. They won’t change the world. They won’t transform education. However, there’s a sense of wonder that accompanies these small creative acts.

This might not seem like a big deal. After all, there are urgent things that schools need to teach – how to read, how to think, how to write, how to solve problems. But I can’t help but wonder if maybe we need more wonder.