Sense of Wonder

What is the sense of wonder?

The sense of wonder is a key tool in our initial explorations of reality. It enables us to focus on any aspect of the world around us, or the world within us, and see its particular uniqueness. We can turn this sense of wonder onto anything, recognizing the wonderful in every feature of the world around us. Wonder can be an engine of intellectual inquiry. It is a part of literate rationality’s persistent questioning, a more directed kind of questioning than is common earlier in the young child’s incessant “why?” Wonder can be silent in front of nature’s grandeur, but it mostly encourages us to ask questions. “I wonder . . .” is the start of scientific thinking. I wonder why the bathwater rises as I sink into it? I wonder how many worms there are in the garden? I wonder why the sky is blue?  The world becomes an object of wonder and inquiry. Stimulating wonder energizes the literate mind.

How can we evoke the sense of wonder in teaching?

For examples click here.

Topic:  Pronouns

Subject Area:  English

Cognitive Tool:  The Sense of Wonder

The pronoun is a brilliant abstract concept that gives us the power to get close to, or to draw back from, what we want to describe.  Think of the difference between a father telling his child, “I love you,” and the same father saying, “Dad loves Child.”  “I,” “we,” and “our,” bring us closer to the subject; that’s why they are first person pronouns.  On the other hand, third person pronouns like “he” and “it” move us farther away, as in parent-teacher-student meetings when we awkwardly describe “her learning progress” to the parent while the student herself is sitting right there; the awkwardness forms because the pronoun is meant to hold things at a distance, but in this case, the student in question is sitting two feet away picking her fingernails.

Pronouns also possess the incredible ability to take no proprietary form.  They simply represent whatever we want them to represent, and through their various forms, people use them however they want to use them.  Bart Simpson of the long-running series The Simpsons helps illustrate this feature in an episode in which he finds an automated display promoting fire prevention: The display’s recorded voiceover shouts, “Only YOU can prevent forest fires!  Only YOU can prevent forest fires!” A quiz at Bart’s eye level reads, “Who can prevent forest fires?” followed by two big red buttons: YOU or ME. As the display continues to shout,  “Only YOU can prevent forest fires!” Bart presses YOU. “WRONG!” the display roars.  “Only YOU can prevent forest fires!”

When I first saw that episode, I laughed, because it struck me as funny.  I’m still highly amused even as I type this.  But the more I think about it, the more I see its deeper implications, the iceberg below the water level.  Pronouns are, in fact, meaningless on their own and only develop meaning to suit the user and to suit the subject’s position in the sentence.  It makes a big difference to say, “he walked the big dog” when you really mean “the big dog walked him.” The pronoun highlights the difference by being formed differently, and by being placed in different spots in the sentences.  This remarkable human creation provides clarity without exerting much energy in describing exactly who was walking whom. Somehow, magically, new meaning arises when we change pronouns from one form to another.


Topic:  Adjectives/Nouns

Subject Area:  Second Language Learning

Cognitive Tool:  The Sense of Wonder

In the imaginative F.S.L. classroom we would want our students to see what is wonderful about adjectives.  Odd though this ambition may seem, we can begin to recognize how we might go about it by recalling that adjectives do play an impressive role in language.  They “color” the world – even those adjectives that do not refer to colors.  How could we adequately describe the world without those adjectivally descriptive words? What kind of world would it be that couldn’t contain Mlle. Jaune or M. Rouge?  Equipped with language we have the power to use adjectives to create an infinite number of worlds in the process.  I can paint any image I want with adjectives.  The man is happy.  Le garcon est content.  No, scratch that.  He is devastated.  Il est désolé. What a different emotional response the change of an adjective can have.  Why is he happy?  Why is he now devastated?

We’d be nowhere if it weren’t for nouns. So, of course, as we turn our students on to the power of the adjective we should also have them consider what a noun really is.  Yes, it is a “person, place, or thing.”  All the students can chant that back in unison.  But if we stop for a second to think about it, this is quite an amazing thing.  What an abstraction!  A long metal object widened and concave on one end, narrow and graspable on the other is a spoon.  But how did the word “spoon” come to represent such a thing?  In English we say “spoon” and yet in French we say “cuillère.”  How many words are there for the same item?  It is as though we travel to a new world, a new planet even, as we learn a new language. Something of the wonder of capturing the world in named concepts needs to accompany our daily teaching. It is that sense of wonder, even of mystery, that helps capture students’ imaginations in language learning, and helps them to learn to use another language effectively.

Topic:  Verb Tenses

Subject Area:  English

Cognitive Tool:  The Sense of Wonder

The imaginative teacher might have students imagine the verb tense as a “transporter” of sorts.  It allows us to move between different periods of time (the present, the past, the future) and different realms of reality (the conditional, the subjunctive).  It allows us to describe our present, consider our past, envision a future – both real and imagined – as well as boss people around (the imperative). A verb tense can, thus, both limit and expand the real and imagined world.  It is pretty impressive if one stops to think of verb tenses that way and it is very impressive when one constantly gets the students to reflect that each element of language they deal with is someone’s invention.

Why does the sense of wonder engage our imaginations? 

For more theortical background on this cognitive tool click here.

Related to our ability to make associations with heroic qualities is our ability to see any object as wonderful. It is easiest to feel the emotion of wonder in the face of the more dramatic features of the natural world—the mountain view, the gold and scarlet sunset, the vast waterfall, the immensity of space. But the overflow of powerful feelings that accompanies wonder can, like heroic associations, be directed to almost any object. Wonder is the attitude of mind captured by the poet Yeats: “everything we look upon is blest.”

The sense of wonder underlying the daily routine stuff of life is hardly a novel observation. A. N. Whitehead, in his essay “The Rhythm of Education” (1967, first published in 1922), discusses the importance of evoking a sense of “romance” when first introducing a topic to students. He talks about “the vividness of novelty . . . the excitement consequent on the transition from the bare facts to the first realization of the import of their unexplored relationships” (pp. 17–18).

Mention of excitement and vividness can, perhaps, deter the average teacher, who knows indeed that teaching can and should involve these qualities in some degree, but the deterrence comes from the seeming claim that classes should invariably be neuron-poppingly exciting all day long. Whitehead likely didn’t mean that, and nor do we, though we recognize that too-frequent mention of wonder and so on can give an impression of not being aware of the realities of the everyday activities of teaching. Some of the trouble—between words and interpretation—perhaps comes from words like romance and wonder being taken on one hand as too exotic and on the other as too literal. That is, Whitehead is not expecting students and teachers to be constantly transported by romance in some B-movie sense.  Rather, his idea suggests that the teacher should try to keep fresh and vivid for the student the genuinely wonderful human achievements that are a part of all topics in the curriculum.

In the imaginative classroom we will be sensible to attend to ways to evoke a sense of wonder related to the topics at hand. This will require the teacher to reflect on each topic and locate what is wonderful within it. Anything—yes, anything—seen in the right light, can be seen to be wonderful. Even if the lesson involves dealing with the everyday transactions of shopping, the teacher can draw attention to the astonishing variety of goods brought from all the corners of the world, the ingenuity that has gone into arranging food in hygienic containers with stunning efficiency, the work of generations of chemists and physicists that has gone to making such taken-for-granted products as toothpaste, fruit juices, frozen peas, and so on. This does not demand lengthy factual lessons on the background of each item, but rather a constant alertness to the wonder of the shop. It is hard for some people to pull back from utilitarian routines, but the teaching task required to stimulate imagination involves the teacher in constantly locating the immediate objects of the lesson in the wider context of wonder. A part of imaginative teaching is to locate something wonderful in every lesson; doing so will not only make learning easier for the student, it will also make the lesson more interesting and satisfying for the teacher.