When I was seven, I cracked open my first geode. I have been lost in the wonder of the world ever since.
Today as I work for the Discovery Channel and teach and design curriculum with Duke TIP’s eStudies and eInvestigators programs, I am still in touch with wonder, which fuels my deep love of science. It’s why I’m sharing this picture of a cicada. My fascination with it and how it sparked a science investigation–stay tuned for more on that.
In a time when education still remains hyper focused on the “what” of teaching and learning–What course are you taking? What scores are you achieving?— it is so important to crystallize our personal “why” we are learning. That is where wonder resides. Doing so ensures we are teaching and learning with purpose and effectiveness.
It’s safe to say our kids don’t really worry about being competitive in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Do they worry about grades beyond the associated disappointment we impose upon them when these grades are not achieved? My son Elijah has never come home from school and exclaimed to me: “Dad, I am so disappointed because I know my teachers have not prepared me to be competitive with China.” Elijah wants to wonder, to daydream, to have fun, to engage with like-minded friends, to be challenged, and to make a contribution to community.
Wonder comes before responsibility for all of us but particularly for gifted youth. They are the ones we are counting on to tackle our planet’s biggest dilemmas. Wonder is at the root of that discovery.
How do you bring wonder into the classroom?
Share with us below!
What’s your personal why?
What part of science drives your personal why? What began for me at seven kept on going: geodes forever! I was eight when I attended my first mineral show at the 8-mile Armory (of Eminem fame). By the time I was 10, I had a geologist’s rock hammer, an Audubon guide to minerals, and had visited the Cranbrook Institute’s mineral collection a half-dozen times. Twice I had my bike stolen (Detroit area) outside of a Lapidary shop called The Miners Den. I walked after that. By the time I was 12, I had over 400 rocks and minerals. I assembled entire necklaces of crinoids segments I found on the beaches of Lake Huron.
But perhaps my favorite family science memory was the year my parents took my brother, sister and I camping in Bancroft, Ontario, to see the purple fluorite mines. While wandering, I discovered an opening in the earth strewn with hexagonal mica crystals. This was enough to entice me deeper inwards. I ran back to the car, grabbed a flashlight, and crawled in. I could see that the vug was labyrinthine. It would be a tight squeeze! But I could see perfect apatite and calcite crystals just beyond reach. I decided I better ask for permission before proceeding.
I returned to my family campground and asked my mother and father if I could explore the cave. My father gave me an unequivocal no. He said there could be animals in the cave, that it could collapse, that I could get cut, etc. I was heartbroken.
I will never forget my sister’s response to my parents. She said, “You do realize he needs to go, right? If he doesn’t go, he’ll always wonder what was in the cave. He will long to find it.”
This was the same sister that taught me to carve spears, take apart appliances, and catch frogs in swamps with the water up to my bottom lip. She was definitely a wonder-filled, crazy-aunt type.
So, I was given permission to crawl through places in the cave where my back and stomach touched the walls of the cave simultaneously. I crawled through 4 inches of muddy water and sharp crystal shards. My father, as is often the case with fathers, was correct; my clothes were getting shredded. I discovered skulls and bones of animals along the way. I worried what might happen if I encountered an animal that was not quite dead. I fought off the panic because of the allure of what I might find. At the terminus of the vug, I discovered a treasure trove of perfect symmetrical crystals—apatite, mica, and fluorite. Of course, I lost track of time as I excitedly collected samples.
This experience began my first deep contemplation of patterns in nature. Is the universe ordered or chaotic? I later studied paleontology at Michigan State University because of this experience.
Are you the crazy aunt or uncle who allows wonder to drive student discovery? We can’t push our kids through caves, but we can simulate and provide other wonder-filled experiences in our classrooms and field trips.
So, what exactly does wonder look like?
We all know what it is but none of us know what it is. Neuroscientists note wonder when they witness the neural network lit up. Others describe wonder as being transported to a state of extreme self-consciousness and exclusion of “noise.” I prefer to think of wonder as a childlike view of the world where discovery is the most important motivation for pursuing knowledge.
When we are motivated to learn something we really care about, we are more likely to allow more sensory information in and to conceptualize and synthesize multiple ideas simultaneously. Walt Whitman taught us in “I Sing The Body Electric” that the mind, body, and soul are not separate: they are one. We feel because of what we think and vice versa. To wonder and to daydream are also biologically hardwired in our brains. This daydreaming is what allows us to imagine and create new possibilities in the world.
How do we facilitate wonder in the classroom?
- First, we must be intentional. We must be willing to allow it to happen. We have to fight the daily fear that we’re not spending enough time with the “what” when we need to spend time with the why.
- Carol Tomlinson tells us that we can differentiate pace, content, product, and depth and breadth of process. Independent study of topics of interest that really matter to students is a way to change pace, content and means of delivery simultaneously. Interestingly enough, any truly deep study of any topic ends up converging with all other domains of knowledge. What major issue does not require the ability to communicate, collaborate, create, solve problems critically, read, write, calculate?.
- Another way to facilitate wonder is to decrease structure and increase open-endedness. Imagine a curriculum that starts with complex, open-ended, transdisciplinary issues that if not resolved will become an existential threat to the very existence of humanity. These big questions and concerns are exactly what gifted students care about, deeply. A common attribute of giftedness is a highly-developed social and moral consciousness.
- Model wonder. Share your impressions, meditations, and discoveries with your students. Be a scientific researcher whenever you can. Here’s how wonder about cicadas led me to a fascination exploration and experiment.
A short list of social, moral, and scientific issues in need of resolution include
- How will we provide nutritious food for future generations?
- How will we generate energy?
- How do we provide fresh water for all of humanity?
- What do we do about urban infrastructure? Social justice? Collapsing fisheries? Decreasing biodiversity? Climate change?
Any in-depth study of these weighty problems will by definition require not just multidisciplinarity or interdisciplinarity but transdisciplinarity. Multidisciplinarity draws on knowledge from different disciplines but stays within their boundaries. Interdisciplinarity analyzes, synthesizes, and harmonizes links between disciplines into a coordinated and coherent whole. Transdisciplinarity integrates the natural, social, and health sciences in a humanities context, and transcends their traditional boundaries. Transdisciplinarity is exactly the complexity that gifted kids need.
So where’s the “Wonder Curricula”?
So where does a teacher find a compilation of these issues that allow students to pursue wonder and transdisciplinarity? They are already compiled! Here are three to consider.
- See the Grand Engineering Challenges and the United Nations Sustainable Goals. These resources allow teachers and students to pursue wonder and to tackle the world’s most vexing problems through transdisciplinary lenses.
- Check out a PBS curriculum I wrote that incorporates Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire. It connects directly to the wonder associated with patterns in nature. (Hexagonal crystals drawing me into a cave is not a coincidence.) This lesson explores how people perceive beauty more deeply by observing geometric shapes in plants and flowers, by studying different kinds of patterns in nature, and by using natural forms as an inspiration to create art. Students use computer-generated images of fractals and tessellations to create objects possessing the characteristics they deem beautiful. They participate in a hands-on simulation that demonstrates how human preferences for “beauty” and the mechanisms of natural selection have led to an increased frequency of particular traits expressed in the gene pool of a species.
- I’ve also co-developed “STEM Connect” with Colleagues at Discovery. STEM Connect is a web-based supplemental K-8 resource that helps teachers create engaging STEM lessons; it strengthens students’ critical thinking skills and inspires solution-seeking skills for life. The resource is built on a 4Cs framework that helps students develop the creative, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration skills needed for success beyond graduation. Inspired by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the NAE Grand Challenges for Engineering, STEM Connect encourages students to develop and apply solutions to real challenges facing the world. The challenges posed to students progress from grades K to 8. Younger students are faced with more personal, local issues, whereas middle school students are pushed to solve more complex, global challenges. Students are also asked to personalize solutions to fit community and local needs.
Gifted students can and will be the ones we depend upon to resolve the world’s most challenging problems. As teachers, we can find ways to provide our students the opportunity to consider them. And it all begins with WONDER!
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